Between Legacy Media And A Hard Place

The New York Times newsroom in 1942. Photo by Marjory Collins.
Written by Alex Wilking

My plea to redefine the modern-day journalist.

I came to Boston University to be a culinary writer. It’s a bit of a pipe dream, but I have access to a pretty sweet mix of classes (like Food Writing For The Media) to make it a reality. When asked about my aspirations, I’m always posed the million-dollar question: What publications do I want to write for? It’s a shame that my response has become, “Not The New York Times.”

I’m not alone. Our generation, even most of our graduate class, has reached a bit of a predicament. Our career aspirations, our light at the end of the tunnel, is no longer these legacy publications. Rarely would a student turn down a job opportunity fresh out of school, but it is rarely our idea of the perfect job.

But since we’re ill-informed students, we’re taught that the finish line of our professional career should be these massive print publications. That it needs to be. Professors speak of the glory days of traditional print media as if we’re the only ones who can save it (wink wink). Granted, many of my peers would love to write for legacy media. I get that the idea of a fixed salary and hours is appealing, but the prospect of most journalism jobs having those luxuries is slim. For those seeking a place at the NYT or a large-market publication, I salute you. Just don’t deem me a hack because I write about the restaurant across the street from your apartment.

Unfortunately, print couldn’t be more on the decline if it published its own front-page obituary. A study done by the Pew Research Center found that between 2003-2012, print journalism’s overall revenue halved — from $46 million to $22 million. Chances are that number will only decline in coming years. Well-established publications have scrambled to enact paywalls to counter this, but most readers will just open up incognito browsing and bypass it. So it looks like our graduating class should prepare to enter the online market.

The Gray Lady’s not in any danger. Journalism isn’t in any danger. In fact, I’m more optimistic than ever about the profession. But we need to redefine what it means to be a “successful” journalist. I’ve just spent my entire education (not just BU) being taught that our generation has to be legacy media’s savior. And I don’t want to be its savior. Maybe I do end up working for an online-only beer blog, but at least I’d be writing about something I’m passionate about. There’s no place for many of us on the NYT staff covering immigration and policy reform. And just because we don’t write these sorts of stories doesn’t make us failures.

We students crave new media, a modern conception of journalism. Many of us entered journalism school with niches, honed interests that we want to learn to expand on. We want to innovate other professions with our journalistic backgrounds. Then again, a lot of us are just crazy people who don’t like money and laugh in the face of guaranteed salaries.

Early last week, BU hosted a panel called “Riptide: An Oral History of Digital Journalism.” Many of the panelists were tech writers for established publications, like The Boston Globe, and others were masterminds behind legacy media’s growth into the digital age. The latter spoke as if they had attended journalism’s funeral before catching the plane to Boston. But the second panel of journalists were supporters of small operations. They touched on the importance of finding your focus area and pursuing it. Students struggled to make meaning sense of that panel afterwards, and many felt that the whole presentation was too somber about journalism’s future. But for a few in attendance, it was a calling to keep on keepin’ on.

At this cusp of our journalistic journey, many of us will probably end up freelancing for online markets. It’s not an ideal scenario, but nothing else seems to satisfy what many in this generation of journalists want out of the working world. And if that’s where the future of journalism lies, so be it. We have to run beyond our preconceived notions of journalism and realize that our perfect job also may not exist (yet). An established writer shouldn’t have to have clips in the Globe to be an experienced journalist. Given the chance, our generation can flip journalism onto its underside and expand our profession’s idea of success.

The future for us students is weird, hazy and semi-shapeless. And by now this op-ed has probably made me look like some entitled child trying to write it all out, but I don’t have any answers. Consider this more of a plea to look at journalism from another angle. A plea to call another source, to give the copy-editing desk another call. If we try hard enough to reimagine what journalism can be, we can really start venturing beyond legacy media and on to uncharted territory.

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