Pay for journalists is going up

Pay for journalists is going up

Colamosca, Anne

What’s Lifting It? Will It Keep Rising? Why Are We Still Playing Catch-Up?

An economic expansion that has lasted an unprecedented eight years. A sharp drop in the unemployment rate that, at least for now, has all but put an end to two decades of falling real incomes. A quadrupling of stock prices since the beginning of the decade. A new technology that speeds the flow of information and boosts productivity. For journalists, this all adds up to the strongest job market in a long, long time. Meaning, for many of us, more jobs to choose from, and increasing pay.

Media heavyweights like The Associated Press, Time Inc., and Gannett are hiring and, in some cases, at salaries that have increased substantially from the mid-1990s. Technology reporters, business reporters, and ,; copy editors are in particularly high demand. The explosion of journalistic Web sites and magazines has created hundreds and hundreds of jobs over the last four years, a few paying more than $50,000 a year for beginners.

Indeed, new media is a driving force. By expanding the num- ber of jobs, new media is beginning to change the supply and demand equation in both new and traditional media. And, the money that is lubricating the journalistic market is both the real kind, produced by profits in the business, and the “funny kind” that results from the great boom that has been lifting prices of Internet stocks. Meanwhile, advertising is on the rise. As the economy stearns along, shortages are appearing in traditional job slots, partly because of the ruthless cost cutting of the early 1990s.

There is no neat, unambiguous source of information about journalists’ salaries or how they compare with pay in other professions. But the data that we do have say that over the past decade – and especially over the past three or four years – the increase in earnings of journalists has outstripped the increase in most other occupations, including the professions.

COMPARED TO WHAT?

By no means are journalists getting rich. Many media companies continue to pay poorly, sometimes despite high profit margins. The absolute dollar gap between the incomes of journalists and people in other elite professions, meanwhile, has actually been growing. The reason is simple: journalistic salary increases are coming off a lower base.

, Top journalism schools — Northwestern, Missouri, Columbia – turn out graduates with salary ranges anywhere from $18,000 (usually at a small newspaper or TV station) to $60,000 (still very unusual). Newly minted MBAs from the most competitive programs are pulling down anywhere from $70,000 to $175,000. Lawyers’ salaries range from $35,000 for public law jobs to more than $100,000 for neophyte big-firm lawyers from top schools.

Also: in the years between the 1973 OPEC oil embargo and the mid1990s, the inflation-adjusted income of the overwhelming majority of Americans — journalists included – declined. When expressed in dollars of constant purchasing power, weekly earnings of the average American worker dropped by nearly 20 percent between 1973 and 1994, according to the 1999

Economic Report of the President. It is against this backdrop that the essentially positive current trends in the relative salaries of journalists must be understood. One place that the bracing news about salaries shows up is in the annual Bureau of Labor Statistics survey, which measures the median worker’s pay in many occupations. For journalism, that median is keyed to “editors and reporters,” and covers people who define themselves as being one or the other. (Presumably, it would exclude the seven-digit Tom Brokaws and Diane Sawyers of the business, and such outsized paychecks wouldn’t much matter anyway in the figuring of a median.)

The BLS data show that over the past ten years, the rise in salaries for editors and reporters has been 46 percent. That exceeds almost every other profession, including architects (41 percent), financial managers (35 percent), accountants and auditors (34 percent), and lawyers (32 percent). Journalists’ wage increases have even beaten out those of computer specialists (40 percent).

From 1994, when stagnation in U.S. real wages came to an end, through 1998, journalists’ salaries rose 17 percent, versus 11 percent for the total workforce. In this period, journalists beat out accountants and auditors (8 percent), computer specialists (12 percent), and lawyers (8 percent), but not architects (24 percent) and financial managers (18 percent). Median weekly wages for editors and reporters climbed from $614 in 1994 to $723 in 1998.

SUPPLY AND DEMAND

The BLS data are confirmed by other systematic studies, such as the Annual Survey of Journalism & Mass Communication by the University of Georgia Journalism School. It shows that 1997 graduates with a bachelor’s degree in journalism and who went into journalism had a higher rate of full-time employment than at any time since 1986. And that both full-time and part-time journalism jobholders were more likely than in recent years to report that their positions are permanent, not temporary. The survey found that the best-paying jobs went to graduates hired by magazines, newsletters, trade publications, and on-line publishers. It also found that the median starting salary of journalists with a bachelor’s degree in journalism in 1997 was $23,000. Not surprisingly, the median new media salary exceeded that by $4,320, or $27,320 for new graduates. For journalists with a master’s degree, the median starting salary jumped considerably, to $28,500.

One striking trend in the survey: salaries for people going into journalism increased faster than those in advertising and public relations, where pay had long been higher than in journalism. In both those fields, starting salaries remained basically unchanged from a year earlier – just above $23,000 for public relations and just under $22,000 for advertising. According to the Georgia survey, journalists also reported receiving better benefit packages than they had at any time since 1992.

George Kennedy, a University of Missouri journalism professor, says, “There have been no people in recent classes who wanted a newspaper job who couldn’t find it.” Demand is exceptionally strong for copy editors, he says, and this traditional job category enjoyed larger than usual wage gains in the spring of 1999, a show of strength at the foundations that surely reflects the thriving economy

GRAINS OF SALT

Newspaper Guild data show a broadly similar picture. Between 1991 and 1999, the average guild top minimum salary (usually reached after five or six years) increased by 18.38 percent – from $668.18 per week to $791.05. The rate of increase in those years averaged 2.41 percent. But, only 111 newspapers belong to the guild. Figures on guild salaries are skewed toward the biggest and strongest newspapers, which tend to be organized into the union.

Some people familiar with the history of The Newspaper Guild stress that recent increases must be taken with a grain of salt. They argue that the gains since 1995 merely represent a partial and inadequate catch-up from the damage done to journalists’ wages in the 1970s, 1980s, and early 1990s. Howard Stanger, a professor of labor relations at Buffalo State University, has studied guild contracts back to 1977. He points out that between 1977 and 1995, the median top minimum salary for guild reporters – when adjusted for inflation declined by 14 percent. That means that the 2.7 percent average yearly gain in top minimums (unadjusted for inflation in the years since 1995) still leaves the average guild reporter with a lot of catching up to do.

At Newsday, one of the best paying dailies, the top minimum for reporters and editors in the bargaining unit rose 28 percent between April 1989 and April 1999 – from $1,102 a week to $1,415. But the cost of living in the metropolitan New York area, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, rose 36 percent, leaving Newsday employees 8 percentage points behind for the decade. Newsday’s employees are represented by the Graphic Communications International Union.

The late 1970s and the 1980s were unquestionably tough years. Real wages were under pressure despite the high-flying stock market of the 1980s, and the newsroom was affected by the same trends that kept wages down and union organizers at bay all over the economy. Even at strong, profitable organizations, cuts were made to preserve – or enlarge profits. There were downsizings based on so-called performance-based dismissals. More and more journalists were critiqued by corporate human resource departments, which were charged with quantifying editorial productivity, using modern versions of time and motion studies. The recent strong demand for journalists has somewhat blunted it, but this cost-saving mentality has by no means vanished. Should the economy falter, the axes will be out again.

A major exception to the general good news: small newspapers and television and radio stations are not fully participating in the upward wage trend. “Many jobs there still start at salaries under $20,000 a year,” says Abe Peck, associate dean of Northwestern’s J-school. “This makes employers there much less competitive in the current overall job market than they have been in the past.” (See “Who’s Left Out,” page 29.)

Small-market TV has lagged terribly “Working in television news has become too popular for the good of entry-level pay,” says University of Missouri professor emeritus Vernon Stone, who has been conducting surveys of television salaries for many years. Stone notes that the gap between entry-level TV journalism jobs and newspaper journalism jobs was still the same inflationadjusted 12 percent in 1996 as it was in 1989 – with the newspapers on top.

Yet overall, television news salaries were up 4.1 percent in 1998 over 1997, for an inflation-adjusted gain of 2.5 percent, according to a survey by the RadioTelevision News Directors Association and Ball State University The median news reporter in the top twenty-five markets earned $61,000 last year, dropping to $35,000 in the second-tier of twenty five markets. The medians ranged from $17,000 to $25,500 in the remaining markets. News director medians in the same three categories were $115,000, $82,000, and from $41,000 to $68,000.

THE FORCES AT WORK

New forces propelling the economy are carrying the newsroom in their wake. Journalism is benefiting from a kinetic mixture of money and technology.

The recent Internet stock boom has made it easy to raise money for new online ventures, including journalistic ventures. Though newspaper stocks, perhaps partly because of the fear that the Internet will cut into classified advertising, have lagged behind the S&P 500 somewhat over the past three years, a number of media stocks have surged. Adjusted for stock splits, from the end of June 1996 to the end of May 1999 the stock of Time Warner has increased 247 percent; McGraw-Hill by 127 percent; Gannett by 104 percent.

The growing perception that news is now an ingredient of the Internet has changed the calculation that goes into investment decisions. Established companies are willing to invest in online ventures in order to compete. Media companies are born and go up on the Web. Internet portals suddenly bet that an investment in news will eventually pay off; Netscape, recently bought by America Online, now perceives news as part of its basic service, as do other major Internet portals like Yahoo, Lycos, and Excite. Even outfits like broker Charles Schwab are starting financial news and information services and hiring journalists to run them.

Internet dreams are keeping investments in new online products high, even though the vast majority of journalistic ventures on the net are still money losers – largely big money losers, as are most other enterprises in the dot com world. It remains very much to be seen who will survive the shakeout that will inevitably follow the boom. But no matter how the great race ends, the effects on the entire journalistic workplace will be profound.

RIDING THE WAVE

The managing editor of a major magazine’s Web site is a little in awe of what he is paying these days. “We have a twenty-five-year-old working for us who did several summer internships and learned all about computer programming and graphics design — literally the whole production side of what it takes to run an online publication. He also understands editing copy. Today, three years out of college, he is making $72,000.”

A business magazine offered an $80,000 job to a thirtyish reporter working for The Street.com, the online service focusing on markets and investments. But the publication was turned down – at least partly because, the editor says, the reporter was expecting to benefit from stock options that he would be awarded in the company’s initial public offering in early May. Stories like this are still fairly rare, but they fire up the imaginations of those contemplating jobs in new media.

Steven Ross, a Columbia journalism professor, cautions that many online jobs at newspapers remain low paid and dreary. (About half of Columbia’s 240 graduating journalists planned to pursue newspaper jobs, the traditional entry into the profession, with most of the rest split between broadcast and magazines.)

Meanwhile, the epicenter of the information revolution – high tech itself has created one of the biggest beats and hottest job markets in journalism. Silicon Valley — growth engine of the ’90s economy – has created a cadre of increasingly high-paid reporters. Peter B. Hillan, executive business editor at the San Jose Mercury News, usually has twenty to twenty-five reporters covering the industry, and he has some trouble keeping them. “One of the hardest parts of my job,” he says, “is continuing to find reporters with strong technology backgrounds. I often hire from industry trade newspapers and then work on their writing skills.”

Hillan says his staff is constantly raided by the likes of Fortune, Business Week, and The Wall Street Journal. Most recently Women.com, an online news operation, hired away a Mercury News reporter by putting together a compensation package “including stock options,” adds Hillan. He recently lost another employee, Adam Lashinsky, a high-tech stock columnist at the Mercury News who was offered a column with TheStreet.com. Lashinsky got pre-IPO stock options just days before TheStreet.com went public in early May. “Obviously, there was no way I could come up with a counter offer,” laughs Hillan. “Adam had high name recognition and they really wanted him. It was a terrific deal for him.”

Raiding, of course, is not confined to business reporting. “Our problem is that we are being raided more often now by companies like Conde Nast and Hearst than we have been in a long time,” says Henry Muller, editorial director of Time Inc. “People who tend towards the high end of our salary scale, but not the very top, are being offered jobs – assistant art directors, writers, assistant managing editors — people from all of our magazines. For each offer, I have to come up with some response. I am spending much more time dealing with issues of how to compensate people than I have in the six years I’ve had this job.”

A RISING TIDE

The robust economy, meanwhile, has led to a flood of advertising dollars, making media companies better able to afford higher paychecks. According to Competitive Media Reporting, total ad spending jumped by 8 percent last year and has risen 32 percent since 1995. That is far faster than the growth rate of the economy as a whole (gross domestic product increased 4.9 percent last year and 17.1 percent since 1995).

The big winners: cable television networks, where ad revenues rose 95 percent since 1995, to $6.7 billion; and newspapers, which enjoyed a 27 percent rise, to $17 billion.

Internet advertising rose 89 percent in 1998, but the 1998 total was only $1.03 billion. Total advertising spending on other media was $77.6 billion. Yet in its impact on the job market, new media surely is a tail that wags the dog.

PAYCHECK CONVERGENCE?

Some melding of new media and traditional media is inevitable, and this will reverberate on the job and in the paycheck. An increasing number of journalists are already moving more easily among new journalism’s fresh and various branches — online operations run by traditional media companies, editorial operations run by large high-tech companies, independent editorial Web sites. “Our graduates are being hired into a multi-tasked environment right now,” says Northwestern’s Peck.

Peck sees “the speed culture of the Internet” at work. “Not only do new journalists do several kinds of jobs at a time,” he says, “they also change jobs at a much faster rate than they used to.” He cites a grad who has taken progressively better jobs and pay by working at five different outlets – just since 1993.

There are a few signs that some new media and old media wages are beginning to converge. The Associated Press, which has always helped set standards in the journalism business, has had the same wage rates for online and traditional reporting staffs since 1996, when its online operation began. The AP pays $539 a week to start, rising to $904 after six years. At Northwestern, Peck reports that median salaries of 1997 master’s degree graduates after one year in the work force were $33,280 for online journalists and $32,000 for magazine journalists, clearly a close match. But newspaper reporters averaged only $26,000.

WHAT IF THE BUBBLE BURSTS?

The job market is buoyant now. But what about when the next recession arrives? “The fate of new media may depend on how long the economy remains as good as it is today,” says Gene Roberts, the former New York Times managing editor who is now teaching at the University of Maryland.

“You can have all the hits in the world on your site, but if they don’t show up in real profits, the site won’t last,” he adds. “Newspapers are hedging their bets by continuing to run online news coverage so that if classified advertising does move to the Net, as people fear it could, it might move to their own net divisions. No one is really sure what is going to happen.”

The big “brand names” in journalism have sunk hundreds of millions into online divisions, but most have not even begun to break even. If the stock market dives or if the economy slows drastically over the next year, and if corporations then decide they can no longer support money-losers, a lot of people could lose their jobs. On the other hand, says a high-level editor of a major online news operation: if the Net has another two to three years to develop and grow as a news medium, “I think it could make back a lot of what has been sunk into it. If that happens, salaries could continue to go up.”

The online universe has never been through a major media advertising slump, and if that happens it could be very hard, says the editor. “It is a pressure-laden field, which changes dramatically in a short window of time.”

CAN THE UNIONS GO DIGITAL?

Given the changing conditions of the new journalistic workplace, the future of newsroom unions is very much up in the air. Long hours, more stress, evolving technology, and perhaps most important, the convergence of multimedia companies, create major challenges – and perhaps major opportunities – for newsroom unionism.

About 40 percent of big city newspapers and less than 20 percent of small papers are organized by The Newspaper Guild. As in other service industries — education, for example — there is serious pressure to convert salary scales from seniority to merit pay.

“Newspaper management would like to totally control the amount of all raises every time a new contract is signed,” says labor economist Stanger, “and make all raises dependent on merit, which management would decide unilaterally.” The guild, he notes, is not totally opposed to merit pay, but it wants some voice in how that would be determined.

TALKING MONEY

It seems that journalists talk more about money these days than in the past. But veterans say they see no decline in the passion for reporting, writing, and truth that has always characterized the business. They also see no lack of talented twenty-somethings trying to get journalism jobs despite the growing disparity between starting salaries for journalists and their counterparts – investment bankers, lawyers, management consultants, and high-end computer people.

CNN commentator Myron Kandel, who cut his teeth on the old New York Herald Tribune, where he was financial editor, and who was a pioneer at CNN, is among those who discern no real change in the ethos. And he approves: “They keep coming and I don’t notice any difference between the current crop and those who came before them over the last thirtyfive years. Of course, now you have much larger numbers of talented women coming into the journalistic workplace than you did years ago. But I don’t see this generation of journalists as different in any other important way. We still do it for the love of the business.”

THE FIGURES IN THE SALARY BOXES ON THE PAGES THAT FOLLOW WERE COMPILED FROM INTERVIEWS WITH REPORTERS, EDITORS, AND OTHER INDUSTRY EMPLOYEES AND EXPERTS.

Anne Colamosca, a former staff writer for Business Week, is the co-author, with William Wolman, of The Judas Economy: The Triumph of Capital and the Betrayal of Work She has written for a number of national publications.

Copyright Columbia University, Graduate School of Journalism Jul/Aug 1999

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