You Have To Pay For Talent…Or Do You?
Fourth in a series of occasional essays on the current state of local news in the U.S.
There weren’t many openings for reporters when I graduated from college, and that’s how I found myself interviewing for a position at a newspaper in Berlin, NH in the summer of 1996.
That summer I scoured Editor & Publisher’s classifieds and sent packages of clips to every corner of the country, as well as a few corners in other countries. I didn’t get many nibbles, so I jumped at the chance to spend a day driving to Berlin, the northernmost city in the Granite State, population 11,050. Beyond the chance to work as a general assignment reporter for a five-day-a-week paper, there was something about living and working in a small, North Country town that appealed to the younger version of me.
I don’t remember much about my interview, other than it went well enough that the editor made me an offer on the spot at the end of our talk.
“Unfortunately, we don’t currently offer any benefits,” she said. “But we can start you at $8.50 per hour.”
Adjusted for inflation, that’s about $16 per hour, or $33,000 annually in 2022 dollars. As I drove out of town, I passed a McDonald’s with a big sign out front: “NOW HIRING: $8.50/hour + BENEFITS.”
Low pay has been synonymous with journalism for my entire career. For most of the past 15 years I have worked as an adjunct college instructor which, in most semesters, meant I’ve worked the equivalent of more than two full-time jobs to afford to live in greater Boston. Before that, I had to supplement my income with a steady stream of freelance work. Some of the best work in the business is subsidized by the spouses, the parents and the side hustles of reporters trying to make ends meet.
Retaining talent with livable wages is one of those problems people in the industry like to blame on “the Internet,” but the Internet only escalated a problem that has its roots in the 1970s. There’s an argument to be made that we should blame our low pay on two of the most famous reporters in the business: Bob Woodward as portrayed by Robert Redford and Carl Bernstein as portrayed by Dustin Hoffman.
Watergate, the scandal, may have been journalism’s greatest moment, but Watergate, the movie, may have been it’s greatest turning point. “All The President’s Men” did a great job of showing the profession at its very best, making the work seem like cloak-and-dagger spy shit, and it unleashed a flood of applications to journalism schools. And that meant newspapers and TV newsrooms had their pick of smart, hardworking people who wanted to work their way up the ranks and take their shot at bringing down a corrupt President. That drove down salaries, especially for the reporters working on the lowest rungs of the profession.
As late as the mid-2000s there was a mentality at a lot of newspapers that we were “lucky” to be among the few who had gotten jobs in the profession. Our talent and experience, we were led to believe, had nothing to do with our good fortune. The mentality was, “We don’t care if you don’t like 50-hour workweeks, mandatory weekend and holiday shifts, demeaning managers and a toxic workplace. We’ll just hire a kid out of j-school for half your salary who will work twice as hard.”
There’s a reason why I used to ask students in a communications department where I taught who said they wanted to work in journalism why they wanted to grow up to be divorced alcoholics. I also used to suggest they take a good bartending class to supplement their Intro To Journalism and Newswriting classes because, by the 2010s, they were not only competing with grads from “better” schools with dedicated journalism programs, but experienced, mid-career journalists who had been downsized.
The rise of the Internet, circa 1996-present, drove salaries down further by stealing advertising and building a perception that news is free, but its biggest blow may have been forcing papers to eliminate positions. It accelerated the brain drain from the profession: at one point, someone who went back to get a master’s degree after a few years in journalism may have been doing so to make themselves more attractive to bigger, better-paying news outlets. These days, when someone tells me they’re applying to grad school, I just assume they’re looking to get out of the profession altogether.
The low pay is the hardest on news outlets focused on local news, which I believe is the most important kind of news in our current political climate. Most local news outlets are seen as a place to start — not make — your career. At Patch, we’re fortunate to have a good mix of newer and experienced journalists, and most of the local editors at Patch make a salary that is competitive by industry standards. But even our most experienced journalists are making less than the $55,260 starting salary this year’s college graduates received, on average, as entry-level employees.
This spring, three of the 10 members on the team I manage at Patch left for new jobs: one took a $10,000 pay raise to do a similar job for a Boston television station’s news department, one took a job presumably offering more pay and more prestige at the Boston Globe, and the last took the all too common route of leaving the profession entirely. And while the two that remain in the profession are still doing great work, it’s not the nitty-gritty work of being the watchdog of the local governments that have the biggest impact on people’s day-to-day lives.
Earlier this month, I had an informal, preliminary interview to be editor-in-chief of a startup, nonprofit newspaper in an affluent Boston suburb. I’m mostly happy in my current role at Patch, but I’m also happy to listen. I was particularly interested in learning more about the nonprofit model that is being tried in several places labeled as news deserts. In this case, corporate ownership had decimated the local weekly newspaper to the point where several big issues had gone uncovered, so a group of civic-minded residents formed a nonprofit to start a free, weekly newspaper and online news site they hope to launch this fall.
The job description for the editor-in-chief position they were looking to fill was more like a hybrid between publisher of a newspaper and executive director at a nonprofit. I was intrigued after the informal talk and wanted to learn more, so I agreed to a first-round interview with the nonprofit’s full board. But in between the informal and formal interview, one of the board members accidentally texted me the offer they were going to make to whoever they chose after the interview process: $50,000 per year in a town where the median income is $160,392. They wanted me to build their newspaper, but they did not want me be their neighbor.
I backed out of the formal interview. I’ll continue at Patch, where I’m well paid….for a journalist.