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Chart: How the definition of “journalist” is changing

The plight of journalists might not be that bad if you’re willing to consider a broader view of “journalism.”

Digital media company BuzzFeed’s New York headquarters where writers and editors sit at workstations under a sign reading “BuzzFeed News.”
New media companies are expanding what it means to be a journalist.
Drew Angerer / Getty Images
Rani Molla is a senior correspondent at Vox and has been focusing her reporting on the future of work. She has covered business and technology for more than a decade — often in charts — including at Bloomberg and the Wall Street Journal.

Last month alone, 2,000 people working at media publications lost their jobs. Such layoffs were only the most recent in what has been a years-long trend of media job insecurity. But new data from LinkedIn shows that the plight of journalists may not be that bad — if you’re willing to consider a broader definition of what constitutes “journalism” and its para-industries.

Since 2004 — the year Facebook launched and began eating heavily into the advertising revenues of news publications — the share of journalism hires out of all hires has declined 14 percent, according to new annual data from LinkedIn. (This data does not include the latest round of layoffs, which wouldn’t yet have registered fully on LinkedIn.) Public relations employees, who frequently have similar degrees, credentials, and skill sets as journalists, have had it even worse, with steep declines in public relations and communications hires following the recession.

In the meantime, the number of new hires in “content” and “social media” increased at a faster clip than the declines in journalism and PR hiring. Combined, all four of the job categories LinkedIn looked at — journalism, PR, content, and social — made up a larger share of total hires in 2018 than they did back when Facebook was called

This data suggests that many journalism and PR jobs didn’t go away so much as change their names. People who once worked in journalism or PR have commonly transitioned into job titles like “content writer” and “social media manager,” according to LinkedIn senior data scientist Alan Fritzler. Note that these hiring percentages are small, but typical in size compared to many other job categories on LinkedIn.

This LinkedIn data also suggests that the decline in journalism jobs — editor, reporter, journalist — isn’t as bad as in other studies like this one by Pew using Bureau of Labor Statistics data. Partly this has to do with how one defines “journalism.” Pew looked at a handful of typical journalism job groups among typical journalism industries (including “other information services,” which would include digital publishers like BuzzFeed). If you were a journalist at a company whose main industry was news, you’d be included.

But a lot of people doing “journalism” or calling themselves “journalists” these days are no longer working in traditional journalism jobs for traditional digital or print newsrooms. The BLS data, for example, might not include digital producers or podcasters because there aren’t occupation codes for those jobs. That doesn’t mean they aren’t journalism.

Additionally, plenty of companies or brands whose main industry is not editorial now have editorial arms, but these employers wouldn’t necessarily be included among typical journalism industries. Take, for example, journalists at MEL Magazine, a men’s lifestyle publication started by Dollar Shave Club (now owned by Unilever). Its industry would be categorized among companies that sell personal grooming and toiletry products.

Another case: LinkedIn’s 70-person editorial staff would be categorized among employment services industries.

“The definition of what a reporter does is certainly changing,” according to BLS economist Gary Steinberg. “The case of a blog is a great example. You have a blog and it doesn’t matter what it is. The question is whose payroll you’re on because payroll determines the industry.”

That means that the path to a journalism job has also become more complicated.

“Ten or so years ago, journalism was a job that was stable and predictable, and it was something you could prepare for and there was a known pathway,” said Chris Daly, a professor in the journalism department at Boston University and author of Covering America, a history of US journalism. “The classic route on the print side was work at a small newspaper, move to a bigger newspaper, then move to the biggest.”

That trajectory has become rare.

Now many of his journalism students “occupy an expanding gray area.” Daly gave examples of jobs that aren’t independent — meaning less likely to investigate their own companies — like a newsletter writer for a hospital or an investigative reporter at an NGO.

“They’re not working for newspapers or TV, but they are still applying the same skills,” Daly said. “These are jobs where you are fact-finding and interviewing — pretty much a journalist.”

LinkedIn’s data includes anyone whose title was journalist — or a wide range of related titles like newsletter editor, news director, reporter — regardless of where they work. Common skills emerging among these journalists include data analysis, digital marketing, and Adobe Premiere and Illustrator.

Obviously, there’s no perfect way to measure an industry in flux, and people’s personal definitions of journalism always vary, but LinkedIn’s new findings suggest that the state of journalism might not be as bleak as some may think.

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