In my quarter-century as a journalist, I’ve seen many media business models come and go. Each new idea brought with it the hope that this new business structure — or funder or technological development — would be the thing to save journalism. Would it be digital media, nonprofit newsrooms, community engagement, participatory journalism, billionaire owners, hedge funds, product thinking, social-first models, reinvestment in local journalism, or artificial intelligence?
Regardless of the business model, funding scheme, or technology, individual journalists get churned up in these experiments. A typical cycle: News organizations launch with a big vision, leaders are acclaimed as the new hope to save journalism, they go on a hiring spree, and then it turns out they over invested or their strategy didn’t pan out, so they fall short of expectations and lay people off — often in the fourth quarter. It’s so predictable that a colleague recently told me she experiences post-traumatic stress disorder every fall because of the number of mass layoffs and buyouts she’s experienced in this season over the course of her career.
Just in the last six months, we’ve seen mass layoffs and job cuts across the entire journalism industry, regardless of format.
- Mainstream: The Washington Post plans to eliminate 240 positions through buyouts, National Geographic laid off all its writers, and the Los Angeles Times cut more than 70 positions.
- Nonprofit news: Job cuts at the Texas Tribune and Futuro Media, and drops in philanthropic funding threaten stability at The City, with 2024 looking grim as well.
- Public media: New York Public Radio and Southern California Public Radio cut 12 and 10 percent of their workforce respectively and New England Public Media cut 20 percent of its staff.
- Multimedia and digital: Barstool Sports laid off 25 percent of its staff and Bustle cut five percent by eliminating 21 positions. This sector saw even worse layoffs earlier in the year, with Vice Media laying off over 100 of its 1,500 employees and closing Vice World News, Buzzfeed News shutting down entirely, Insider cutting 10 percent of staff and Vox Media cutting seven percent of staff, impacting about 130 individuals.
Forget the billionaires, philanthropists, technologists, coders, and CEOs. Nobody is coming to save us. We must save ourselves.
By that I mean, individual journalists must actively manage their careers, build robust professional networks, invest in continual education, and pay attention to business and media news, in order to ride the waves of this turbulent profession — and be ready to leap when the time comes. Call it the A-B-C-Ds of surviving and thriving as a journalist.
Actively manage your career. A journalism job is so demanding that we can easily fall into the mode of being reactive. We spin from assignment to assignment or project to project, barely stopping to breathe. But if we are buffeted along without a plan, if the axe falls in our newsroom — and you know it very well may — we suddenly realize that we’ve missed the opportunity to develop new, marketable skills and to execute concrete projects that will get us the next job. It can be as simple as devoting 3-4 hours at the beginning of the year to set specific goals and then checking in with yourself every week or two to revise and update progress. My colleague Laura Vanderkam wrote an 80,000 word novel in weekly increments of just 2,000 words. You can make career planning a priority in similar small chunks.
Build strong networks. One of the things I like about being a full-time freelancer is that it forces me to always be nurturing and growing my network. When you’re employed, it’s easy to take your colleagues for granted. Don’t do that. Take the extra couple minutes at the beginning or end of a meeting to chat about your personal lives. Share interests. Ask what your colleagues are hoping to achieve in their work, so you can look for ways to support them. Reach out to former coworkers periodically to catch up. That way, if you are unexpectedly in need of help, it won’t come out of the blue. People like to be helpful, so when you ask for an introduction for an informational interview, you are giving them a chance to do a good deed.
Another way to network: Volunteer for your professional association. As you work on projects with people from other organizations, you’ll get to know them, show them that you’re reliable and responsible, and gain insight beyond just your employer. Again, you’ll see that regular, small amounts of time add up to a big impact over months and years.
Continually educate yourself. It’s comfortable to do what we’re good at. But if you’re not a bit uncomfortable, you’re not growing. Maybe you listen to podcasts in a new area you want to learn about or take a self-based online course. Or tackle a small project in an area that’s hot and new. A friend mentioned that she’s reading up on ways artificial intelligence can be harnessed in journalism and volunteered to give a presentation to our professional network, as a way to consolidate and share her new knowledge. Not only does teaching a subject help you master it, when there’s a presentation date on the calendar, you know you’ll have to deliver.
Develop your understanding of the business. Many journalists would like to keep our heads down. Do good work. That’s not feasible if you want to be ready to pivot your career quickly. Instead, follow media and journalism news. Talk to other journalists about their workplaces. Notice which organizations seem stable, with thriving and happy employees. Pay attention to which companies are hiring, announcements of new funding initiatives, and shifts in how investors view the news business. Those who did that saw the beginning of the series of mass layoffs, starting with Gannett and CNN at the end of 2022 and then Vox in January. Journalists are experts in collecting information and data and drawing conclusions. We need to cover our own industry in the same way we cover our beats — so that we can anticipate turbulence and change.
Building a career in a field as chaotic as journalism can be demoralizing, if you have no agency or sense of control. By proactively tackling the reality of our business and taking these steps to build our professional resilience, we can each be prepared for the inevitable change ahead — and take the next wave of so-called saviors with a grain of salt.