Why Would Anyone Pursue a Career in Journalism?


A student came to my office hours this year with what she described as a “personal dilemma.” She wanted to pursue a career in journalism. Her parents, though, had some concerns. Could she really find stable work in an industry that has hemorrhaged nearly a third of its jobs in the past fifteen years – and that is expected to shed more jobs in the next decade? And even if she could find work, would it be fulfilling, given the long hours and low pay that characterize a growing share of the jobs on offer? Wouldn’t she be better off, they asked, choosing a career with a less gloomy long-term outlook? 

The dilemma, while personally felt, is not unique to this one student. Seemingly everywhere, journalists confront conditions that raise questions about the viability of their chosen profession. With few exceptions, news organizations are seeing revenues decline as digital media destabilize business models and intensify competition for audiences. Most respond by cutting costs and searching for new ways to “monetize” their offerings. This brings opportunities for some; for most, though, they introduce job insecurity, wage stagnation and worsening work conditions. What’s more, journalists’ public standing has diminished, as has their role as chief mediators of public debate. Why, given these conditions, would anyone want to be a journalist? 

It’s a question I’ve spent a decade thinking about and researching. With a colleague in France, I explored how journalists in Seattle and Toulouse come to believe that a career in news is worthwhile; the ways they navigate their careers in a period of economic, technological, and social upheavals; and at what point journalism, for some, ceases to be an appropriate career choice. While French and American journalism differ in many important ways, journalists–especially those working outside media capitals like New York and Paris–confront broadly similar conditions that make these foundational questions both pressing and practical. 

In both cities, we found that journalism is attractive because it represents a job that is interesting and substantial. At its best, it provides opportunities for expression, a sense of self-fulfillment, and a connection to broader social values like exposing injustice and serving the cause of democracy. These views are not naively held. From the earliest moments in their careers, journalists know that they could make more money, probably working fewer hours, and certainly with greater job stability by taking jobs in public relations or marketing. The fact that they do not indicates something important about journalism: namely, that it is a career that provides rewards that cannot be reduced to money.

The economic challenges confronting journalism, though, mean that few have the time and resources to do work that feels interesting and substantial. Many instead do poorly paid tasks that require great versatility. They endlessly feed websites and social media accounts that constantly need to appear “fresh.” They use multimedia to report on topics that are assigned primarily for their potential to amuse and entertain rather than to inform or provoke thought. They spend more time sitting at their desks sifting through press releases than gathering original reports from the field. Given the nature of much of this work, it is hardly surprising so many exit the profession (fewer than half of all journalists last a decade before leaving).

More surprising, and indicative of evolutions in journalism more broadly, are the adjustments that so many undertake to remain in the profession. In one, journalists find ways to manage the disappointments associated with a profession increasingly riven by tensions between its commercial needs and its social purposes. Some rationalize the dissatisfying work they do by finding ways to occasionally take on assignments that remind them why they went into journalism in the first place. Such efforts, they hope, will lead to a future in which they can more regularly do such work; at least some of their peers have advanced in exactly this way. Whether this transpires or not, this adjustment leaves intact a view of journalism that privileges long-form, in-depth reporting as the cornerstone of journalistic excellence. 

A second adjustment redefines professional excellence to better adapt it to journalism’s commercial needs. Without rejecting long-form reporting, these journalists adopt a less explicitly civic vision. Rather than report on topics on which audiences are uninterested or feel helpless to resolve, they see themselves as practical advisers for people’s everyday concerns. From lifestyle and leisure to consumer affairs and politics, these journalists aim to hold audience attention by giving them the information they want, when they want it. In their efforts to match journalism’s social functions with its commercial needs, they seek to establish a new equilibrium between the two – one in which journalists’ work is valued primarily for its commercial viability.

These adjustments apply to Seattle and Toulouse and to France and the United States more broadly. (The current controversy at the Washington Post, for instance, stems partly from the creation of a “third newsroom” dedicated to “service and social media journalism.”) The heightened tensions between commercial imperatives and social needs exist across Western Europe and North America. How these tensions are addressed, and the extent to which individuals see journalism as worthy, has implications for the types of news that audiences do – and do not – receive. The case of journalism, moreover, presents in magnified form a predicament that can be observed in many socially important jobs like teaching, nursing, and caretaking, which suffer from similar issues of recruitment, burnout, and retention. 

Is, then, a career in journalism still worthwhile? Everyone of course has to answer the question for themselves. My hope is that the research outlined above highlights some of the ways that those in the field already answer the questions for themselves, and what this implies for journalism’s role in society more broadly. The future of journalism – the subject of endless commentaries and conferences – resides ultimately in the adaptations that these individual journalists make. 

Matthew Powers
Matthew Powers
Matthew Powers is Associate Professor in the UW's Department of Communication.


  1. Regular readers and subscribers of the Seattle Times are reminded constantly of the great need for local news coverage, which is key to both understanding the events which most closely affect our lives as well as serve to keep government accountable by making clear who is making and executing policy decisions.

    I am glad to hear that the student in this article is carefully considering how her career choices will affect her life after graduation. I sincerely hope she and other thoughtful students decide in favor of journalism.

  2. I wonder if journalism is becoming a starter-job, usually leading to a career in politics or public affairs or public relations or business. Struggling media companies need to save money by hiring young employees. And there is a long list of starter jobs (teaching, restaurants, nonprofits) where youthful money is earned and networks are created.

    It used to be said of Seattle that it is a “city of the last move,” meaning that people who come here are settling down and sinking roots. Now Seattle is a classic city of the first move, too expensive to live here but a good place to get a jump-start. Other such cities are San Francisco, LA, New York, and Boston — all like Seattle too expensive for a last move.


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