The future of journalism: my expectations, fears and hopes

My fellow representatives and me outside Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C. during the 2019 Al Neuharth Free Spirit and Journalism Conference.

Martha Lewand; Scotch Plains, New Jersey—

To the reader:

One of the questions in the “martha speakZ” submission form said: “What are your expectations for the future of journalism and your fears going into it?” 

I initially felt overwhelmed about answering such a loaded question, but that concern and apprehension quickly evolved into feelings of fascination, excitement and inspiration. So, thanks to whoever asked this. As a student journalist, I am grateful to share my thoughts on a topic that is both relevant and very meaningful to me.

Best,

martha speakZ

When I tell people I want to become a journalist, I sometimes hear something similar to one of the following responses:

What an interesting career choice!

Ah, so you’ll be working for the “fake news?” *proceeds to chuckle*

Isn’t that a dying industry?

Anticipate making a crappy salary.

That’s not a very, um, “practical” career path.

Ew, why would anyone want to do that?

Welp, that’s gonna be hard. 

(or the opposite) Well, journalism isn’t that hard, so that’ll be an easy and fun job! 

People do not always explicitly say these phrases, but I can tell they want to because of their tones and expressions. Some also respond positively (i.e. That’s so cool—good for you! or That’s awesome!). The responses are usually a mixed bag of emotions I am pretty accustomed to by now.

Despite these varied reactions and perceived notions of the journalism industry, I am thrilled to be a student journalist and, hopefully, pursue journalism further down the line. If you want to pursue journalism, or any career for that matter, do not be scared. Get to know more about the field and apply for different opportunities, like I did. (And let me tell you, it was worth it.)

During the summer of 2019, I had the opportunity to represent my state at the Al Neuharth Free Spirit and Journalism Conference—a one-week, all-expenses-paid conference with 51 representatives from their respective states (including Washington, D.C.). Shortly after the conference, I was fortunate enough to attend the Medill-Northwestern Journalism Institute—a five-week journalism summer program for rising high school seniors. 

At both the conference and program, I was not only in awe of the amazing professional journalists and famous speakers I met but also blown away by my fellow student journalists. The students I met had won prestigious awards, were writing groundbreaking stories, had their work published in national news outlets and produced revolutionary documentaries—their resumes were pretty superb, to say the least. A year later, I still remain inspired by my hardworking and talented peers. Friends of mine have won “Student Journalist of the Year” for different organizations, had their documentaries and films nominated for film festivals and were accepted into top universities, among many more notable achievements.  

Because of these admirable student journalists, whom I have had the pleasure to know and watch succeed, I can predict with confidence that the journalism industry will be in exceptional hands in the future. I also read about student journalists I do not personally know who are producing incredible work. One of many young journalists making headlines is 17-year-old Eddy Binford-Ross, who risked her life to cover the current Portland, Oregon protests. In spite of being tear gassed and shoved by police for no legitimate reason, Binford-Ross has returned every night to keep covering the protests. 

Binford-Ross, my friends and I are a part of a proactive generation pushing for change every day, which is the energetic mindset that will ultimately benefit the industry. In addition to my generation of student journalists taking the industry by storm, I expect journalists’ mental health will become more relevant (if my prediction that the world will, somehow, become more chaotic comes true). 

However, I need to differentiate between my expectations and hopes for journalism. The industry has greatly evolved, but the field still needs to progress further and overcome vast obstacles. 

Newsrooms need to become more diverse. The numbers are improving, but they’re still pretty disappointing. In 2018, the Columbia Journalism Review (CJR) reported only 17% of the U.S. newsroom staff is nonwhite, even though nearly 40% of the American population is nonwhite, and only 13% of leadership positions in the newsroom are held by minorities. The CJR  also reported major news outlets, such as the New York Times, where 81% of their newsroom staff was white in 2017, barely improved their racial diversity over a span of a couple decades. The American Society of News Editors (ASNE) conducted a 2016 census and found that only 2.5% of the journalism workforce is comprised of Black women.

In a 2015 study, the Global Media Monitoring Project found only 24% of people who are interviewed or whom the news is about, are women. According to the Poynter Institute, journalism schools at universities are majority-women, but men still dominate the industry. In a 2017 report, the Women’s Media Center said men receive 62% of bylines in the news industry and received 84% of the Pulitzer Prizes within the past century. Additionally, leadership positions often go to men, and men dominate the sports journalism sector.

The lack of diversity in newsrooms is problematic because people of color and different genders and sexualities offer insight vital for storytelling. Journalism has a long history of misreporting on marginalized communities. My hope is that the media will make a bigger effort to create diverse newsrooms and give more people in marginalized groups positions of leadership, especially as nonwhite people are expected to be the majority racial makeup of the U.S. within the next couple decades. Additionally, I hope the horrific murder of George Floyd along with the recent and widescale progression of the Black Lives Matter movement is a wake up call for newsrooms to prioritize and promote diversity.

More diversity in newsrooms cannot occur without physical newsrooms, which leads me to my next hope: the resurgence of local journalism. According to the Pew Research Center, newsroom employment at U.S. newspapers declined 51% between 2008 and 2019, and roughly a quarter of large U.S. newspapers laid off staff in 2018. Plus, the total revenue of U.S. newspapers has declined by billions of dollars, and thousands of newsrooms have shut down across the country over the past couple of decades.

Local newspapers are often the first to break significant local and national stories. Therefore, the rapid downfall of the local journalism industry is detrimental to how we are receiving the news and which stories are told. The speedy and intense change in newspapers’ relationship with technology and advertisement is partly to blame for the deterioration of local (and print) journalism. Traditionally, newspapers made their money through advertisements; however, this business model is no longer suitable for newspapers because of the rapid transition from print to online journalism. Hence, the industry, especially print news, does not generate enough revenue. 

In addition, private equity and hedge funds, nicknamed “vulture funds,” have and continue to take advantage of media companies’ downfalls, ultimately making matters worse for local journalists. If you want to know more, comedian Hasan Minhaj recently covered the news industry’s hits, specifically the mechanics of “vulture funds,” in an episode of his Netflix show, “Patriot Act.” 

Local journalism has suffered in recent years—no doubt. But, there is hope. I have multiple friends who write for their local papers; some even successfully started and run newspapers at their school or for their town or county. I met professional journalists who have started their own local papers and even made them into non-profit organizations. I make an active effort to support and spread awareness about local journalism to my peers who are not engaged with the news as much as I am. I read about local news initiatives being started. My fellow student journalists and I know that without local journalism, misinformation and chaos will erupt, and significant stories will quietly sit in the shadows; therefore, as the next generation of journalists, I have hope we will keep pushing for the comeback local journalism desperately needs.

 The opposite of those expectations and hopes are probably my biggest fears. Additionally, the thought of robots taking over the journalism industry—yes, “robo-journalism” is a growing issue. And my favorite phrase *writes with extreme sarcasm*, “fake news,” potentially harming the news industry and political landscape even more, is quite frightening. (Tip: Regardless of to which generation someone belongs or where they may fall on the political spectrum, always fact check and try to educate yourself on which news sources are reliable.) But all I can do is think about these issues now and spread awareness, which is better than living in constant fear and prepping for the worst in the future, because I, personally, do not have much control over what may occur with these issues.

Journalism itself is full of expectations, hopes and fears. Journalism consists of erratic change—good and bad—and a thrilling unknown. Journalism provides countless opportunities to meet new people, to face adversity, to challenge authority and to help the world through reporting. I find myself most attracted to pursuing journalism because I want to help people and give back as much as I can via storytelling, regardless of the dangers and risks I will face—in addition to the resentful responses people communicate to me when they find out I want to be a journalist. 

So, my best overall advice is to explore all of your interests and to not let anyone discourage you from doing so. A “practical” plan does not always equate to a happy and fulfilling life. Do whatever you want to make yourself happy and have meaningful experiences, even if that means changing your potentially calculated, narrow plans, stepping outside of your comfort zone and experimenting with new potential passions. I am making this sound easier than it seems, but take baby steps to practice. For example, are you interested in journalism but scared to try because your parents or friends wouldn’t approve? Understandable, but make an effort to talk about journalism with an editor of your school’s newspaper and learn more about that specific publication, the stories they write, the staff culture, etc. It’s a small step you can take to spark or eliminate a possible interest. And being mindful and taking small steps in the right direction does not solely apply to journalism—it applies to all aspects of life. Stop worrying, and start taking those steps now. 

Here are some helpful organizations and ways in which you can support local journalism (subscriptions, donations, non-profits, initiatives, general awareness, etc.):

https://knightfoundation.org/features/localnews/

Donate to support local investigative reporting — The Fund for Local Journalism

https://www.freepress.net/issues/future-journalism/local-journalism

https://www.nj.com/news/2020/04/please-support-local-journalism-our-industry-is-hurting-and-we-need-you-more-than-ever.html

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