Trouble in the fourth estate

Instability and working conditions plague journalists

Shelley Cook knows firsthand why journalists decide to leave the field. She’s done it before. (Supplied photo)

Earlier this month, longtime CBC journalist Sean Kavanagh surprised many local politicos when he took a job as director of communications for recently elected Premier Heather Stefanson. On the surface, it might seem odd that someone who has spent years holding local politicians to account would readily go work for a government that appears unlikely to be re-elected.

Kavanagh’s move, however, is part of a broader trend in the media industry. Journalists are increasingly switching to careers in public relations, corporate communications, marketing, social media, politics and more.

Winnipegger Shelley Cook has made the switch twice. After a few newsroom internships and graduating from Red River College Polytechnic’s Creative Communications program, she worked as a reporter for the Portage Daily Graphic. However, Cook quickly realized that the journalism job market would have forced her to uproot her life.

“I realized that I was going to have to likely move if I wanted to advance in this career,” she says. Instead of pursuing a career in journalism, she took a job as a social-media coordinator for Manitoba Liquor and Lotteries.

The rapid rise in social media’s importance has opened many employment possibilities for workers with journalism and communications backgrounds. It has also become an essential tool for people in both fields. Cook says using social media to network, get to know people and promote a personal brand is something she did not learn in school but has been valuable to her career.

“Social media has helped me tremendously,” she says, adding that it has allowed her to find people, build relationships and expand her worldview.

Nader Nadernejad, who has a journalism degree from the University of King’s College, has done some work for CBC and CTV. However, he now owns and runs an online reputation-management firm, as well as a YouTube channel.

“I remember just locking myself in a room and trying to build out a business so that I could afford things like my rent and my tuition,” Nadernejad says.

Being self-employed gives him the flexibility that a traditional career in journalism does not allow for. He also notes that the industry is in flux, given the rise of non-traditional platforms such as Facebook and YouTube as news sources.

“In areas like print media, where so many things are going digital, the pressure is really on advertising to bring in the dollars,” Nadernejad says.

The COVID-19 pandemic exacerbated these challenges. The pace of work accelerated for many journalists. Additionally, many stories they had to cover became darker and more stressful.

Furthermore, the journalism industry was certainly not immune to the economic crisis caused by the pandemic. For instance, in March 2021, HuffPost Canada laid off its entire newsroom with little warning to staff, shortly after workers filed for union certification. HuffPost Canada, however, claims this did not impact their decision.

Cook was laid off from Manitoba Liquor and Lotteries at the start of the pandemic, which she says changed everything career-wise.

“I was devastated at first, but this gave me time to relax, hang out with my kids ... and I decided to start writing again,” Cook says. She was approached by the Winnipeg Free Press and now works as a columnist and manager of the Reader Bridge project.

“Newsrooms are exhausting in a really great way, but it’s so tiresome, because you’re always on, you’re always thinking,” she says.

Cook notes this is a stark contrast to her government position, where the slower pace of work and more rigid structures are both advantages and disadvantages.

“Everything had a very formal process when I worked for the Crown corporation, so there wasn’t a lot of room to have any decision-making power or thoughts on how things should be done,” she says.

Cook adds that benefits and stability are also incentives for journalists to leave the industry.

Mitchell Thompson, an Ontariobased journalist, has written for outlets like Jacobin, Vice News, CBC and the Financial Post. Currently, he works for PressProgress. Thompson agrees that this lack of predictability might explain why many leave the industry.

“I have whole file folders from my years as a precarious contractor of interviews, books and tens of thousands of notes on given subjects that I never did anything with because the project was just discontinued or my contract ended,” he says, adding that “it’s not in the best interest of anyone.”

“Sometimes you’ll get jobs every week for several months, and then sometimes you’re never asked again,” Thompson says. “You never know what’s going to happen, and these decisions tend to be made quite arbitrarily.”

Despite the immense difficulties facing journalists, political rhetoric is often focused on their importance to society. For instance, United States president Joe Biden says journalists “are indispensable to the functioning of democracy.”

Similarly, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau says a “free-thinking, independent and respected media is the cornerstone of any democracy.”

Though Nadernejad has not chosen to pursue a career in news, he still believes that journalism degrees are highly worthwhile.

“It’s really versatile and a great foundation for a bunch of other careers,” he says, citing the development of writing, research, communication and networking skills, which are easily transferable to other careers.

Another problem that plagues journalism is its lack of diversity. BIPOC journalists are underrepresented in permanent writing positions, which directly impacts news coverage.

Making journalism education “more affordable is quite important in getting diverse views represented in media and getting those people publishing and covering their communities,” Thompson says, adding that the prevalence of unpaid internships places an additional burden on aspiring journalists from disadvantaged socioeconomic backgrounds.

“It’s important that people who are being left out get heard,” he says.

Published in Volume 76, Number 10 of The Uniter (November 18, 2021)

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