The decision to pursue a career in journalism for young people today comes about for many of the same reasons as ever: uncovering and telling the truth, holding people in power accountable, shining a light where there is none.
Yet for the first generation of aspiring journalists to grow up in the 21st century, the fluid technological landscape that has upended the traditional business model for newspapers and other media outlets is all they’ve ever known.
So this new generation has adapted, and despite being cautioned against pursuing a career in journalism by some of their parents and high school teachers, they have still found ways to catch the so-called journalism bug.
Vincent Moore, a junior journalism major at Keene State College and news editor at the weekly student newspaper, The Equinox, said he first felt it when he began writing for his school newspaper at Hanover High.
Sporting a navy-blue Bitcoin T-shirt and a self-described David Cassidy haircut, the 20-year-old recalled reporting on the malfeasance of his high school’s student council.
“I felt like — even though I was just talking to people and writing things down — I felt, um ...” Moore said before taking a pause. “I felt alive.”
It’s hard to find comprehensive data about the number of journalism majors in the United States beyond a 2013 University of Georgia study that showed a declining interest in the field. However, many top programs release their own numbers, and programs from Northwestern to Columbia to the University of Southern California have all seen increases in applications to their programs in recent years.
Two local undergraduate programs, Keene State College and Franklin Pierce University, have both seen enrollment increases in the past three years.
Hollywood has also played a part, with “Spotlight” and “The Post” having enjoyed success at the box office and at the Oscars. They followed a buzz social science concept known as the “Top Gun Effect” — where a box office hit can have trickle-down effects within the industry it glorifies. The term stems from the 1986 movie starring Tom Cruise; in that case, the Navy saw a 500 percent increase in prospective fighter pilots.
For many Keene State journalism majors, the election of President Donald Trump also played a role, much like former President Richard Nixon did for those who were inspired by “All the President’s Men” in 1976.
“It was probably around my senior year, after Trump got elected, where I was like, I really want to do journalism now,” said Erin McNemer, a sophomore journalism major and The Equinox’s arts & entertainment editor, who is from Ayer, Mass.
Keene State’s journalism program experienced a 51-percent increase in enrollment between 2015 and 2018, with the most significant spike coming between 2015 and 2016.
Franklin Pierce University’s communications program saw a 79-percent increase in communications majors between the fall of 2015 and the fall of 2018, which the university partially attributes to the addition of a sports media concentration in 2016.
According to Chad Nye, chairman of Keene State’s journalism, multimedia and public relations program, Trump was not the only factor in the spike on campus.
The addition of the multimedia concentration in 2015 coincided with a growing awareness of the importance of accurate news, he said from his office at the campus media center.
“I haven’t had anybody run up to me and say, ‘Because of this election, I want to become a journalist,’ but we do have students I think that ... there’s something in the zeitgeist right now, that they realize that, because of what they see out there, that journalism matters,” Nye, who has been with the program for eight years, said.
And that’s probably more on their radar screen than it has been with students in the past, he said.
“At least they understand one of the fundamental principles, that any self-governing society must have information to do so. And I think that there is a specific intent in them to want to be suppliers of that information,” he said.
Rachel Vitello, a junior journalism major from Weymouth, Mass., and the student life editor at The Equinox, got into writing at an early age before being drawn to politics in high school.
She gets frustrated when fellow students, even some of her friends, have no idea what’s going on with current events, or say they just saw something on Facebook without looking into it any further. Since Trump was elected, her freshman year at Keene State, Vitello said her interest in journalism grew precipitously.
For Vitello, there’s no better time to be starting out in the business, which has received what some outlets have coined as the “Trump bump” from spikes in subscriptions and increased ratings for news programming.
“I feel like we’re at the forefront of it,” she said.
Vitello specializes in profiles but cut her teeth at The Equinox writing news stories.
Meanwhile, at Franklin Pierce, an alumni network at ESPN and the addition of a sports media concentration in the communications program has given it a competitive advantage in its growth. “We have seen immediate interest in that program within our Marlin Fitzwater Center for Communications,” said Matthew Barone, a spokesman for Franklin Pierce. “We’ve just completed a short video filmed at ESPN where many of our graduates have gone on to work professionally.”
One of the challenges facing aspiring journalists today is changing preferences for interpersonal communication. Many college and high school students, for example, view a phone call as invasive.
Interviewing someone in person when texting and instant messaging are available is often a hard sell, both for professors like Nye and for editors like Sebastian Mehegan, a senior from Pembroke serving as The Equinox’s executive editor.
“In my opinion, it’s probably the same reason there are so many people with social anxiety these days,” Mehegan said. “It’s all about your social media, things that are like right at your fingertips. You can go online, look up anything, talk to anyone — whatever the hell you wanna do — and you don’t actually have to have that personal, like one-on-one connection with anybody.”
For editors like Mehegan, McNemer and Moore, this hesitancy or even refusal to approach strangers for interviews can prove to be a logistical nightmare when trying to secure somewhere around four to six articles for each section of the weekly paper.
McNemer has found that most of her more prolific writers prefer sticking to reviews of movies and albums, rather than going out and covering a student show or profiling a campus artist.
Moore can often be seen at Keene City Hall, covering business like the City Council’s proposed ordinance to raise the age of tobacco purchasing from 18 to 21, or anywhere else he may be needed if an article falls through.
“You don’t have to put yourself out there in any kind of way, so having people just walk up to like meet and greet brand new people, that they’re going to talk to once, probably never talk to again, it freaks a lot of people out,” the 24-year-old Mehegan said of his late-millennial and Gen Z colleagues.
Nevertheless, Julia Guidi of Shrewsbury, Mass., a first-year writer at The Equinox who plans on double majoring in journalism and theater, finds reporting gives her an opportunity to be more extroverted.
“It probably doesn’t make sense, because I’m majoring in theater and like to be on the stage, but it’s just different,” Guidi said. “Once I started working for The Equinox, it got easier, because you have to email people and set up interviews, and like, you have to talk to them and ask them questions, and you have to incorporate all of that into a story.”
Journalism still never fails to unite curious people, even if it takes stiff-arming the ubiquity of smart phones and social media.
Benajil Rai, for example, is a sophomore journalism major at Keene State from Kathmandu, Nepal. While she prefers working with video instead of writing given that English is not her first language, Rai said her attraction to journalism is the lifestyle, and the almost philosophical nature of the work.
“I think journalism is about endless knowledge,” Rai said. “It gives you a chance to know more about the world than any other profession. ... It’s never monotone. Every day you get to know new things, meet new people, travel — every day will be a new day and exciting.”
Back in the media center office as the sun began to set Friday, Nye rattled off a series of disciplines a reporter could encounter over the span of one day: economics, political science, environmental science, art history, and who knows what else, just from a couple of local stories involving a new show coming to town or a vote on updating the sewer system.
Despite uncertainty with the job market and the future of the profession, Nye said 90 percent of the Keene State program’s alumni say they have put the skills they learned in class to work, even if it’s not for a news publication.
McNemer wants to keep writing and editing arts but said she could also see herself working as a speech writer or communications staffer for progressive candidates like Beto O’Rourke or Elizabeth Warren, should they need one in a New Hampshire primary campaign.
Mehegan would like to be an investigative reporter, but not for a traditional, corporately funded outlet — Vice News or the BBC, for example, instead of The New York Times or CNN — or right in the thick of things at the local level.
Vitello would like to build on her internship with the college’s alumni magazine, moving between narrative pieces and hard news at dream destinations like The Guardian or HuffPost.
Rai said she could easily see herself going back to Nepal to do documentary videos on rural regions that an English-speaking audience may have never heard of, and travel wherever else a good story takes her.
Moore wants to stay in the Granite State if he can, going to somewhere like Berlin to work in radio and podcasting.
While the program teaches students a mix of classic reporting and cutting-edge tech skills, Nye said it also makes the most of a liberal arts education.
“Journalism is liberal arts in action,” Nye said. “... In some ways, I tell our students, you couldn’t be in a better place, because you’re actually in real time putting a broad-based liberal arts education to work every single day you go out to do journalism.”
This article has been changed to correct the spelling of Rachel Vitello's name.