News industry struggles to meet its challenges and find new talent
American citizens concerned about the current condition of the journalism industry will soon have more to worry about. Indications are the embattled journalism world will have even tougher sledding in the years ahead, and today’s college graduates won’t be part of a cavalry to the rescue.
A democratic nation needs journalism to keep the government and other powerful institutions accountable and to serve as surrogates for the citizenry. The bleak employment picture in the news industry, however, surely discourages the best and brightest young minds from entering the once noble field.
College graduates working in newsrooms earn way less money than college grads in other fields. Add that to the dismal public image of the journalism industry and it is understandable why talented young Americans eschew media careers. No sensible college graduate today wants to take a vow of poverty to pursue a career that friends and relatives look down upon.
A report from the Pew Research Center shows employment in the nation’s newsrooms has dropped 23 percent in just the last ten years. That’s a loss of 27,000 jobs in the decade. Today, only about 88,000 people work in newspaper, broadcast or digital journalism. The number of employees in digital-native journalism sites has shown modest growth during the time frame, but those gains have been overwhelmed by big drops in newspaper and radio newsrooms.
Television news employment has been basically flat, but a Pew study indicates a declining percentage of Americans now rely on local or network television news for their information needs. Fewer eyeballs will mean fewer advertisers and, ultimately, fewer news employees.
New York Times Executive Editor Dean Baquet predicts most local newspapers will disappear in the next five years. He voiced his gloom at a recent conference of the International News Media Association. Baquet wonders, as all citizens should, how citizens will get news about school boards in local markets.
Multiple causes combine to explain the decline in journalism employment. Competition from the internet, social media and digital sources is a factor. Newspapers have not been able to effectively monetize former hard copy newspaper readers who have migrated to those newspapers’ free or cheaper on-line editions.
The problem, however, is deeper than the effects of digital trends. A 20-year decline in media credibility has chased previously loyal news consumers to look beyond the traditional media for information. Some have gone to sample digital-only news sites, others have departed for partisan websites, and others now simply cruise social media and absorb whatever “news” presents itself. Worse yet, some former news consumers have become bystanders and simply don’t follow current events any longer. That’s easier on the blood pressure than trying to find the real story amongst the noise of mainstream news outlets perceived to be pushing angles.
Media credibility has suffered in part because of the blurring of lines between reporting and commentary. There is a solid place in journalism for analysis, editorializing and advocacy, but audiences increasingly sense those functions have blended into fact-based, non-partisan reporting. When citizens see that merger of reporting and commentary, their confidence in journalism takes a hit and they migrate to “news” outlets that fit with their personal ideologies.
The pool of future news crusaders was supposed to have been boosted after the election of President Trump in 2016. Journalism schools initially reported a surge of new enrollees, most presumably wanting to win reporting prizes by digging into Trumpism. Indeed, the news industry needs aggressive and devoted reporters, but the news industry doesn’t lack for anti-Trump warriors. What the news profession does lack is reporters who go where facts lead and know that fairness is a skill.
Whatever “Trump bump” journalism schools might have seen two years ago has apparently disappeared. Going to college on emotion, absorbing debt, and then going into a career field in decline has caused reality to set in for many of the “save the world” journalism enrollees of the post-election era.
The broad marketplace is speaking to the journalism industry and the industry is apparently not listening. News consumers want more objective news of substance that clearly separates factual content from advocacy. Prospective journalism employees seek careers in which they can take pride and earn competitive wages. The big media corporate executives who shoulder responsibility for preserving the nation’s free press functions need to do some soul-searching about how to save the imperiled industry. And the discussions need to include people from outside their corporate towers.
Jeffrey McCall is a media critic and professor of communication at DePauw University. He has worked as a radio news director, a newspaper reporter and as a political media consultant. Follow him on Twitter @Prof_McCall.
The Hill has removed its comment section, as there are many other forums for readers to participate in the conversation. We invite you to join the discussion on Facebook and Twitter.