Yet fresh recruits continue to seek careers in the profession, drawn by a sense of mission and the opportunity to make a difference in the world, according to our new research at strategic communications firm Greentarget.
The findings have particular resonance for me — I worked in journalism for 20-plus years, including more than a decade at The Wall Street Journal, before joining Greentarget last year as director of content and editorial strategy. I continue to believe the work that journalists do is vital. And the energy and optimism our research uncovered will be critical as the industry confronts urgent problems, from the hunt for sustainable business models to competition for eyeballs from platforms like TikTok, where virality trumps accuracy.
Next-Gen Journalists: Navigating Misinformation, AI & The Future of Journalism finds that students and new professionals are clear-eyed but not pessimistic about the hurdles they face. For example, three quarters (74 per cent) of respondents expect AI to have a significant impact on the industry, though only half believe the technology poses a threat to journalists.
While just under half (47 per cent) expect the prevalence of misinformation and disinformation to grow in the next year, more than nine in 10 plan to do what they can to combat its spread.
Pressure on young journalists is fierce — but their skills have never been more vital
As a young journalist, I entered the profession during a period of similar upheaval in the late 1990s and early 2000s, as publications struggling to adjust to the then-new Internet gave their product away for free online, then slashed jobs after the first dot-com bubble burst.
It took me nearly three years to land a full-time reporting job in New York with health insurance. But, like all good aspiring journalists, I pushed ahead because I loved the work and wanted to make a difference.
The situation facing Gen Z journalists looks even more daunting. Years of job losses amid the decline of advertising-supported publishing have pared newsrooms to the bone, creating news deserts where local journalism once thrived.
Social media shifts are upending digital publishing strategies and contributing to the flood of misinformation and disinformation online — as evidenced by what Reuters called "an electronic fog of war" now sowing confusion amid the escalating Israel-Hamas conflict — while the explosive growth of generative AI threatens to further undercut journalism jobs.
But the need for reporting that informs the public, shines a light on injustice and holds power to account is greater than ever. Our research found that next-gen journalists largely embrace the profession's role as Fourth Estate watchdogs, and they still cleave to classic reporting techniques for sourcing and verification that reporters and editors have relied on for decades.
At the same time, they are also adopting new tools as technology advances, just as previous generations of journalists did when electronic databases and online searches began to supplement old-school shoe-leather and phone reporting.
Challenges around training and development of young journalists
Experts note the potential for AI tools to help bridge newsroom staffing gaps by tracking breaking news, targeting stories to particular audiences, summarising content and even automating story production — something outlets including the Associated Press has already been doing for quarterly earnings reports and sports recaps with the aim of freeing up time for more in-depth reporting.
However, such tasks are also a way to drill the basics into new reporters. Whether outsourcing that work to AI will make it harder for young journalists to learn their craft is a valid question, echoing concerns in other writing-heavy industries such as law.
High-profile missteps, like the flood of corrections that CNET issued earlier this year for AI-generated stories, only reinforce the importance of training future journalists to understand the pitfalls as well as the potential of these tools.
"You see a lot of advice that AI can provide a good first draft, for example. But the act of writing refines your thoughts, so if you skip that work, it's necessarily going to be more shallow and you're going to have fewer original insights," Amy Merrick, a senior professional lecturer at DePaul University’s College of Communication and former reporter for The Wall Street Journal, told us.
"What is going to set you apart in the industry at this point is providing those original insights, the information that people can't get elsewhere, connecting different disciplines."
Our key takeaways:
Traditional journalistic methods still outweigh social media for reporting
- Overwhelmingly, reporting in the field (94 per cent), drawing from primary-source networks (92 per cent) and looking to experts and think tanks (92 per cent) are the most widely-used resources for young journalists.
- These outweigh social platforms when it comes to generating story ideas and sourcing and/or verifying information, though respondents do see social media as valuable for distribution and measurement.
Respondents are already harnessing the power of AI, but some view it as a threat
- More than half use AI translation tools, while 43 per cent use AI tools for writing and 39 per cent for research.
- Some respondents express concern about the potential for inaccuracy and/or misinformation.
- Others say AI could render journalists "obsolete", while one respondent said: "We don’t need AI to write for us, we can write for ourselves."
Aspiring journalists are purpose-driven, reflecting their faith in the watchdog role of the press
- Top motivations for pursuing journalism include providing information to the public for informed decisions (62 per cent); exposing injustice (58 per cent); and fighting mis- and disinformation (45 per cent).
- Most respondents (87 per cent) believe journalists should strive for impartiality in news coverage.
Next-gen journalists see opportunities ahead
In our 2021 report on the toll that mis- and disinformation takes on seasoned journalists, only 14 per cent said they believed their own efforts made a difference. The aspiring journalists we surveyed this year tend to hold a more upbeat view (72 per cent) on the profession's overall prospects.
Will they feel differently after five or 10 years in the trenches? Perhaps. Journalists, after all, are a gimlet-eyed bunch, quick to spot holes in an argument and prone to pessimism about the state of an industry that many of us have experienced almost entirely in a state of contraction.
In my case, over time the relentless drumbeat of layoffs, budget cuts and burnout in a 24-hour news cycle made it increasingly difficult to pursue the stories and type of coverage that drew me to journalism in the first place.
The news media plays a crucial role in inspiring and leading smarter conversations. While the road ahead is certainly challenging, the energy, idealism and passion that young journalists are bringing to the fight demonstrates that the future of journalism is in good hands.
Jennifer Smith is the director of content and editorial strategy at Greentarget, a PR firm, leading a team of seasoned editors and writers devising campaigns for B2B organisations.
Prior to Greentarget, she was an award-winning journalist with two decades of experience covering business, national and local news. She spent more than a decade with The Wall Street Journal covering topics including the legal profession, supply chain and logistics, and cultural institutions, and breaking news on the biggest law firm failure in US history. She also was an adjunct professor at the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism.