The Pulitzer Prize is the ultimate accolade of American journalism, the mark of the best of the best, or perhaps, the culmination of a lifetime of effort in the field. A few publications win more than their fair share–the Boston Globe, the New York Times–establishing themselves as publications of note. A handful of journalists have also won more than one Pulitzer. The announcement of this year’s winners, however, demonstrated a bitter reality: More and more journalists are leaving the profession for jobs with more stable hours or higher paychecks.
Ryan Kelly, the winner of a Pulitzer Prize for his photograph of the moment when a car struck a group of protestors at a white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, VA, is perhaps one of the most striking examples of the trend. Kelly snapped the photograph on his last day working as a staff photographer for the The Daily Progress in Charlottesville, Virginia.
“Even though I love journalism and I love the newspaper, after four years I was just burning out on the bad hours, low pay, high stress,” said Kelly in a later interview. “Lots of nights and weekends. I wasn’t seeing a lot of my wife. I started looking for other job opportunities and found one in a different town outside of journalism.”
The feeling of divided loyalties between the lofty goals or journalism and the difficult realities of day to day work in the field are increasingly pulling talent towards related fields. That Pulitzer-Prize winners are part of the trend only shows how much it has accelerated in the past decade.
Even in the past ten years, Pulitzer Prizes clustered around a handful of major newspapers: the New York Times, the Boston Globe, the Baltimore Sun, and others. Each year, prizes are awarded for a broad swath of journalistic endeavors, ranging from photography to feature writing, national journalism, and editorial writing. Many of these subsections of journalism continue to reward experience and established publications.
However, in areas like public service journalism, investigative journalism, breaking news photography, and local reporting, journalists are increasingly leaving the profession, even after being awarded some of journalism’s highest honors.
According to Bureau of Labor Statistics figures, the median salary for people working in the “newspaper, periodical, book, and director” fields is just shy of $44,000. Meanwhile, those working in public or media relations earn a median salary of just over $53,000. Particularly as reporting jobs are increasingly centered in cities on the eastern seaboard with a relatively high cost of living, the ability to make ends meet on a journalist’s salary is difficult. As a result, more and more people are choosing to leave journalism in search of higher paychecks in fields like media relations or public relations.
The trend is particularly noticeable in the fields of investigative, local, and public service journalism. Whereas no winner of a Pulitzer Prize in international reporting has left journalism in the past decade, award winners in these other fields have left for better-paying positions in public or media relations with greater frequency.
In 2015, Rob Kuzina left the Daily Breeze of Torrance, CA after winning a Pulitzer Prize for his reporting on corruption in a local school district. Kuzina took a job at USC’s Shoah Foundation, a group which focuses on spreading awareness of the Holocaust. For Kuzina, the switch away from journalism came with a significant pay raise: around 25 percent.
The same year Natalie Caula Hauff won a Pulitzer Prize as part of a team reporting on domestic violence in South Carolina. By the time the prize was awarded, she had also left for greener pastures.
At the end of the day, there are only around a dozen journalists and photographers awarded Pulitzer Prizes each year. None of the observable trends can be described as mass exodus away from the field. At the same time, that journalists who had literally just won the highest accolade their field can offer would choose to leave the profession demonstrates that journalism is struggling.
Students continue to be interested in journalism careers, say those involved in helping to place current students in fellowships and internships. At the same time, many of them are more pragmatic about the odds of a lifelong career in journalism, seeing it instead as a field that could provide a stepping stone to other career options.
“I think most of the students I interact with recognize the fact that working at one major daily for forty-plus years is something that’s not likely with layoffs and corporate restructuring becoming the norm with most papers,” says Jacob Lane, managing director of the Collegiate Network, a group which sponsors fellowships and internships for young journalists.
“In the end, I think many students still want and desire an actual career in journalism, but realize that they might have to take several detours throughout their life in careers outside of journalism if they’re going to survive in the 21st century job market,” he continued.
The same sentiments were echoed by Joseph Starrs, director of the Institute on Political Journalism at the Fund for American Studies. Starrs, who worked in radio and print journalism before his current position, sees the shift as an unfortunate sign of the times.
“So many news outlets aren’t wanting to pay the salaries that older journalists are looking for,” he said. “PR is a natural segue.”
“Right now journalism is a young person’s profession. The older people who remain are trying to decide what to do in lieu of taking the position of the ink-stained editor in the corner,” he continued.
In part, the talent shift from journalism to public relations shows the breakdown of a sharp line between the two professions. Increasingly, PR positions, particularly around Washington, D.C., allow writers an opportunity to write more in-depth or nuanced pieces, while still earning higher salaries or better benefits than they would have at a traditional publication.
Especially as smaller city papers struggle to survive, the trend of reporters leaving for greener pastures is, sadly, likely to only continue.