In an industry in decline, young journalists offer hope and reflection

Last year was a terrible year for layoffs in American journalism with 2,681 jobs in news lost, more than both of the two previous years combined.

But it is hard not to think of this first quarter of 2024 as harbinger of yet another year of record decline, with one news organization after the next – from the venerable Los Angeles Times to the digital darling known as The Messenger – announcing layoffs or closures.

In this newsletter, we have been documenting this crisis for years, and shared with you our belief that the crisis in American journalism has much to do with the crisis in American democracy.

But we have also been sharing how  our Report for America program is  still actively sought out by a new generation of journalists eager to serve local communities through reporting. So how do we understand this disconnect between an industry in decline and a resilient generation that wants to join the ranks of the 4th estate, particularly on the local level?

We asked some of our corps members about this, and sought out the wisdom of our head of recruitment who is on college campuses across the country and in Zoom seminars nearly every day reaching out to young people who want to be part of what feels like a movement to be of service as a local journalist.

“Everything about being a local journalist is hard, but it’s also rewarding. That’s what makes me stay,” said Gabriella Paul, who covers cost of living for WUSF in Tampa, FL. Paul highlighted the importance of having a strong network of journalists (both inside and outside the newsroom) to sustain journalists commitment to their craft, coupled with strong institutional support to provide journalists with the conditions to do their job properly “Making a living wage with fair benefits and a tangible commitment from leadership to employees’ work-life balance and mental health is non-negotiable for me. Without that kind of support, I would leave a job and potentially the industry,” she added.

Earl Johnson, Report for America’s Vice President of Recruitment and Alumni Engagement, said, “Our mission really does galvanize this generation of journalists. They are looking for purpose and to be part of something that is bigger than themselves.”

Aaron Bonderson, a corps member at Nebraska Public Media, is one of those young journalists who believes the work he and his colleagues do serves an important purpose for their community,

“News has divided and marginalized people for years. Through all the separation it’s caused, I’m reminded of how news brings people together. It will never be perfect, but I think the way we report and write the news is getting better,” he told us.

And she also had a word of caution: “Some folks may not respect or support the media. But taking a service for granted too long, could mean it’s gone when you need it the most.”

We came into this new year with The Washington Post, financed by the richest man in the world, having eliminated about 240 positions through buyouts. Then,  in one day, January 23, the Los Angeles Times cut its D.C. bureau to the bone and announced 115 layoffs, or about 20 percent of its newsroom, Time and National Geographic both announced layoffs. And even Conde Naste, the home of the New Yorker, which has largely been impervious to the meltdown in journalism, saw its employees go out on strike amid threats of cuts to staff.

The following week, the decline continued with  The Wall Street Journal shedding 20 staffers in Washington. And then this month, there was the jarring meltdown of The Messenger, a well-funded online news organization for the digital age with a big presence in Washington, DC. It only took one year of operation for the forces plaguing journalism to kill The Messenger.

The grim reaper’s scythe has been perhaps most ruthless on local news organizations, especially local weeklies which serve smaller and rural communities. This  has been  well documented in a devastating research project by Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University, which tracked   2,900 newspapers that have closed or merged since 2005.

The crisis is unfolding not only in America, but around the world. In places like Brazil, India, Mexico and Ukraine,  the loss of jobs and the demise of local news in particular is intense and also threatening democracies. In addition to the economic pressure, journalists are also being targeted at unprecedented levels, particularly Palestinian journalists in Gaza. Advances in technology, most notably AI, are also going to change the landscape of work in journalism and are likely to add to the layoffs.

Still Johnson, our head of recruitment, is greeted on campuses with lines of students eager to submit their resume to Report for America.

This is Johnson’s third year working with us, but prior to that he spent 32 years in academia in Oklahoma, ultimately heading up recruitment, enrollment and student services including psychological counseling. He has an extraordinary breadth and depth of knowledge of young people and what motivates them. He said that what stands out the most for him is a sense that young people are flooding Report for America with applications because they are “purpose driven.”

Johnson added, “At the center of this sense of purpose is the pursuit of truth. They want to be part of that search for the truths that communities need to function and to be part of the solutions to challenge these communities face. Truth is at the heart of that. It’s everything.”

Hearing Johnson I was reminded of a public intellectual who recently passed away, Vartan Gregorian. Serving as the president of the Carnegie Corporation and before that the head of the New York Public Library, Gregorian was an extraordinary figure with a true gravitas and a strong defender of a robust, free press. We became friends through a shared passion for understanding Afghanistan’s complex history and in 2006, we were sitting together at one of the many big conferences that were held that year about the future of journalism. They were attended by hand-wringing journalists fretting about the future of the media, and Gregorian’s disdain for the lack of confidence in their craft and its purpose was palpable. At one point he stood up from the table, the room grew quiet and when he had a microphone in his hand he said one sentence that I never forgot and that I actually typed out and taped to my desktop in the years after that. With a gravelly voice that carried the weight of his words, he said:

“The truth will never go out of business.”

 

Read the interview with our corps members here