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🔊 How to make a living in a dying journalism industry

🔊 How to make a living in a dying journalism industry
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Sandra Hannebohm
Sandra Hannebohm Halifax, NS
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There are many challenges to building a career in journalism, especially if you’re Black. I reflect on some of my experiences getting to where I’m at, and several tips to keep in mind if you’re thinking about getting into news media.

Skip the read and just listen.

Making a living in journalism

I received an invitation to talk about myself with Dalene Allen of the Network=Net Worth podcast.

Her show is about achieving success through networking—starting when you’re young, maintaining relationships as you grow, and appreciating the doors those relationships can open.

Before the interview, Dalene asked if I could think back to the very beginnings of my adult life, when making a connection opened doors for me.

That answer to that question is complicated. In university, I spent a lot of time networking. I networked so much that I hardly remember who led me to which opportunity! But it’s especially difficult to remember because so many years passed before I landed a “real job.”

After seven years of networking, studying, working multiple jobs and volunteering, I had finally landed one salary job as an editorial assistant at a magazine.

At the time I was monitoring all the career platforms but I didn’t find this opportunity on Indeed or LinkedIn. I learned about the job from a friend and former boss who I met when I volunteered for his nonprofit start up, seven years earlier.

As lucky as that is for me, it also kinda pisses me off. It pisses me off that it took two degrees and seven years to start making a living in journalism.

I was so excited to land a job at a magazine, to work with Buddhists and learn more about the origins of mindfulness, but I can’t deny that there was a bittersweet quality to the achievement.

Seven years of networking, portfolio building, developing a ‘personal brand,’ and working, working, working... all this led me to an entry level position paying $30,000 a year.

That being my experience, I can imagine how hard it is for other Black folk, especially young people, to break into journalism right now.

Getting into this field too often requires that we accept low pay, extraordinarily high stress, and we must be grateful for the privilege to do such work.

Well, it is certainly a privilege to become a journalist, because very few people can wait that long to earn a living wage.

Steps to becoming a journalist

Get a degree (or two)

First, you need some form of education in journalism and media. There are many ways to get experience in journalism outside of academia, but unfortunately, formal degrees win a lot of points in this job market.

The 2022 American Journalist Study found the percentage of people with post-secondary education continues to rise, as people who don’t have a bachelor’s degree make up less than 4% of working journalists.

Many have degrees in completely different fields before they fall into journalism. That’s what I did. When I finished my B.A. in political science I went for a second bachelor’s degree (luckily a one-year program) to increase my chances of employment as a journalist. I doubt that I would have landed my first salary job without it.

The additional problem is that few who study journalism actually become journalists. Once you have the training, there are countless jobs that will pay more money for the same skills, like marketing or public relations. This is one of the reasons we’re losing journalists from the newsroom, and the classroom. In Canada last year, six journalism programs across the country have shut down or paused admissions.

Find a job (and freelance)

Now that you have the training, you can work as a journalist! If there are any jobs left.

Journalists are lost every day to lay offs and burnout, but there’s also a swath of people who simply make the logical decision to switch careers for the sake of stability and security.In a recent New Yorker article, Claire Malone warned about an “extinction-level event” in journalism which has already begun with layoffs from the biggest players in news, like NBC News, Vox Media, Vice News, Business Insider, Buzzfeed and The Washington Post, among many other independent and local news outlets across North America.

So even if you land one, your job is far from guaranteed. In my conversation with sociologist Robert S. Wright (for 2XG members) we talk about how journalists—especially Black folk—can protect themselves from the threat of layoffs and other threats to our financial and mental health.

Vehicle, driver’s license, equipment

You may have never had to think of this before, but can you be a journalist if you don’t have a driver’s license? They don’t really cover that in school, but whether you have a job or you freelance—or both—it helps to have a license and a car.

Transportation can be a big hurdle for a new journalist. It was for me. If you don’t have a quick way to get to where the news is, you’re far less likely to cover subjects outside your area. If you don’t live in the city, you may have to travel for hours to get to work, or move to a city.

My mother’s car was basically held together with tape. When I was in high school we couldn’t afford driving classes, even if I was interested. Because I lived in the city it didn’t seem pressing. When I later became the freelance housing reporter for The Coast in Halifax, my coverage area was automatically limited to the extent of public bus routes.

A high quality DSLR camera helps, too. I was lucky enough to have a father who could invest in one for me, and I promptly made about three times more money on a freelance article that I photographed myself.

High requirements, low pay

Because a new journalist has little experience, they can expect to start at the low end of the average wage.On the low end, the average wage for a journalist in Canada is $20 per hour according to the government of Canada job bank website. Where I live in Nova Scotia, it’s $18, which wasn’t terrible pay for a full time job before the cost of living suddenly shot up.

When I graduated in 2018, it took me over a year to find a full time job. In the meantime I found freelance gigs and lived with my mother, who could only afford to pay half of the rent. On multiple occasions I worked 6-8 hours for $100.

Well-off parents, an inheritance, or a spare family cottage do come in handy when you can’t afford rent and gas. If you don’t have similar supports you’re more likely to leave for a better paying job.In her New Yorker article I mentioned earlier, Claire Malone recalls her first journalism job and a cynical, scary-but-true tip from a late-career journalist: “You want to make it in journalism Marry rich.”

For me it sounds like one of those, “I laugh because if I don’t, I’ll cry,” moments.

I’m not the only one who has noticed a paradox in journalism. Jamie Paul of American Dreaming wrote, "Here’s why it’s deceptive: any industry that requires elite education and offers mediocre pay in return for vast influence and prestige will primarily attract trust fund kids, who can then turn around and claim to be “of the people” because they make forty grand... if you make forty-some thousand dollars, but have seven figures in a trust, or are heir to a fortune, or simply have considerable family assets to draw from or fall back on, then you are, in fact, part of the upper crust…”

Surprise, it’s racism (and classism)!

“Black in the Newsroom” follows a woman who left her Arizona newsroom after covering some of the most popular stories in the community.

Now you have your degree (or two) and you’ve found a job that hasn’t laid you off yet, you can drive yourself to where the news is, and if worse comes to worst, you have family and freelance work to support you financially.

I’m sorry to say, even after successfully jumping through these hoops you will still have to contend with systemic racism, sexism, and other forms of discrimination as a Black journalist. Black journalists in white newsrooms report that their pitches are frequently considered irrelevant, their work is often done without due credit, and they get paid less than their white counterparts.

The state of journalism is so bleak that people quit, not only that, but Black journalists seem to be the first to leave. A Columbia Journalist Review article by Kristen Chick reported that in 2020 at The Washington Post, more than one in three people who quit were Black employees and people of colour. People who were interviewed described feeling “underpaid, devalued in their work, stymied in their career growth, and faced with indifference or hostility in pushing for better coverage of communities of colour and for diversity in the company.” The article also notes specifically, that many of those who left were Black women.

Why be a journalist, then?

So you’re probably not feeling like journalism is a logical career path, and “logical” certainly isn’t the word I would use to describe this career choice.

I think you need to be incredibly brave, optimistic, privileged (or all three) to make a living as a journalist.

It feels good to follow a hint, that leads to a clue, which leads to a front page story. It’s deeply fulfilling to see your work help someone get justice, and I could tell you at length how journalism is the bedrock of a functioning democracy.

But even to be moderately successful (i.e. your bills are paid and you have some savings) you need one, or all three, of the things listed above. The vast majority of people don’t get into journalism for job security, work-life balance, or money.

It’s risky.

You can do all the right things and still lose your job. You can land a job, and find yourself pushing meaningless content. Or maybe you’re lucky to land a stable job that publishes meaningful content, but you’re not likely to get paid fairly.

There’s an industry-wide preference for formal education, based on Western patriarchal values, little job security, and a passive acceptance of the idea that journalists have to make sacrifices that only the privileged can afford, all while creating workplaces where Black folk aren’t welcomed or recognized for the value they bring.

But anyone can learn the tools of a journalist, not just privileged white folk. Anyone can learn to report on the events in their communities. If there’s a looming “extinction-level event” for journalism as the New Yorker article says, anyone can step up to satisfy the information needs of the resulting news deserts.

People are already doing it. Where Facebook and Instagram have banned content from news outlets, social media influencers are picking up the torch to keep people informed.

If Twice As Good can have a positive influence on making journalism more healthy, welcoming and rewarding for Black people, mission accomplished! But to really make it accessible and meaningful to the underserved majority, we need incredibly brave and optimistic journalists who aren’t churned out of historically oppressive institutions and wealthy networks.

Not-so-coincidentally, when you become a Wise Adviser with Twice As Good, part of your membership goes toward a fund to train and support Black folk and journalists in creating mindful media of their own.

BTW here’s my conversation with Dalene Allen of BNI Maritimes on the Network=Net Worth podcast:

Twice As Good Media: Empowering Journalism with Sandra Hannebohm - Network = Networth
Get ready to be inspired by our latest guest, Sandra Hannebohm. Through her company, Twice As Good Media, Sandra is on a mission to bring mindful journalism to the forefront, empowering Black journalists and fostering meaningful connections. …

Mindful Black Journalism Conversations Ep.2

Become a 2XG Member to get the full episode delivered to your inbox each month. Update your profile to upgrade your membership to Wise Adviser and donate the difference directly to supporting journalists.