The future is written

The future is written
Ilana Kaplan explains how being a media journalist has become so bleak and why humans are more vital than ever to deliver the news we consume.

The current state of media journalism could perhaps be summed up by an off-the-cuff tweet I wrote in July: “It’s so depressing that I’ve gone into every job I’ve had in media knowing I’ll probably be laid off at some point if I don’t leave first.” I wasn’t alone in my nihilistic perspective. The tweet hit a nerve and went quasi-viral with colleagues sharing how much my earnest string of words resonated with them. Replies like “I hate how common this is” or “Why do we work in the media” made me feel vindicated. It wasn’t just my imagination – in 2023, that is the perpetual anxiety of working in the media.

After all, I, myself, had been laid off from my editorial job just two months prior to when I fired off the aforementioned tweet nearly a year to the day that landed a dream editorial job. While it wasn’t entirely surprising given the recent merger we had endured, it felt inevitable. Was I sad? Yes. But instead of shedding tears, I had to laugh. Misery loves company, and now, I was just another one of the more than 17,436 people who had lost their media jobs by June 2023.

“In anticipation of a recession and increasing interest from publishers in AI, media has been in a state of emergency.”

Ilana Kaplan

As a music and culture writer and editor with over 15 years of experience, I’ve witnessed the ups and downs of the industry – the 2008 recession’s impacts, the folding of beloved glossy magazines, the ill-fated relaunches of publications, the mismanagement from top brass, the sexism and racism of those in power. I’ve heard colleagues over the years use some version of reassurance that “it’s always been bad, and it always gets better”. But in anticipation of a recession and increasing interest from publishers in AI, media has been in a state of emergency.

This year 40 media companies have laid off staff. In the UK, journalists have been striking to protect local media services and against monolithic media conglomerates. VICE, which fostered the stories of the working class and underrepresented groups largely ignored by legacy media, filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy. Gal-dem, a vital UK publication dedicated to storytelling by people of colour from marginalised genders, shuttered. Autostraddle, a publication centring the voices of lesbians and other queer people, gutted its staff before recently being acquired by a tech company to stay afloat. So if you work in media, the word “bleak” has probably come to mind and you’ve likely had a gut reaction of your own Chrissy Teigen Golden Globes meme face.

How we arrived at such a place where the future of journalism hangs in the air is nuanced. When Trump took on the US presidency in 2016 he – and the Republican party – demonised the media. A 2019 poll even showed that one third of Americans viewed the media as “the enemy of the people”. Throughout his tenure, Trump publicly devalued an entire industry – taking aim at specific journalists and threatening democracy. By many, journalists were already being viewed as disposable. Cut to 2020 when the world faced a public health crisis with Covid, a shaky industry began to crumble. A combination of the world shutting down, businesses not being willing or able to spend ad revenue and a slew of newsrooms shuttering, forced many out of the industry. In April 2020, the New York Times reported that “roughly 37,000 workers at news companies in the US have been laid off, been furloughed or had their pay reduced”.

As a result, the job market has become far more competitive and salaries have stagnated as top executives have continued to rake in the big bucks at the expense of their employees.

What the deprioritisation of journalism has done is only further reinforce how necessary it is to have stories told by a diverse and wide-ranging group of people. In neglecting voices that aren’t wealthy, white and able-bodied, media institutions will struggle to connect with their audiences and are likely to make culturally and racially insensitive mistakes that harm marginalised communities.

For instance, back in 2020, an article in The Guardian ran that used a photo of UK rapper Kano when it was referring to Wiley. While the publication issued an apology, it rightfully ignited a conversation around the lack of diversity in newsrooms. That it happened amid the Black Lives Matter protests made the harm more deplorable – a time that revealed how crucial Black voices and voices of colour were in the media. According to Internews.org, “many journalists from marginalised communities observed that a more diverse newsroom would spot the mistake before it was published”. A newsroom made up of voices from different cultures could prevent unconscious bias and “culturally insensitive reporting.”

As journalism becomes more a part of the gig economy – or a “side hustle” – the stories that were once told with empathy and personal experience will be shelved or, the perspectives shared will largely reflect the remaining workers in the newsroom. Considering newsroom diversity initiatives have largely been tabled and a 2022 Pew Research Center survey of nearly 12,000 working US-based journalists revealed 51% of reporting journalists are male, the ubiquitous perspective will be largely white, male and affluent and serve that audience. The voices uplifting the underrepresented voices will be limited – either relegated to generative AI or co-opted by the rich and connected – and the integral voices of change will be pushed out of the industry into other fields.

Unfortunately, AI has become the next pivot to video for media companies in an effort to create more workplace efficiency – the idea of producing more articles faster and with more frequency. But a reliance on models like ChatGPT comes at a cost: there have already been issues with the spread of misinformation and errors embedded within stories, as well as stolen IP from human writers and artists without their permission. There is also the legitimate fear that many valuable journalism jobs will be replaced by technology. In truth, they already have: there are already AI-assisted reporter jobs surfacing.

Mankaprr Conteh, a staff writer at Rolling Stone, calls a reliance on AI “the Wikipedia-ification of information. “When you’re in school, you’re told you can start on Wikipedia, but you can’t end there,” she says. She believes it can be dangerous considering we’re already experiencing “a crisis of mis- and dis-information from blogs and online personalities” who lack the ethics and integrity journalists are held to.

Daniela Capistrano, a Latinx queer trans-non-binary journalist and a head of content and digital strategy at TransLash Media, believes it isn’t realistic for employers to envision generative AI as a universal solution for editors and writers. But it can be ultimately beneficial to teach editors and writers “how to utilise AI to streamline workflows”. “That can improve efficiency and help address budgetary issues and concerns,” they said. “Distinctions matter.”

But what does the future of media – or a “dream role” – look like when media is more in flux than ever?

Shannon Liao, who was laid off from The Washington Post at the top of 2023 and has since launched her Substack Updater News, believes the future of journalism is already here, and Gen Z journalists have already created the blueprint by finding success on TikTok, Blue Sky or on podcasts. “There’s a mixture of self-promotion and cherishing working for legacy brands like the New York Times or CNN,” she says. “Nobody has the exact answers, everyone is trying to hold onto a piece of the pie to make things work.”

What that looks like for writers – and particularly Black writers and writers of colour – will likely require a certain level of entrepreneurship: newsletters, podcasts, TikTok fame. Cheyenne M. Davis, a writer, content creator and media adjunct, says they’ve noticed more writers and creatives, especially those who are Black, building their own platforms. “For example, since my writing opportunities have not been abundant, I have turned to writing a book, creating and updating a weekly Substack newsletter and also streaming on Twitch to continue piquing my storytelling interest and passions while simultaneously reaching more audience members,” they explain. “At this point, I think our best bet as underrepresented creators is to go on our own.”

“There ultimately needs to be serious structural change to preserve the future of journalism”

Ilana Kaplan

While there is no one-size-fits-all solution, there ultimately needs to be serious structural change to preserve the future of journalism. Davis believes that the only way we can really save the field is by “creating genuine, lasting and equitable efforts to uplift underrepresented journalists, editors, freelancers and other media professionals by giving them access to employment opportunities, proper compensation and not relying on AI solely to produce content.”

Geoffrey Bunting, a freelance journalist and book designer, believes that while in the short term we will see journalism become a side hustle or something only available to people with generational wealth, he believes a successful future will require “a meaningful re-evaluation of profit models”. “If we can re-establish that strong ladder of editorial, supported by the various cogs – fact-checking, proper budgeting – that work behind the scenes of the writer-reader interaction, we could bring media back to a more stable plane,” he says. But as someone who is disabled and has never been able to make a living from journalism alone, he believes his “voice is going to disappear”. “Not because I don’t care or because I’m not passionate about it, but because it is simply unfeasible for me, economically, to do this any more,” he says.

Daniela thinks that companies need to stop “actively trying to prevent and punish employees for unionising”. “Instead of avoiding unionisation, organisations should be thought partners in that process to create a roadmap for DEI and salary parity, because everyone benefits when a system is revamped so that it isn’t only the top one percent who benefit,” they say.

“Despite the war on journalism, the power of written words by humans is needed now more than ever.”

Ilana Kaplan

What is certain is that this isn’t a time to stand by and watch the industry crumble: It’s going to require action, supplemental income and looking beyond the constraints of traditional media. “The path that I walked doesn’t really exist any more and I also wouldn’t recommend it to anyone,” says Shannon. Despite the war on journalism, the power of written words by humans is needed now more than ever. To save ourselves, we’ll need to think outside the box. Then, maybe we won’t be so doomed after all.

This piece appeared in Huck #80. Get your copy here.

Enjoyed this article? Like Huck on Facebook or follow us on Twitter.

Support stories like this by becoming a member of Club Huck.

Latest on Huck

Surreal scenes from the streets of Tokyo
Photography

Surreal scenes from the streets of Tokyo

A new book by photographer Feng Li uses images of strange encounters to explore the historical centre of street photography.

Written by: Isaac Muk

Re-enchanted England: Exploring Paganism and Folklore
Culture

Re-enchanted England: Exploring Paganism and Folklore

A new book dives into the ancient traditions and rituals that many are turning to in an age of uncertainty, crisis and climate breakdown.

Written by: Thomas Andrei

Inside London’s Museum of Sex
Culture

Inside London’s Museum of Sex

For two days only a derelict house in south east London will become a hub of artwork exploring eroticism, sexuality, gender, and the body.

Written by: Brit Dawson

Why is Neil Diamond’s mega-hit ‘Sweet Caroline’ so intoxicating for sports fans?
Outdoors

Why is Neil Diamond’s mega-hit ‘Sweet Caroline’ so intoxicating for sports fans?

During this summer’s edition of the Euros, one certainty is the ubiquity of Diamond’s 1969 hit. But how and why did it gain such a storied place in England fans’ hearts? Jimmy McIntosh investigates.

Written by: Jimmy McIntosh

Can things only get better, again?
Election 2024

Can things only get better, again?

With the re-emergence of D:Ream’s euphoric 1993 hit and a ’97 style Labour landslide looking likely, Hannah Ewens dives deep into the creation of Cool Britannia, and asks experts whether it could be repeated again.

Written by: Hannah Ewens

The activists fighting the mental health crisis
Election 2024

The activists fighting the mental health crisis

Micha Frazer-Carroll examines the way the mental health crisis has escalated in the last five years and meets those organising to end it.

Written by: Micha Frazer-Carroll

Sign up to our newsletter

Issue 80: The Ziwe issue

Buy it now