Invest In Your Newsroom Employees — Or Risk The Consequences
Northwestern University, not far from where I live, turns out hundreds of graduates from its Medill School of Journalism every year. Even with a bachelor’s degree or Master of Science in journalism from this top-rated university, most of its graduates have to start at the bottom. Like all of their peers, most begin their careers working in a smaller market as they gain experience and possibly look to being offered a job in a major metropolitan area. According to hiring site Indeed.com, the current average salary for a journalist in the United States is $48,073.
That salary may sound decent, but remember it’s the average, and fresh-out-of-school broadcast and newspapers reporters can expect much lower starting pay, depending on who they work for and where they’re located. As these journalists watch their friends and colleagues jump to related fields like public relations, marketing and streaming content production, they are likely asking themselves why they are settling for so little pay.
Mike Cavender, executive director emeritus of the Radio Television Digital News Association, provides insight and recommendations in his article “Bright Journalists, Dim Prospects?” in the current issue of TFM, the magazine for members of the Media Financial Management Association. Cavender walks us through some history on journalists’ pay and benefits, their current plight — which isn’t just around money — and what TV and radio stations and newspaper agencies can do to ensure their high-quality journalists will stick around to provide the content that keeps these companies competitive and profitable.
Cavender illustrates the current scenario by describing “Mary,” a fictional 25-year-old college journalism graduate with four years’ experience in television news as an MMJ (multimedia journalist). She’s in her second job in a small market TV station, where she does it all — from toting and operating her own camera gear, setting up her own live shots, and writing, editing and voicing her stories. She also files separate articles for the station’s website and its social media pages — often six to eight stories a day.
For this sizable workload she earns about $38,000 a year, which online salary site Payscale says is about average for a TV or newspaper reporter in a smaller market. Mary has decided to look for another job. Between inflation, a booming job market, her increased rent and knowing some of her fellow grads are making considerably more money for less work in PR, marketing and online content development, Mary won’t have to look too long or too far to land a better-paying position.
Cavender reminds us it wasn’t long ago that the situation was nearly the opposite: thousands of eager journalists were graduating from college each year, looking to land their first TV or newspaper gig, which allowed employers to keep salaries low and exploit their talent and energy. The best of these rookies would eventually find higher profile jobs in larger cities gaining prestige and larger paychecks. In more recent years, however, a huge array of new, digital and streaming news sites — Substack is a good example — have lured some of the brightest stars from traditional outlets.
What are legacy broadcasters and newspapers to do to keep their stellar journalists on board and continuing to produce content that keeps viewers and readers engaged and advertising dollars flowing? First, it’s critical to view these reporters as your “foot soldiers” for whom you’re responsible to attract and maintain. Cavender mentions another piece of the puzzle, which is of growing concern.
Possibly due to the increase in the polarization in the country, there’s been a notable and alarming uptick in physical attacks on reporters. Cavender cites the U.S. Press Freedom Tracker, which states there have been 615 documented physical assaults on journalists since 2020 — a 600% increase over the previous three years. And these were just the assaults caught on camera, the organization says. While there’s a new federal statute making it a criminal offense to use threats or force in order to obstruct journalists doing their work, it hasn’t yet been put into law.
A related concern is around multimedia journalists who work alone or in small groups and are targets for equipment theft. It has become so bad in cities like Oakland, Calif., that TV stations regularly hire security guards to protect news crews — and even some of guards have been attacked. Most journalists are in the business because they believe their work makes their communities a better place. It’s hard to carry out this mantra without feeling safe.
All of these issues mean news organizations have been tasked with creating a greater sense of loyalty from their staff to keep them, and to keep them committed to their craft. Cavender believes some simple but proven tactics can go far in assuring journalists they’re valued by their employers.
First, he says, surveys of many work groups show time and time again that employees want to have their ideas and opinions heard and considered. Do they have that opportunity in your newsroom? Are they being treated by newsroom and station management as valuable employees who have a real stake in your organizations’ success?
Second is training opportunities. Being able to learn and grow by attending professional conferences or through in-station training sessions can both lift morale and demonstrate management’s willingness to invest in their employees. Minimal-cost perks such as these result in benefits both now and in the future. Smart, progressive news organizations are even creating their own in-house training academies, in which they can “grow their own” staff members to step into more advanced newsroom positions.
And that last — though likely most obvious — recommendation is to take a hard look at whether you’re compensating your journalists fairly, via salary and benefits packages. While most of us still maintain a “show me the money” mentality, reporters perhaps more than other type of professionals need to see your value of them expressed through a full complement of competitive pay, training opportunities and respect of their ideas and contributions.
Newsrooms can only expect more competition from new and more daring types of newsgathering organizations. You’d be wise to double down on demonstrating how much you value your journalists’ work and commitment to avoid having them take their talents elsewhere.
Joe Annotti is president and CEO of the Media Financial Management Association and its BCCA subsidiary, the media industry’s credit association. He can be reached at [email protected] and via the association’s LinkedIn, Facebook, Instagram and Twitter accounts.