Despite the Highs and the Lows, Journalism Can Once Again Become a Sought-After Career

By: Taylor Hill
Illustration by Tony O. Champagne

When in journalism, you have to start somewhere. For me, it was the University of California, Los Angeles—as the beat reporter for the women’s gymnastics team.

At the end of their competitions, I would stand at the ready with my voice recorder to get that all-important quote. And while a six-foot, two-inch lanky reporter interviewing multiple four-foot, eleven-inch forces of athletic power made for a good visual, it didn’t make for the best transcribing when I got back to my apartment. Keeping the microphone low enough to capture what my interview subject was actually saying was important. But I adapted, and learned to invite team members to a seat for interviews.

I didn’t know at the time, but graduating and leaving UCLA’s Daily Bruin publication would be one of the few times in the next decade I would voluntarily leave a job. My past 10 years in the news media industry has been a lot like what my junior college Journalism 101 professor forebode—working too many hours, under continual stress, for just enough pay to keep a roof over my head and cheap whiskey on hand.

The first layoff came in 2008. I had worked my way into a job at a luxury lifestyle magazine starting as an intern and moving to editorial assistant. I watched the stock market drop 700 points, then another 700 points, and then another 700 points, and soon learned about mortgage-backed securities. The company had its Christmas party, and then proceeded to lay off 45 percent of the staff before the New Year.

From there, I adapted, working at restaurants, valeting cars, and taking whatever freelance writing gigs available for most of 2009. And when an opportunity came, I dove back into journalism, landing at a regional boating newspaper, hired on as a staff writer. It was in the confines of a small publication that I grew to love the news industry—developing interview skills, staying up late through city council and harbor commission meetings, and creating a niche for water-related environmental stories. Still, I couldn’t help but notice the articles touting the death of newspapers, as digital media sites amassed clicks, legacy newsrooms shrunk and advertising dollars tightened and subscriptions declined. That didn’t deter me from taking my dream job as a beaches and harbors reporter at the Orange County Register (Anaheim, Calif.), the newspaper I grew up reading. By 2013, I was a California kid making an almost-living writing on sailboat races, ocean water quality, rising sea levels, and Newport Beach’s pesky sea lions.

Two years into the job, and the dream started to unravel. The voluntary buyouts started, and then the layoffs. I jumped ship before they realized they still had a harbors beat reporter on staff and took a job in digital media—working as an associate editor of environment for a news website aimed at millennials, owned by a billionaire. But it didn’t take long for the journalist pangs to follow.

On the road in Texas, Hill traveled nearly 1,200 miles across west and north Texas to speak to ranchers, landowners, policymakers and environmentalists on how the typically conservative state has been one of the most progressive when it comes to implementing green energy infrastructure like wind turbines. (Photo provided)

The Best Worst Job

A whirlwind decade in journalism is not an uncommon tale—in fact, the pattern of high-stress, low pay, no security is so prevalent in the newspaper industry, that newspaper reporter has finished No. 1 on CareerCast.com’s Jobs Rated list three years running.

The main reason for the job’s perennial reign at the top—or bottom—of the jobs list is a mix of factors, according to CareerCasts’ methodology.

The annual research study looked at the 200 most common jobs and ranked them primarily based on salary, expected job growth, level of competition, degree of stress, and safety hazards. The Bureau of Labor Statistics, among other resources, provided statistics.

“One factor directly contributing to the shrinking of media outlets, reflected in the Jobs Rated report’s worst jobs, is the decline of advertising revenue,” the report said. And that decline in advertising revenue has for the first time put advertising sales person on the list, and broadcasters were at the top of the list as well.

On top of ad revenue declines, newspaper reporter is at or near the bottom of the Jobs Rated list based on a variety of criteria, according to Kyle Kensing, online content editor at CareerCast.

“Income, on average, is low; job prospects have diminished over the last decade-and-a-half, and forecasts predict that trend to continue,” he explained. “The stress is high, as detailed by the factors the Jobs Rated report measures to gauge stress. Those include tight and regular deadlines; working in the public; and meeting with the public, which is worth noting that public speaking is one of the most common phobias.”

And this all comes at a time when newspaper reporters and news media in general are under attack from the current presidential administration—which has repeatedly referred to traditional media including CNN, the New York Times, ABC, NBC, and CBS as “fake news.”

“Two of the lowest-ranking jobs of 2017 (newspaper reporter and broadcaster) have recently taken center stage in American culture in a way not seen in many years,” the report stated. “The value of trained, professional newspaper reporters and broadcasters has taken on heightened importance recently as well as increased scrutiny. Journalists covering politics in particular, have been under extreme pressure as they strive to credibly cover the news and keep our nation informed.”

So while the job of a traditional journalist has maintained its low rating, it seems to be increasingly crucial to protecting democracy, free speech, and upholding facts in the current political climate. And hopefully, that could be the catalyst to pull the industry out of its tailspin.

Kensing is quick to point out that their rankings have nothing to do with the importance of a job. “Something to keep in mind with this report is that ‘worst’ and ‘best’ are gauged by factors like income, hiring outlook and stress, and not a commentary on the usefulness of the professions. Journalism is incredibly important to our society. The same is true for other jobs that rank poorly in the Jobs Rated report, like firefighter and police officer—they’re also high-stress jobs that often do not pay well, hence their ranking.”

Reporting on how climate change could impact California’s iconic coast redwood and giant sequoia trees, Hill got an up-close look at an 800-year old tree in Santa Cruz, Calif. with UC Berkeley researchers. (Photo provided)

Making a Comeback

Early indications from newspapers have shown that the “Trump Bump” is substantive, with companies such as the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and the Washington Post seeing upticks in print subscriptions, and large increases in digital subscriptions—all while rolling out marketing strategies that highlight combating the “fake news” moniker that President Trump has leaned on to disparage any media outlet he disagrees with.

And these types of subscription bumps could be the start of getting journalism off “worst jobs” lists. “Ranking at the bottom of the Jobs Rated report can be remedied largely by the health of the industry; e.g. more job opportunities and higher pay,” Kensing said. “Increases in subscriptions for some of the largest publications in the country over the past year should be seen as a positive trend, especially if those outlets prove to be the proverbial rising tide that lifts all ships.”

The largest gains for the news industry have been on the digital site, where sites such as the New York Times saw an astounding 276,000 additional digital members in the last three months of the year, more subscriptions than in 2013 and 2014 combined. And that digital bump could be sustainable.

New York Times Co. stock price shares rose 2.5 percent during mid-day trading on June 1, after the company announced better than expected quarterly earnings.  But that doesn’t mean that digital is the sure-fire route to a steady, profitable, happy career in journalism. In fact, the field is so new, CareerCast has yet to get solid numbers on how many people are employed in New Media outlets.

As I previously mentioned, after seeing the writing on the wall at the Orange County Register, I jumped at the chance to write for a digital-only site. As an associate editor for the environment and wildlife coverage, I was able to experiment with new technologies and visual tools to tell stories, including utilizing drone footage to get breathtaking images of windmills in Northwest Texas, and abandoned iron mines in California’s desert, and experiment with 360-degree VR video footage by placing it 180 feet up in a redwood tree in Santa Cruz, Calif.

But two years into the adventure, the owner apparently changed his mind on the importance of journalism, shuttering the whole site. It was a harsh lesson to learn, but an important one nonetheless—digital media was no safe haven for journalism. Part of the reason I moved from print to digital—and this particular site—was the notion that it wasn’t reliant on subscriptions or ad sales; this company had a “double bottom line” mantra that I understood to mean that if our site continued to have a positive social impact, we wouldn’t be beholden to the fiscal performance.

It’s hard to say if the startup culture established there might have pushed our focus too far away from profitability, or if the executives just changed their mind to invest in other passion projects—either way, my time in digital media met the same fate as my time in print.

With that, 10 years in journalism had passed. Today, I work in the communications department for a nonprofit conservation group and freelance when I can. My print background, environmentally focused coverage, and digital media experience were all key in helping me land the new gig—as my day to day tasks include writing press releases on environmental projects on the land, compiling digital newsletters, and designing printed programs that highlight land restoration and conservation.

Looking back, you would think the ups and downs, stress-inducing deadlines, and constant upheaval from one media company to the next should have me agreeing with CareerCast and its Jobs Rated list, but I don’t. To me, journalism is the best job. And it’s not about the “noble pursuit” of enlightening the masses—though many journalists I have met along the way sincerely feel this; or the vanity of a byline—even though I’m one vain son of a gun. For me, it’s something else.

When I’m writing stories, I have the opportunity to learn something new and wonderful every day. When I was covering nautical news for a local boating newspaper, I got to learn about sailboats so technologically advanced, the builders had to manufacture ways to keep them in the water so they wouldn’t fly away.  When I covered harbor happenings in Southern California, I learned about a man who basically made it his life’s pursuit to pick up trash—and in doing so, he inspired a whole city to clean up its waterways. When I covered the environment for a now-defunct digital site, I got to chat with a U.S. Geological Survey researcher who had spent the past 30 years mapping out manatee migration patterns—coming to the conclusion that the warm-water-loving species now heavily rely on soon-to-be-defunct power plant water flows.

I got to learn new things, and I got paid—never handsomely—to do it. And to top it off, I then got to share what I learned and form that information into a story worth telling. Every lost job is a test, and every new job a challenge. Just as I did while covering the powerful, but height-challenged women’s gymnastics team at UCLA, I have had to adapt each step of the way. Journalism is a career for the adaptable, and I hope when the chance comes again, I am able to adapt and jump back in. And to non-journalists, that may sound crazy. Why would anyone want to get back into a career that’s proven so unstable over the years? Because, as Thomas Edison saw it, “We shall have no better conditions in the future if we are satisfied with all those which we have at present,” and then he went out and created a light bulb. All we have to do as journalists is adapt, and when we do, we make a better news industry.

 

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Published: July 3, 2017

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