News outlets around the country are laying off staff, furloughing employees and implementing hiring freezes due to the financial fallout of COVID-19. Many college journalists have lost internships or had post-grad job offers withdrawn, while others are in limbo waiting to hear back from potential employers.
On April 29, the U.S. Department of Commerce reported the gross domestic product (measured value of goods and services produced) in the first quarter of 2020 shrank by 4.8%. According to The New York Times, that is the worst quarterly contraction since 2008, during the Great Recession.
Journalism is just one of many industries facing widespread layoffs and business closures. According to Poynter, more than 70 newspapers, weeklies and alt-weeklies are experiencing layoffs, furloughs and closures because of the pandemic — that list is still being updated.
Even before COVID-19, the business-side of journalism was in free fall. In July 2019, Pew Research Center reported that the estimated total U.S. daily newspaper circulation in 2018 went down 8% from the previous year. In 2018, total estimated advertising revenue for the newspaper industry was $14.3 billion, down 13% from 2017. In the past 15 years more than 2,000 local newspapers have gone out of businesses, according to The Washington Post.
Summer internships cut
NPR, Forbes, NBC News and CBS News all announced they would take the unprecedented step to cancel their summer internships. So did newspapers like Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Minneapolis Star Tribune and The Seattle Times.
Deanna Schwartz, a rising junior at Northeastern University in Boston, was ecstatic about accepting a paid co-op position at The Boston Globe on March 2. But on March 24, The Globe notified Schwartz that they were suspending their July-December co-op program because they weren’t sure if they would be able to remotely “integrate the teams” and didn’t know if they’d be back in the newsroom by July.
Schwartz said when she first got the news she was devastated. The Globe announced their internship and co-op program cancelations earlier than other major news outlets, so she felt alone. She was shocked when she received the news because, at the time, many of her friends and fellow college journalists still had their summer and fall internships. Now, almost everyone she knows is in a similar situation.
“It was really bad when I found out a month ago now,” Schwartz said. “I was really depressed, I cried for like 48 hours straight. … In the past month, everyone I know has had their internships canceled. But a month ago I felt really ashamed to tell people because everyone I knew was so proud of me for getting this and for doing this. It was shameful to me. I know that’s ridiculous looking back because obviously it’s not my fault, but I was really ashamed to tell people that I had lost the co-op.”
Jared Serre, a rising junior at West Virginia University said he applied to 18 summer internships, heard back from five and was offered three internship opportunities. He accepted an offer from The Omaha World Herald sports section on Feb. 11. In March, events that Serre was going to cover in his internship like College Baseball World Series and Olympic swim and dive trials were postponed or outright canceled because of coronavirus. On April 1, The Herald notified Serre that his internship was canceled.
The Herald told Serre that they were cutting all internships because they were struggling with ad revenue and the travel necessary for the internship would be dangerous given the pandemic.
Serre said hearing the news was tough because it would’ve been his first summer newsroom internship. He was excited to cover major sporting events and to live in Nebraska.
“It would’ve been a great opportunity,” Serre said. “Part of the reason I accepted it was because of the opportunity to come in and right away and cover some of the things that they’ve got going on over there. When they pulled it, it hurt.”
Serre said the cancelation news was hard to deal with at first. However, he is glad he was cut instead of a full-time employee. He said, “if it had to be somebody, I’m glad it was me.”
Both Serre and Schwartz said their respective news outlets encouraged them to apply again next year. Schwartz said The Globe said they would offer first priority to students that were chosen for the fall 2020 program.
Schwartz said in order to graduate, she must participate in a semester-long “journalism co-op experience.” Losing her fall co-op means she will graduate in December 2022, a semester later than planned. She said she plans to reapply for The Globe’s co-op program in Spring 2021.
In the meantime, she is taking summer classes (which she has to do every summer in order to graduate on schedule) as well as working two part-time summer journalism internships that her professors and advisers recommended she apply for after The Globe announced the program cancelation. Schwartz said her college adviser and professors gave her moral support and helped her find other opportunities.
“I’m not discouraged from the industry right now because it’s still my passion, it’s still what I want to do,” Schwartz said. “I feel like the work I’m going to be doing this summer, no matter how good it is, it’s just never going to live up to what I wanted this summer to be, but I just have to accept that.”
Schwartz said she is focused on doing a good job, networking and making connections at her new internships.
Serre said he is optimistic he will have an opportunity for a local paid internship this summer. He added that he doesn’t think that internship losses will hold aspiring journalists back.
“It’s weird because these cuts, while they seem new, cuts aren’t anything new to journalism, daily newspapers and weeklies and all that,” Serre said. “The coronavirus has caused it to be a little more ‘everything hits at one time,’ and that’s presented its own challenges, but I think at the end of the day most aspiring professional journalists are like ‘it is what it is, we just gotta keep going.’”
Entering a bleak job market
The pandemic has also made job-hunts in the journalism industry all the more difficult. Cody Nespor, a graduating master’s student at West Virginia University, started applying to jobs in December. In February, Nespor heard back from The Butler Eagle in Butler, Pennsylvania about an interview. In March, he was offered a general assignment reporting job with a focus on education. When Nespor called to accept the job offer only a couple of days later, the hiring manager told him that The Eagle had started laying people off and implemented a hiring freeze. They did not rescind his job offer, but he would have to wait until they lifted the freeze.
The Eagle hasn’t given Nespor a timeline on when he will be able to start his job. The family owned business is uncertain as to when it will resume normal operations, so Nespor is still in the dark.
The hiring manager still calls every couple of weeks to check in to see if Nespor is still interested in the job, which he is.
“I understand the situation,” Nespor said. “I’m not mad at them or angry. I mean it’s frustrating, but there’s nothing that can be done so I’m not mad about it or anything. [The hiring manager] was very upfront with me. She said we’ve laid off so many people just since we last talked on Friday. We kind of have to do this.”
Nespor said he is not actively looking for other jobs, realizing that job prospects are few and far between in the journalism industry right now. He said that by September, if he hasn’t received more clarity on his start date at The Eagle, he will start looking for jobs outside the newspaper industry.
Nespor completed and defended his thesis for his master’s program and will continue to work part-time at West Virginia Sports Now. He is now living with his family in Pennsylvania and hoping to start his job at The Eagle in the fall.
Mariah Valles, a senior at Central Washington University, had an internship lined up at an ABC affiliated television station for the final quarter of the year. The station contacted her two weeks before her March 31 start date and canceled the internship.
Valles is now trying to find a job in digital media after she graduates in June. She said many news organizations have taken down their job postings, but she applied to three positions at different news outlets. Valles said that her friends in print media are having a harder time finding job openings, but she is optimistic aspiring journalists will persevere.
“I feel like journalists are people that aren’t going to just back off,” Valles said. “I feel like journalists are really strong individuals… as much as the world can be thrown into fire, journalists tend to be right there covering the situation, learning about it and then informing about the situation.”
SPLC reporter Alicia Thomas can be reached by email at email@example.com or by calling 202-974-6318.
Want more stories like this? The Student Press Law Center is a legal and educational nonprofit defending the rights of student journalists. Sign up for our weekly email newsletter.