October 20, 2003

Journalists overpaid? Nonsense!

Gerald Boyd, who was unseated as managing editor of the New York Times by Jayson Blair and has spent his time since then preaching a penitential sermon of the need for newspaper credibility, told editors at the APME convention that journalists are "losing touch with real people" because they of their better-than-average salaries.


There are many reasons newsrooms have disconnected from the communities they cover, but overly fat paychecks is not one of them.

Talk about out of touch. It's Boyd who needs to find a new salary reality.

I don't know what he made as M.E. at the Times, but it was plenty. According to a Brill's Content survey in 1999, Publisher Arthur Sulzberger was paid more than $1 million and the executive editor (then Joe Lelyveld) about half of that. The M.E., I'm sure, made at least half the exec's salary, putting Boyd's top-line at, estimating on the low side, $250.000 a year, just under $5,000 a week.

Let's compare.

The median reporter's salary in the United States in 2000 was $31,256, according to the Census Bureau, meaning half of the 55,000 journalists in America's newsroom made more and half made less.

Among the better earners are Times reporters and editors, who, under their Newspaper Guild contract are paid a top minimum of $1,445.17 week, about $75,000 a year. Not bad. It's certainly better than the median U.S. household income of $42,409, but only a couple of other papers on the Guild's list even come within $10,000 a year of the Times' salaries.

Most reporters - even those with union contracts - earn much, much less, with some approaching the poverty line. The Utica Observer-Dispatch, just a Hudson River ride upstate from the Times newsroom on 43rd Street, pays its journalists a top minimum of $387.50 a week, $20,150 a year.

That's not even the bottom. When I did a story for the American Journalism Review earlier this year, I found papers in California regularly offering starting salaries of $10 an hour, with more a few paying $9 - what you can make frothing cappucinos at Starbucks in San Francisco and only 50 cents an hour more than what Wal-Mart pays its Superstore employees.

I'm not against Boyd or anybody else making as much as they can in journalism, but to suggest that high salaries are behind the newspapers' credibility or circulation woes is foolish. (That category includes reasons such as arrogance, devotion to routine, adversity to risk, hidebound hierarchical structures, lack of diversity, lack of language skills to speak to the new communities, technical rigidity, among others.)

Journalists are woefully underpaid. Financially, the profession cannot attract or retain the brightest university graduates. The average starting salary for a new J-school grad is $26,000, according to the annual survey done by the University of Georgia's Grady Collegr. Even the true believers, those motivated by the higher principles of journalism, are too often forced out by paychecks that can't be stretched to meet costs of living in our nation's pricier cities.

In small towns, it's worse. Reporters spend half their take home on rent. Editors live with their parents. Some live in San Francisco, 60 miles from where they work, because their paper's family-oriented bedroom community has no affordable apartments.

Orville Schell, the dean of the journalism school at UC-Berkeley, captured the dilemma when I interviewed him for the AJR story.

Journalism is fortunate, said Schell, because "it selects those who cannot but be writers and journalists. It means you get a level of commitment and dedication that is quite unusual in many other professions. But you can only abuse people so much. They have families, children and student loans and lives to lead. We are not monks."

Sit down, Gerald Boyd. How can you talk about credibility when you make such incredible statements?

(Thanks to Tom Mangan for the pointer to Boyd.)

 Arizona Republic News editors take notes on fixing credibility

Posted by Tim Porter at October 20, 2003 09:48 AM

Three words:


Posted by: Antie on October 22, 2003 10:57 AM

One thing news companies fail to grasp -- or, perhaps, in Machiavellian fashion, they grasp it all too well -- is that keeping pay so low hampers efforts to diversfy staff along lines of race, sex and socioeconomic background. The only people who can afford to go into the business are the people who 1) are getting financial help from the family and/or 2) do not have huge student loans to pay off upon graduation (minorities make up a disproportionate percentage of the poor, of course, and since the early 1980s, the bulk of college financial aid has moved from grants to loans).

Another thing is this: The just flat pure smart people aren't going into journalism. Compared with the immediate post-Watergate era, the people the industry is getting aren't the stars anymore. That has troubling long-term implications for the industry.

Posted by: Lex on October 23, 2003 06:56 AM

I don't think it's the pay but it's the whole notion that journalism is a profession that hastened the disconnect. Orville is so out of it he may as well be comatose. Journalism is a job--one that requires skill, but it's a job. Not a profession, not a calling (you can tell yourself that, but get real, bub), not a vocation. It's a job. Fun job, engaging job, absorbing job, but just a gig.

Posted by: Kate on October 26, 2003 08:50 PM

I would like to see more statistics here. For instance, you say that a "starting salary" of $10 an hour is offered in Utica. But what's the salary of someone who's been there for a few years?

Better yet, what's the comparison of salaries to years service? You mention the median salary of all journalists, but what's the median number of years in journalism for all those people?

Most beginning journalists do start out at small papers that don't pay much, but they don't stay there. If they're any good, they move up the ladder to larger papers with better circulation, or they get promoted.

None of this is to excuse the sorry pay scale, but let's face facts: journalism is not an income-generating activity. It is an expense.

In four years of editing a weekly newspaper, my reporting and editing never made a dime for the paper. But I was the highest paid staff member. Compare that with most other fields where people start out making more money: business students, for instance. They are managing money, making sales, etc. Accountants save money in taxes and keep the money flowing. People in medical fields are most often seeing patients (which results in billing - income). Even students who go into public relations can make a case that they are increasing the bottom line for their company.

Sure journalists keep readers coming back to the paper, but it's not as obvious.

If you want to compare journalists to an equivalent field, you'd have to look at education, where teachers are an expense.

Kate: the old tack that "journalism is a gig" is no longer accurate. Journalists who are worth their salt need skills that are more aligned with a profession than a "job." Studying school budgets, knowing what to look for in an IRS 990, when poll numbers are misleading, and where to dig for demographic data is more than would be required, say, to turn brake pads at a production facility, or serve up cafe lattes at starbucks.

Posted by: b.murley on December 17, 2003 08:50 PM

I think Journalism is cool . I think they get paid enough .
to sum it up their life is cool ,they get to interveiw people,travel and do exciting things and thats the job for me.
well g2g
love ya guys
email me with more info on journalism.

Posted by: Brianne Taggart on February 11, 2004 12:55 PM
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