Journalism layoffs and the state of the industry, through the eyes of Report for America corps members

We asked our corps members to share their reflections about the state of the journalism industry and what motivates them to stay at a time of great turmoil. Here are some of their responses:

What were some hesitations or concerns you had before you decided to start your career in journalism?

Aaron Bonderson – Nebraska Public Media News: My biggest concern was the number of layoffs by national and local media outlets. The fear surrounded either losing my job and whether burnout would stymie my enthusiasm for journalism and finding truth in my community.

The thought of being laid off is scary. However, I saw people keeping their jobs while interning at my current newsroom. Based on that experience, burnout became my biggest concern as I waded deeper into a professional journalism career.

Gabriella Paul – WUSF: I was most hesitant about the sustainability of a journalism career. I graduated from college in the spring of 2020, and I was concerned about landing and keeping a full-time reporting role with decent benefits and the ability to continue growing as a journalist.

Michael Symonds, WMUK 102.1 FM: I started my career with very little experience, felt like everyone around me knew at least 10x more than me. Always felt like a fraud.

What are your reactions/thoughts on the collapse of local news and shrinking media outlets?

Gabriella Paul: We are in the age of information – and misinformation. In a time when anyone can publish his or her thoughts instantaneously, I believe it’s more important than ever for local journalists to provide thoughtful and accurate coverage of community issues. The collapse of local news is a scary prospect, personally and nationally, but it also motivates me to hold the line with other journalists across the country.

Aaron Bonderson: The largest newspapers in Nebraska aren’t hiring many reporters. National companies with lengthy portfolios are bidding on them. I’m not sure how much longer statewide newspapers can survive on a for-profit model. From what I can tell, small and mid-sized papers in Nebraska have even leaner operations. Despite all of that, I still read critical work from these entities all of the time. Moreover, online-only nonprofit outlets have emerged as strong sources for news in Nebraska.

In broadcast news, a handful of local stations, including my employer, work tirelessly to keep local news alive and well. Earlier this month, a decades-old TV station in western Nebraska changed ownership. Over the last decade or so, many radio stations and TV stations across the state have sold off to big firms.

Nationally, there’s a lot to digest. Sports Illustrated and the LA Times are limiting their sports reporting. Even after airing the Super Bowl, Paramount/CBS is laying off. These are just the new examples.

We have all heard what this could mean for accountability and democracy in society. What I think gets lost is how a sense of community is in jeopardy. Local stories with underlying human emotion and themes keep us going and provide an understanding of people and place. That’s why, in my opinion, dwindling local news is the most frightening.

Michael Symonds: When local/small outlets are starving for readers, they only go for what sells. Mostly, that means reporting on car crashes and drug busts. They don’t have the resources to do a more in-depth story that shows the inherent complexity or uniqueness of a small town. Eventually, all the town is known for is “two dead, three wounded in car crash.”

As someone early in their journalism career, what would make you stay or leave the industry?

Michael Symonds: I would certainly leave if I felt like I wasn’t actually making a difference, and I would stay if the opposite were true.

Aaron Bonderson: We need more people. We’re not the only industry sounding this alarm. Something has to give, in order to help those who need… more help.

Other than workers, we need acceptance. Some people are afraid of the media or don’t respect the work. I understand it. 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.

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.

Gabriella Paul: Everything about being a local journalist is hard, but it’s also rewarding. That’s what makes me stay. However, staying is made easier when you have a strong network of journalists (both inside and outside of your newsroom) to remind you that you’re part of something bigger than yourself. With that said, 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.

How has RFA helped you to prepare for the challenges of the industry?

Gabriella Paul: RFA truly jump-started my professional network of journalists who I will be able to lean on throughout my career. It has also strengthened my connections with my peers who are doing similar work all across the country. These connections created the space to swap experiences and feel supported by a network outside of my coworkers and my personal life, which I believe is key to preventing burnout.

Having a regional manager from RFA in my corner has also felt like having a personal industry coach over the past few years. For example, I was able to lean on my regional manager for guidance ahead of negotiating my salary for the first time as a full-time reporter.

Michael Symonds: It’s provided me with a resource for learning and growing as a journalist, while also connecting me with fellow journalists who are in a similar position.

Aaron Bonderson: Report for America trainings are the biggest help. It has helped me discover more important stories, talk with the often forgotten voices, pose more pointed questions and write more effective and creative pieces. That’s not to mention advice about navigating the professional world and life in general.

Discussions with other reporters always make my day. Hearing others fight similar battles — much like the work we produce — allows me to gain a sense of community.