This month has been brutal for journalism jobs. The Los Angeles Times laid off 115 employees. Time announced layoffs that the magazine’s guild said amounted to 15% of staff. Univision announced 200 layoffs and Conde Nast folded the iconic music magazine Pitchfork into GQ, reportedly laying off at least 12 staffers.
With each week bringing another heartbreaking announcement, hundreds of journalists are asking themselves: Will I be able to stay in this field?
While our colleagues are wrestling with their futures, I recommend that we lift a weight off their shoulders by collectively laying to rest the notion of “leaving journalism,” as if it were a one-way trip.
The decades of a shrinking journalism workforce create the false notion that we’re playing a massive game of musical chairs, and if you give up your spot in a newsroom, you’ll never get it back. This is not only untrue, but it harms us collectively. The scarcity mentality that’s pervasive in our industry puts unneeded pressure on people at a vulnerable moment in their careers.
I recently started thinking about the harm caused by the “leaving journalism” fallacy at the urging of Naomi Tacuyan Underwood, executive director of the Asian American Journalists Association. And as I’ve watched layoff after layoff announced over the past several weeks, I’ve grown even more convinced that we should ban this phrase from our vocabulary. In fact, in a survey of laid-off journalists that I’m working on — in collaboration with Nieman Reports — the team decided not to use this phrase. Among our rationales were these reasons:
Being Precious Hurts Us
Underlying the notion of “leaving journalism” as a momentous decision is the belief that journalists are rarefied ethical beings who aren’t tainted by commercial motives. We are the fourth estate, charged with upholding democracy. If someone steps away from this sacred duty, perhaps to make a living in marketing or communications strategy, they become tainted, the thinking goes.
I am proud of my role in reporting truth and holding power to account, don’t get me wrong. I’ve stuck it out in journalism for more than two decades, through layoffs and economic downturns. But when we start to think of ourselves as precious, a few bad things happen.
First of all, journalism becomes a mantle that is better than the cloaks worn by other professions. When we start to feel that we’re superior to others, we create distance. We tend to assume, prejudge, and listen less carefully. I always had more success as a beat reporter when I tried to understand the motivations of sources and public relations professionals on the “other side” of an interview request, and the pressures they face, rather than seeing them as lesser beings. And, you’re less likely to be manipulated by sources if you understand their motives — perspective taking is a crucial skill for all journalists.
Secondly, we become vulnerable to exploitation and abuse by leaders of news organizations who leverage our passion for the mission of journalism as an excuse to underpay, overwork, and keep us chained to our desks — or laptops or mobile phones. It’s better for all of us if newsroom leaders have to compete in the labor market for journalism talent against corporate communications and marketing departments. A seasoned professional journalist can accomplish so much in one day: take on a brand new topic, get up to speed, interview new sources, and turn out an article. We should be compensated well, given the challenge of these tasks.
Yes, You Can Come Back
Examples abound of journalists who take a break to work in communications, birth and raise young children, become teachers, or start businesses — and then return to newsrooms. It’s not a one-way street.
It may be harder to step out of the climb up the newsroom ladder of assignments, beats, and plum roles. But journalism is exhausting, especially now, and we all need to pace ourselves. Our profession will be better off if everyone understands the value in a detour and has a more open mind to the experience and perspective that a journalist can gain from working elsewhere for a time.
Our working lives will be longer than ever in history, thanks to improvements in health care and a shrinking social safety net. It’s unrealistic to imagine that we’re going to spend three or five decades working in the same type of role in journalism. Instead, our careers are going to be made up of phases — maybe a decade in breaking news, then some time with longer-form projects, perhaps a stint working on innovation or product, and then, why not return to beat reporting? Technology is changing so quickly that the old career paths and rules no longer apply.
Just a casual survey of my own personal network revealed a slew of examples of people who “left journalism” and returned to bigger and better roles. For example:
Bay Fang spent more than a decade as a foreign and diplomatic correspondent for U.S. News & World Report and the Chicago Tribune before spending several years working for the U.S. State Department. She then returned to journalism at Radio Free Asia, where she’s currently president.
Jennifer Breheny Wallace left her associate producer job at 60 Minutes to raise her family in London, then returned to freelance for the Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, and others, and wrote a New York Times-bestselling book — no small feat.
Bernie Kohn left the Baltimore Sun to work for the Maryland Department of Labor, then returned to Bloomberg News.
After working at the Arizona Republic and Cincinnati Enquirer, Laura Trujillo worked in public relations for a time, wrote a book, and is now a managing editor at USA TODAY.
Renée Graham took a buyout from the Boston Globe, ended up freelancing, and then worked for a university. She eventually returned to the Globe, where she’s now an associate editor and columnist.
I find these career paths reassuring. Having endured a mass layoff myself, I know the first few weeks are traumatic. But as talented journalists pick themselves up and look to the future, I encourage them to think broadly about the many possible roles where their skills can make an impact, they’ll be valued as colleagues and contributors, and they can continue to grow. The next move doesn’t need to be forever — it can be right for a season.