Students pursue journalism careers despite industry’s decline

Ada Lambert
WINNER, WINNER: The Echo Editor-in-chief Ada Lambert holds an award the Warren Wilson College student newspaper won for best online news publication at the 2024 N.C. College Media Conference in February. Photo courtesy of Lambert

Journalism looked different when Michael E. Gouge attended UNC Asheville in the 1980s.

The college offered classes in print, radio, television and public relations, and there were plenty of jobs available in each specialization. After Gouge graduated from UNCA, he worked at a series of daily newspapers, including Hendersonville Times-News.

Today, UNCA mass communication students can take classes on podcasting, social media, the application of artificial intelligence in the media industry and even “personal branding.” They may never work at a daily newspaper during their career, let alone any newspaper. And Gouge, a senior lecturer of mass communication at his alma mater, sees a commonality among his students who are training to enter an industry that has changed so much: They’re adaptable.

“They grew up in this digital world where they’re accustomed to [newness],” Gouge says. “It’s not like the old way where you did an internship and then worked for 20 years at the same organization.” He thinks the expanded media landscape presents more avenues in which students can pursue a career. Up-and-coming journalists might make a podcast, a YouTube channel, a newsletter or a blog on WordPress.

Flexibility and creativity may be key for current media students: The news industry eliminated over over 2,600 jobs in 2023, according to a report from the job market analysis firm Challenger, Gray and Christmas Inc. In January alone, 528 journalists across print, broadcast and digital media were laid off, according to a more recent report.

“I don’t necessarily encourage people to go into [journalism], and I say that as a former reporter,” says Beck Banks, Warren Wilson College assistant professor of communications and faculty supervisor of the student newspaper The Echo. “If a student really wants to go into [the field], absolutely, I’ll support them. It’s just good to know how rocky the terrain is right now.”

Popular despite problems

Despite the bleak numbers, some young people continue to pursue the field. Warren Wilson College offers communications classes and is offering its first mass communications undergraduate degree program, led by Banks. “By the time the program starts in fall 2024, I anticipate communications will be on the path to becoming a very popular major at Warren Wilson,” he says. Ten students have already declared mass communications majors, he says.

At UNCA, the number of students with majors in mass communications increased from 83 to 94 in the previous year, Gouge says. (Enrollment at UNCA has increased overall as well.)

At North Buncombe High School, English teacher Jenny Zimmerman is watching student media classes grow. Five years ago, Zimmerman and some students taught themselves about video production and revived an old broadcast show focused on school news called “Black Hawk Broadcasting.” (Episodes can be viewed at Her students produce news segments for an eight- to 10-minute broadcast, which has two co-anchors. A new show is completed every two to three weeks, and faculty members are asked to play it during their first-period classes.

Working on “Black Hawk Broadcasting” production and yearbook production are combined into one class called Broadcast Journalism and Yearbook. (North Buncombe does a more journalistic-style yearbook, Zimmerman says, containing articles and interviews in addition to photographs.) But this year, she began teaching a Journalism 101 class about news writing, features and reviews. Zimmerman will reprise the class next year. And the school is in the process of launching North Buncombe Now, a news website that it hopes to debut this spring.

‘A calling’

UNCA junior Sarah Booth was drawn to journalism in college after taking a news writing class and says she wants “to do something meaningful with my writing.” She’s an arts writer for the school’s newspaper, The Blue Banner.

“One of the things that [professor] Gouge tells us is ‘seek the truth and report it,’” she says. “When I see people that are being oppressed, then I have to uplift those voices.” For her, it meant writing about the drag community, which she’s connected to through a lifelong friend.

Alexandra Gore, a Warren Wilson College freshman and assistant editor at The Echo, explores her interest in sociology through journalism. She’s written about political activism, minority groups and voting rights. “If I’m going to have a public platform to publish things, I want to be doing good in the world,” Gore says.

She’s interested in reporting on international issues. “People on the border, who are being put in camps and put in cages and starved for days is something that doesn’t [get enough attention],” Gore says. “I would feel like I’m not doing what I need to be doing if I’m not showing the world what needs to be shown.”

Beck Banks

BIG DREAMS: “A lot of young people want to be civically involved,” says Beck Banks, Warren Wilson College assistant professor of communications. “The call that people have to go into journalism, it’s usually coming from a phenomenal place.” Photo courtesy of Mary Bates

‘I’m willing to sacrifice’

In the past three decades, the traditional media business model fell apart as the internet took most of its advertising and people began getting their news through ever-splintered social media.

Once upon a time, many towns had competing newspapers that “were all trying to scoop each other,” Banks recalls. Now, he says, millions of Americans live in a news desert.

According to The Expanding News Desert, a project by the Knight Foundation and UNC, in 2020 over half of the counties in the U.S. had only one newspaper, and 200 counties had no newspapers at all. In 2004, North Carolina had 198 newspapers — 47 daily, 151 weekly. The state lost one-fifth of its newspapers by 2019 when 154 newspapers — 43 daily, 111 weekly — were still running.

Students studying journalism who spoke with Xpress say they understand that jobs in the media industry don’t pay well. Evannes Edmonson, a senior majoring in mass communications at UNCA who writes for The Blue Banner, says, “Definitely it has been tricky to navigate what journalism would be like as I graduate — finding a job that pays the bills but is also fulfilling.”

Cody Ferguson, a junior at UNCA, is co-editor-in-chief for The Blue Banner and is starting a podcast with another editor. He wants to become a radio host, although “you don’t hear the best things about long-term career journalism. It’s really a difficult area to be in. ”

Gore says she accepts that journalism probably won’t be remunerative or stable. “Of course, this could change, but I’m willing to sacrifice being a little bit all over the place and maybe I’ll be freelancing or job-hopping or having two jobs in order to be a journalist,” she says.

Ada Lambert, editor-in-chief of The Echo at Warren Wilson, says she realizes she may need a second job if she pursues journalism as a career. But that’s not her only concern about working in the media. “It’s hard to catch people’s attention these days — the attention economy, it’s very intimidating,” she says. “I love to read, but I know not everyone does.”

Ferguson, like many students who spoke with Xpress, is undeterred. “Everything’s a challenge,” he says. “This is just a challenge that I’m good at.”

A turbulent career

Banks wants young people thinking of going into journalism to be aware of the psychological risks and safety concerns of the work. “I make sure to talk to students about the amount of reported harassment that’s been on the rise or at least has been on the rise since it’s been studied,” he explains.

Banks cites 2022 research from The International Center for Journalists, a nonprofit that supports journalists worldwide, that found two-thirds to 75% of women working as reporters worldwide face online harassment. “We expect reporters to protect us and [keep] us in the know, but there isn’t a whole lot that’s coming from the audience for helping them,” Banks says. “It kind of breaks my heart a bit, just because I loved being a reporter — even though I definitely faced issues.”

Gore hasn’t experienced harassment writing for The Echo, but she has gotten “hate comments” when writing about racial justice topics. To her, pushback is an indication of a story’s impact. Gore explains, “It’s been cool to see that people are reading and caring enough to leave hate comments.”

She acknowledges that journalism can be a dangerous field. In 2022, a reporter in Las Vegas was murdered by a government official he had been investigating. The International Federation of Journalists, a worldwide coalition of media workers, reports 94 journalists had been killed in 2023, with the majority killed in Israel and Gaza, followed by Central and South America. Worldwide, nearly 400 journalists were imprisoned last year, IFJ reports.

“We have journalists in Gaza right now covering the genocide happening,” Gore says. “That is truly putting your life on the line in the name of representing the truth and what’s going on in the world.”

‘Pumped up and fired up’

Zimmerman, the North Buncombe High teacher, has had several students continue with journalism in college.

“Even if the state of [the media industry] is rough or in flux, they love it so much,” Zimmerman says. “Like teaching, I think journalism is a calling. And it’s something that if you have that passion, it doesn’t matter.”

Zimmerman says guest speakers who work in journalism may bring up challenges within the media industry, but she doesn’t, explaining, “We want to encourage them and be pumped up and fired up about what they do.” But she suspects her students are aware; they’re bright and attentive to the world around them.

Although Banks cautions about the difficulties of the industry, he knows firsthand that “the payoff you get from being a reporter is tremendous.” He makes sure students understand that journalism skills — research, listening, writing — can be applied to other careers with higher pay and better quality of life.

He’s seen an increase in “a desire to do good in the world” since he first taught a journalism class in 2015, he explains.

“A lot of young people want to be civically involved,” Banks says. “The call that people have to go into journalism, it’s usually coming from a phenomenal place.”

March 20, 2014: Cody Ferguson’s role at The Blue Banner, as well as information about UNCA’s enrollment, have been updated in this article.


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About Jessica Wakeman
Jessica Wakeman is an Asheville-based reporter for Mountain Xpress. She has been published in Rolling Stone, Glamour, New York magazine's The Cut, Bustle and many other publications. She was raised in Connecticut and holds a Bachelor's degree in journalism from New York University. Follow me @jessicawakeman

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2 thoughts on “Students pursue journalism careers despite industry’s decline

  1. Jim

    “News” reporting has become opinion reporting, what they want to promote is written about favorably, things disagreed with are negatively biased, or not reported at all. There is no objectivity in media, they focus on telling their consumers what to think about the story instead of just reporting the facts without bias. I was censored on this very platform for writing things now recognized as factual that differed from the current government’s narrative. Truth is now “disinformation” to those that refuse to allow it. The “free press” is dead.

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