The walls of George Stoia’s childhood bedroom are covered with sports journalism. Posters of his favorite athletes collected from Sports Illustrated For Kids, newspaper clippings about the Oklahoma City Thunder and college football, some from his hometown Tulsa World, many bearing his byline.
Had things gone as planned, Stoia would be packing for a move to start a sports writing internship at The Boston Globe to add to his collection of bylines.
Instead, just weeks after graduating from the University of Oklahoma’s journalism program, he is in his childhood bedroom, playing the college football video game NCAA 14 and pitching freelance story ideas to local news outlets.
The Globe canceled its internships in April, joining newspapers across the country doing the same amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Coming into this, you know journalism is difficult to get into and stay in,” Stoia said. “The pandemic has taught me a lot of patience. … Before this happened I thought it might take time to get a job, now it might take a lot longer.”
The pandemic has compounded journalism’s financial problem: the need for a new revenue model as the existing one, based on print ad revenue, becomes increasingly unsustainable. The extra hit via the pandemic has sped up newsroom layoffs and furloughs nationwide, leaving young journalists reconsidering their career choices.
As a double major in journalism and sports management, Stoia spent his college years working at the campus student newspaper, The OU Daily, covering football for three years and serving as sports editor for two. His work on campus landed him internships at the Detroit Free Press, The Gazette in Colorado Springs and The Globe.
For now, Stoia is committed to waiting it out, living “meal by meal” and applying to journalism jobs until he finds one. About a month ago, he was considering going to graduate school or pivoting to teaching. In a couple of months, depending on how things go, he may again reconsider his commitment, he said.
Stoia is among many recently graduated journalists whose summer plans have fallen through. The Tulsa World, NPR, The Seattle Times and the Star Tribune of Minneapolis, to name a few, also canceled internships.
These cancelations take away valuable experiences for the would-be interns. Journalism jobs require prior experience and clips to show for it, which internships provide, in addition to the ability for individuals to hone skills otherwise only taught in classrooms.
However, internship programs are far from the only area in the news media shaken by the pandemic. On April 10, The New York Times reported about 36,000 news company employees had been laid off, furloughed or received pay cuts.
The pandemic’s hit to the industry comes during a decade-plus downturn. Newspaper revenue has been declining steeply since 2006, with recent years showing year-over-year double-digit declines in ad revenue, the largest portion of the industry’s total revenue, according to a 2019 Pew Research Center report.
“Journalism has a sustainability problem,” said Barbara Allen, director of college programming for Poynter and the former advisor for the student newspaper at Oklahoma State. “Our leaders (in the industry) need to find models that can work to pay people good living wages and serve the communities. This has been going on since 2008. The bottom started dropping out of advertising and these cuts started … and it’s certainly been accelerated by COVID-19.
“The industry has to work hard to find sustainable business models. That’s really hard when they’re churning, trying to keep up with the news of the day. It’s going to take some innovative thinking.”
The increasingly bleak situation has fueled a crisis for young journalists who fear their passion and skills for the field do not line up with opportunities to do the job.
Just a year into her career, the OU graduate Abby Bitterman was laid off from The Oklahoman May 1. She landed the reporting position following a summer as a camp creative writing teacher while applying for journalism jobs. During her tenure with the paper, she covered OU football, men’s basketball and softball, while lending assistance to the news desk as needed.
“As hard as it can be some days … in the end I loved what I was doing,” Bitterman said. “It was a really weird feeling to have a job that had no set end date you had to plan for, then move on to the next thing. … You know when (internships) are going to be over, but this I could do as long as I want. Did I want to do it forever? Probably not. Did I want to do it for a lot longer than I got to? Absolutely.”
Bitterman is carefully considering her future. She updated her LinkedIn profile and resume and began applying to any journalism job she can find — and some outside of journalism.
She is also taking time for herself — cooking more, running, volunteering to coach a local softball team. And, of course, grappling with her feelings on the industry.
“Job security (in journalism) has not been great for a while. When do we hit the point where it turns around?” Bitterman said. “When I got the position I had, I felt pretty confident because I was covering OU football and men’s basketball and softball. Having covered OU sports before, I know those are the sports people want to read about.
“I thought in terms of the beats I covered, the fact I helped out on news. I was doing things to help maintain my job safety.”
While The Oklahoman has laid off several reporters, including Bitterman, and remaining staff are experiencing months-worth of furloughs, the summer internship program remains intact — paid for by internship-specific funding.
Recent OU graduate Nick Hazelrigg said he faced this dilemma and ultimately chose to not stay with the industry. Although he began at OU with the intention to go to law school, he began working at the student newspaper, The OU Daily, rising to the position of editor in chief by the time he graduated, and did a summer reporting internship with Inside Higher Education.
Hazelrigg said he “sat on the fence” at different points in his education, but decided, in the end, to attend OU Law School in fall. While journalism is “one of the most noble professions a person can pursue,” the risk, ultimately, did not outweigh the change one person could effect, he said.
“When I was considering whether or not to pursue it, that was one of the things I thought about, job security,” Hazelrigg said. “Fear of where the journalism market is going. … It’s a risky profession.”
The OU Daily advisor Seth Prince said he has heard this sentiment from students who have recently graduated, as well as from colleagues who have been in the business for decades.
He worries that journalism will become a “young person’s game,” where journalists will stay in the field three to five years and switch to something more reliable.
This poses a problem with the fundamental digital skills and insights incoming journalists bring.
A 2016 study by the Tow-Knight Center for Entrepreneurial Journalism found that the list of skills employers are seeking from young journalists constitute what the researchers described as “superpowers,” including the ability to combine basic writing and editorial judgment with expertise in writing code, audience development, metrics and video.
“The industry is clearly at a point of profound transition and has been for some time,” Prince said. “COVID has dramatically and tragically accelerated it … I think the main thing students today bring is you all are digital natives. You’ve grown up in an era where understanding the dynamics of social media or how to do video or audio or some of those other things that are on the rise in our industry are first nature to you all in many instances.
“They’re not wedded to old traditions that the industry may demand. The market may demand change in some ways.”
John Helsley, current advisor of the OSU student newspaper The O’Colly, said he is concerned about the disenchantment he sees in some students. Still, he said, he has to believe this is only a transition period.
“I think we’re in a little bit of a gap in journalism where something new and exciting is going to happen … I’m not sure what that is or when we’re going to get there, but we need to get there soon,” Helsley said.
“I do think there’s going to be a light at the end of the tunnel.”
Helsley pointed to publications like The Athletic, which has managed to produce quality journalism based on affordable subscriptions, as points of hope for the field.
Similarly, Prince discussed how outlets such as Oklahoma Watch, ProPublica and The Frontier are popping up to produce important news “in a fundamentally different platform.”
“Can we weather the storm and come out the other side with something whole?” Prince said. “Different but whole, sustainable for people to be in for a long time … Journalism is going to continue. It is a fundamental part of society and the role we play is pivotal.”
Daisy Creager was the energy and aerospace reporter and digital strategist for The Journal Record prior to being laid off due to COVID-related cuts. The San Antonio native she received a B.A. in journalism from the University of Oklahoma in December 2017. Contact her at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter at @daisycreager. View her work samples on LinkedIn here.
The Coronavirus Storytelling Project is a collaboration between the Oklahoma-based Inasmuch Foundation, the Oklahoma Journalism Hall of Fame and Oklahoma Watch to help state journalists who have been furloughed or displaced as well as those in struggling community news organizations. The Inasmuch Foundation has pledged $50,000 to launch the project and provide five $500 grants to those accepted into the project each week for the next four months. Apply here. Stories and photos are available for republication with appropriate credits. To republish, contact Mike Sherman at firstname.lastname@example.org.