I’m a journalism student in an era of closing newsrooms, ‘fake news.’ But I still want in …

Allison Weis outside The Daily Orange’s office in Syracuse, New York.

Journalism jobs are vanishing and the industry is changing, but I still want in.  A few days after I asked investigative journalist and University of Michigan professor Will Potter for advice on entering the journalism industry, he tweeted that our conversation forced him to escape to the woods. Talking about the state of the journalism industry had literally made him sick.

That wasn’t exactly the response I expected when I set out to write about why young journalists like me want to pursue a career in journalism. I came into it with a wide-eyed attitude and, though Potter hasn’t changed my mind, he has wisened me up to the stakes.

I’m a rising junior at Syracuse University and, in my journalism classes, professors share an optimistic story. They stress that the industry is not dying — though it is changing — and that digital media has brought new opportunities to tell people’s stories. This opportunity is in spite of the fact that journalists seem to be under attack from all directions.

Unpaid internships can’t pay the bills

I know from personal experience that breaking into the industry is easier for those with a higher socioeconomic status.

My classmates and I face significant pressure to get the best internships, which are supposed to afford us the best chances in a competitive job market. But these come at significant cost.

This summer, I was offered an unpaid internship with an online magazine that granted college credit only. Often, for-profit internship sponsors are legally required under the federal Fair Labor Standards Act to pay their interns, but one way to avoid that is if the internship is for college credit. However, at programs like my school, the credit that comes from that internship must be paid for out of the intern’s pocket. It would cost me $1,297 to intern for that company.

If I didn’t accept the paid offer I received this summer, I would have taken the unpaid internship and worked at my summer job from last year — lifeguarding and teaching swim lessons — in an attempt to lessen the financial hit.

Some consider unpaid internships a rite of passage, but they exclude candidates who cannot afford to work without pay or shell out almost $1,300 for the opportunity. As a result, it’s the affluent students who can afford the work experience.

This has scary implications when you consider that the students who get internships have a better chance of being hired full-time.  A population of otherwise qualified applicants, who just couldn’t afford to work for free, is systemically left out. The industry won’t be an accurate and diverse representation of our country if the same liberal, affluent, white journalists are the only ones who can afford a place in newsrooms.

The competition gets worse when you look at the job market after graduation. The beginning of 2019 has seen the highest number of media layoffs since 2009, putting a number of highly qualified journalists out of work.

My peers and I haven’t gone into journalism for the praise or for the money. In May, Glassdoor unveiled its list of the top 25 highest-paying entry-level jobs. Topping the list, entry-level data scientists earn a median base salary of $95,000 a year, far surpassing journalists and our roughly $33,000 starting salary.

Credit where it’s due: I’m a poor kid at an elite college. Bribes are not the reason my wealthy peers are here.

This disillusionment with the industry has caused many to leave journalism for communications jobs. There are now 6.4 public relations specialists for every newspaper reporter. Many of my own friends have switched their majors from print or broadcast journalism to public relations or advertising.

Attacks from within and without

There is also a growing antagonism against journalists. The Trump administration has effectively phased out White House news briefings, and the president himself has repeatedly attempted to undermine the credibility of the news media.

In addition to defending the crown prince of Saudi Arabia, whom the United Nations implicates in the death of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi, Trump told CNN’s Jim Acosta that “I get along with everybody, except you people.” He said, “I get along with President (Vladimir) Putin. I get along with (Saudi Crown Prince) Mohammed (bin Salman).” He’s right on that account. At the Group of 20 leading nations summit in Japan this summer, Trump joked to Putin about his “problem” with journalists.

USA TODAY headquarters outside Washington, D.C., was evacuated on Aug. 7, 2019. The alarm about an armed person in the building turned out to be false.
Sean Dougherty/USA TODAY

Violence against anyone, including journalists, is no laughing matter. In 2019 there have been at least 26 physical attacks on journalists, according to the U.S. Press Freedom Tracker. Understandably, everyone is on edge. During my internship this summer, I even had to evacuate my own workplace after a mistaken report of an armed person in the building.

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Despite all of this, I still want to be a journalist.

Journalists need to be obsessed

To see why, just consider the work we do and the community I have at The Daily Orange, Syracuse’s student-run independent newspaper where I ran the opinion section last semester. Here you’ll find more than 40 young and passionate journalism students spending most of their free time on stories and putting together a paper three nights a week.

While studying full-time, we work long hours, go to student council and board of directors meetings and conduct interviews in between classes, then spend the night producing a paper until the early hours of the morning.

As Potter — that professor who fled to the woods — told me, you have to be obsessed.

Do you know where your student fees go?: Mandatory student fees at my college can pay for abortions. That violates free speech.

“The challenges of money, bad hours and the toll that takes on relationships, all those things are all very real. I think we have to be honest with young journalists about that,” he said. “But at the same time, this is a profession that you learn something new every single day. You have opportunities to meet people from completely disparate walks of life on a regular basis that I think no other profession offers. And on top of that, you have an opportunity to make meaningful change in a society that desperately, desperately needs it right now.”

For my classmates who stick it out, his advice is to view the industry’s changing landscape, despite the economic and political challenges, as a field ripe with opportunities to do meaningful and innovative work.

Mom and Dad, I can hear you screaming from the other side of the screen: “It’s not too late to become a data scientist!” And yet, even in an era of bad news for the industry, I am still pursuing a career in journalism.

I aspire to influence our public dialogue for the better, by talking to people and sharing their stories. I still have an optimistic view of journalism, made all the more positive because I’m surrounded by professors, mentors and students who are still hopeful  despite the long hours, poor pay and dwindling job opportunities.

We are willing to put in the work to be a part of protecting not only the future of the journalism industry, but our democracy. And that empowerment alone is worth the tuition payments now, and the occasional escapes to the woods later.

Allison Weis is a rising junior at Syracuse University and an intern for USA TODAY Opinion. Follow her on Twitter: @_allisonw

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