A shrinking path: Ten young journalists open up about their struggles to break into the news industry

Reporters put up with low salaries, long hours and uninspiring roles in the hope they will find a full-time job. Many may never have one
Illustration by Pat WingShan Wong (aka Flyingpig)

Illustration by Pat WingShan Wong (aka Flyingpig)

22nd January 2024

Every year seems to be the worst year for journalism lately and 2023 was no exception. Layoffs reached a new record, artificial intelligence may have begun to displace journalists, and the war in Gaza claimed the lives of a record number of reporters. All this was compounded by long hours, chronic underpayment and a declining number of journalism jobs. 

Despite this daunting landscape, young journalists still dream about entering the news industry, persuaded by an unflinching vocation to seek the truth and report it. But many struggle to break through the difficulties. Very few manage to get a stable and well-paying job. 

As an early-career journalist myself, these anxieties are not foreign to me. Like so many young colleagues, I fear about the future of my career in journalism and I often wonder how long it will last.  

When I get asked how I kickstarted my own career, I attribute it to luck: I answered the right questions during my interview, got offered an internship, and they liked me enough to let me stay. But I understand my circumstances are rare in an industry where opportunities for young people to land an entry-level job in journalism are increasingly rare. 

Most of my peers haven’t yet had their lucky break. Many may never do.  

I wanted to know more about the realities of being an early-career journalist right now, so I spoke to ten emerging journalists from Europe, North America, and Latin America. We discussed the hurdles they face when trying to get a break in an increasingly fraught labour market. I’ve grouped their struggles into five common themes and left the organisations they mentioned unnamed so this piece doesn't have any impact on their careers. 

1. A space of increasing investments and shrinking returns.

In some of the countries where my interviewees come from, there is an exorbitant price tag to even be able to go to journalism school. For many young people without connections, going to a journalism school seems to be the only path that would let you get your foot in the door. 

While studying journalism in a public university is relatively affordable in some countries, this is not the case in many others, where students have to rack up a huge debt or sacrifice their savings just to start working in the news industry. 

Take the case of Spain, where many journalism master’s degrees are affiliated with established media organisations such as El País, El Mundo, Cadena Cope, ABC, El Español or El Confidencial. Tuition for some of those programmes can exceed the €11,000 mark (around $12,000). In the United States, tuition for undergraduate degrees in journalism hovers between $40,000 to $60,000 per year whereas tuition for post-graduate degrees in elite institutions can even reach over $75,000. 

“I have so much student loan debt…They do have loan forgiveness, which is incredible, but you have to be under very specific qualifications for it, because it's such a new programme,” says Ani Freedman who finished her degree in the US and now is working as a freelancer for a non-profit newsroom.

“The loan forgiveness programme was created out of acknowledgment that you are paying so much for an education knowing you're going into a field that pays. But I don't think I qualify just because you have to be a full-time employee at a nonprofit journalism organisation,” explains Freedman, who clarifies the newsroom cannot afford to hire her full-time even if they wanted. 

Fran Serrano Alba is a recent graduate in journalism from Spain. Studying at a public university in the country, he was hoping to stay in his native southern region of Andalucía, but was pushed to move to Madrid, Spain’s capital city, as it is the place where most jobs in journalism are. He thinks most state-owned universities in Spain are disconnected from the realities of the news industry in terms of technology and job opportunities whereas private colleges have clear advantages.

“This is the first clear divide in terms of access to journalism: who can study at a private college? Because private colleges have access not just to technology but also to internships and connections within the sector,” Serrano Alba explains. “The news industry encourages journalism to be practised by people who went to private colleges.”

Aspiring journalists and their parents are investing so much money in their education and getting so little in return. 

As an example, take the latest figures from the US Bureau of Labor Statistics. The median pay for a journalist in 2022 was almost $56,000 per year in the US whereas the growth rate for the occupation is in decline, something hardly surprising after a year plagued with mass layoffs and job cuts

That median number is relatively high compared to other markets. In Spain, for example, a recent job opening went viral as the publication was asking for a journalist with at least 10 years of experience to produce four original pieces a day for a salary of €20,000 per year (around $22,000).

As the number of jobs shrink, students with journalism degrees struggle to enter the news industry. That’s why many of the ones I spoke to decided to go into a postgraduate journalism programme in the hope that a specialised degree would put them in a better position. 

After finishing his undergraduate degree, American journalist Kyle Kittredge decided to do a postgraduate degree in journalism and international affairs in Ireland. He made this decision after a few years in which he couldn’t get a full-time job in the industry. 

“I thought that having a master's would help at least a little bit with getting interviews,” he says. “It doesn't really seem to be too much of a difference, compared to where I was after I finished my undergrad degree.”

2. Getting your foot in the door for low pay and long hours. 

For many of the people I spoke with, the only way to truly get your foot in the door is hoping that a successful internship turns into a job offer. The problem is that opportunities for young journalists to get training through internships and fellowships are diminishing too.

In 2023 NPR cancelled its internship programme citing economic woes. The Ida B. Wells Society for Investigative Reporting, which typically provides internship opportunities to young reporters of colour in the US, was also forced to cancel its summer internship programme due to funding concerns. 

In Canada, due to the Online News Act, fellowships for emerging journalists sponsored by Meta got axed too as the tech company retreated from journalism. And this is not the whole story: even for those who recently managed to secure an internship, a job is not guaranteed at all. 

Mauricio Pizarro is a recent graduate from Chile who’s struggling to secure a full-time job. His journalism programme organises internships for its students to get job experience in the field, and perhaps also secure an offer post-graduation. However, his internship experience was not positive. While many in his course could continue working at their assigned organisation, he could not.

“It is all about luck,” Pizarro says. “A person might stay doing the job after the internship just because people liked them. But there are also people like me, who had a bad experience. This makes it difficult for us to look for another job. At the end of the day, if a journalist does not have a job or is not visible for many years, he is kind of forgotten.”

Ani Freedman, who is now working as a freelancer in the US, describes the application process for both full-time employment and internships as discouraging. 

While in university, she applied for summer internships where she got rejected for having a lack of newsroom experience. It’s a chicken and egg problem, as she was precisely hoping to use these internships to build experience. 

“I don't know how I'm supposed to get started in the field,” she says. “How are you supposed to get started if you don't have the experience that they want you to have?”

In countries like Spain, internships are an integral labour component for many news organisations. Interns are expected to produce content like seasoned reporters for very low pay, as the promise of a job is dangled as a carrot on a stick before them. 

Interns are much cheaper to employ and they are eager to get started in journalism. But even for those who did get to work in newsrooms through internships, the experience has not been easier. 

“I had a lot of experience as a journalist through internships but that didn’t get me closer to a real job,” says Spanish journalist Lucía Miranda. “The only job offers I got were more internships. “You think, ‘Maybe I can stay and it's worth it.’ 

As a precondition for some of the internships, she was asked to be a student so she could get paid as an intern for about €300 or €400 a month [Spain’s monthly minimum salary is €1,050]. “But how can you live on that money if you also have to pay for your studies out of your own pocket?” she points out.  

Miranda says she worked part-time for a publication earning as little as €250 per month while supplementing her income by working part-time as a store clerk for €600.

Fran Serrano Alba, the other journalist I spoke with in Spain, has gone through very similar experiences. He describes the stress of waiting for a low-pay temporary contract to end, hoping for a renewal while working full-time, and very often doing more hours than the ones in his contract. 

“I’ve gone through these internships,” he says. “The first ones were unpaid and then I got one for a salary of €500 gross. That is less than half of Spain’s minimum wage. But somehow it’s legal because it’s just an internship, and I was required to work as if I had a full-time contract.”

This situation is not only seen in internships, but in regular employment as well. Candela Rodríguez González got her graduate degree in journalism in Corrientes, Argentina in 2020. After searching for a job in the industry for almost three years, while freelancing and working in communications, she landed a job in a health and fitness publication. However, her salary is sparse and she has to work part-time in marketing to be able to sustain her wages. 

“There is no work and the little we are offered, we usually accept it because having nothing is worse,” she says. “Many of us have several jobs because one job is not enough for us.”

3. Moving abroad in search of opportunities. 

After studying art history in Italy, Marco Cacciati decided to pivot to journalism in his thirties by doing a postgraduate degree in London. Today he works as a freelancer in Berlin and has been able to make ends meet with the help of his partner. 

“I earn a barely decent salary, but it’s not ideal,” he says. Despite working in the news industry, his situation is very precarious and he would like to land a full-time job in the future.

Cacciati is one of the many journalists looking for stability in an unstable industry. He would like to work in Germany, but he would also be happy to relocate to the UK. His two biggest problems, he says, are securing a work visa to move to the UK post-Brexit and finding an entry-level job to live on. 

“I will not do an internship for free,” he says. “It’s something I find disrespectful. Working for free is wrong.”

Debadrita Sur also moved away from her hometown in the Indian city of Kolkata to pursue journalism in the United States. After completing her master’s degree at an elite institution, she applied to over 200 jobs in order to stay in the country. 

“I had to find something to keep my status in the US so I was very desperate,” she says. “I was applying everywhere, from reporting jobs and video journalism jobs to even things like copywriting or content writing.” 

Sur and Cacciati are the only two people I spoke to who’ve been able to make a living with journalism. But both of them are dealing with the added stress of navigating immigration difficulties. The fact that the news industry is struggling politically or financially in their home countries propelled them to find opportunities elsewhere. 

“Press freedom in India is not the best,” says Sur. “If you write something against the government, you get targeted. Given the kind of education I received, I do want to explore other places.” 

Cacciati is similarly disillusioned with the media landscape in his native Italy. “Journalism in Italy is pretty bleak,” he says. “Basically, people work for free or are doing internships for many years.”

Canadian journalist Breanna Sherman followed the usual path to getting a job in the news industry: she went to one of the best journalism schools in the country, got some bylines during her studies, and even got a short-term placement in a publication in London (UK) after receiving her diploma. 

And yet Sherman is now considering relocation away from her family and community in Montreal, her hometown, to the unknown. “I would prefer to stay in Montreal and I loved living in London, so I would definitely go back,” she says. “But at this point, I've been applying for jobs since mid September. I would move to wherever someone hired me. I’m a hard worker, I have bylines, I do all the tasks in the hiring process, and nobody gives me a chance. It's so draining.” 

Argentinian journalist Mercedes Frisoli did move back to her hometown of Santa Elena after completing a degree in the city of Santa Fe, both Argentinian cities. 

Despite wanting to do journalism in her hometown, Frisoli has been unable to land a job there due to the state of the media landscape. She hasn’t managed to make a living through journalism after her graduation four years ago. 

“Who can pay me to live in such a small city where there is not a single newspaper?” she says. “On the other hand, when you are from one town, living in another, you have no contacts to enter the industry. You don’t know where to look for a job.”

This is indicative of another trend in journalism worldwide, where news deserts are becoming more rampant. 

In Argentina the situation is especially difficult. A survey of news deserts found that 6.6 million people in Argentina live in places where there is not a single independent press outlet. The decline of local news has made it more difficult for young journalists to get a start in their own communities before jumping to news outlets in metropolitan cities. 

4. Only young journalists who come from wealth can make it. 

After years of struggling to get a break in the industry, some journalists eventually move on to more stable careers. But it’s important to pause and reflect on who can afford to pay for expensive degrees and then take low-pay internships for years before landing a full-time job in journalism. What do we lose when a generation of working-class journalists is prevented from entering the field?

Serrano Alba, the Spanish journalist who had to move from Andalucía to Madrid for opportunities in the news industry, is concerned that journalism in his country is only accessed by people who come from wealth. 

“All the people my age who can’t afford staying on internships leave journalism and get jobs in other industries,” he says. “We are creating entire generations of journalists who belong to certain elites and this is a real problem.”

When I asked Miranda who are her peers who have jobs in the industry, she said that they are the ones who have done “a very expensive specialised master's degree for €10,000 or €13,000” or “people who are given a training contract,” meaning people who will not be there forever.

Aside from the economic disparities within journalists, Miranda is also worried about the direction the industry is going, with many outlets focusing on maximising profits and churning out bad-quality content. 

In a recent job interview for a digital publication, Miranda was told that the job she would do if selected would be to supervise and adapt articles written by ChatGPT.

Rodríguez González, the Argentinian journalist from Corrientes, says she has been disillusioned by the news industry and is contemplating working on SEO copywriting and abandoning journalism altogether. 

“When I was still a journalism student, there was always talk that a single journalist had several jobs because otherwise they could not make ends meet,” she says. “Today I am here, on this side, and I can say that’s true. It is impossible to live with what the jobs pay.”

5. Going through the never-ending application process.

Kittredge, the US journalist who’s living in Ireland, is currently applying for a job. Application processes, he says, are often lengthy and time-consuming, and add to the taxing nature of the news industry. 

“And then you never hear back, which is also probably one of the most depressing parts of it,” he says. “You send out so many things, you’re so excited about some of these jobs, and then you never hear back.”

Cacciati shares the same feelings. “Almost 90% of the time, when you get a rejection, you're lucky to get an answer in first place, because sometimes they just don't answer at all,” he says. “If you then ask for feedback, they just stop answering altogether.” 

While not always possible, Cacciati would like newsrooms and HR departments to acknowledge the time and effort that goes into sending an application by at least sending a rejection email rather than ghosting applicants as if their application never happened. 

The job hunting process has not been easy for young applicants. During her years in college, Miranda prioritised having work experience in journalism rather than focusing on her academics. “I thought, ‘It doesn't matter, it will be worth it,’. Well, it wasn’t,” she says.

Miranda thought she did everything right: she went to university, did many internships, and worked on her writing, but the lack of results has impacted her self-esteem. 

“I have the feeling that I have done something wrong,” she says. “Maybe I haven’t paid too much attention to social networks or I should have learned more languages… But we all come out with two or three languages and we’re always like it’s not enough.” 

Serrano Alba has been offered an opportunity to go back into journalism after his stint of working in PR for government agencies. Alas, the opportunity is another internship. “I am going to receive €350 for working 20 hours a week,” he says. “It’s a contract in one of the most important media outlets and I still have to be grateful for them giving me that opportunity.”

While the labour outlook is bleak, the ten journalists I spoke to will still try to get their break in the news industry while also looking at jobs in marketing, communications or public relations. Despite their disillusionment, many of them feel doing journalism is their calling and want to contribute to their communities by doing this kind of public service. 

Breanna Sherman says she has been forced to expand her job search for social media and other communications jobs even though it is not something she never saw herself doing. 

“When I was finishing my program,” she says, “one of our professors said when he was giving his send off speech that ‘a lot of you are going to end up in PR, a lot of you are going to end up in social media, but I really hope you guys stick it out and do something that you love.’ Now I know exactly what he was talking about because a lot of people are being pushed off. We are losing out on passionate journalists.” 

Debadrita Sur, the journalist from India in the United States, remains optimistic about the future of journalism. “It will be difficult for an AI system to go out on the streets and to find the stories that we journalists find,” she says. “We can bond with people face to face and find those very important, heartfelt stories. The nature of the job might change, but [journalists] will find ways to write and tell those stories.”

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