TV Newsrooms, It’s Time To Pay Up

TV journalists shouldn’t be forced to choose between their passion for storytelling and their need to support themselves and their families. The industry’s leaders need to step up to the challenge of improving their pay.

Emily Barr

In the wake of the raid on the Marion County Kansas Record, much has been written about the First Amendment and its protection of a free press. Correctly so, as a sharp line has been drawn between freedom of the press and our democracy. Journalists and free press advocates have argued eloquently that our democracy will not survive without a strong, independent journalistic ecosystem to hold the powerful to account and shine a bright light on those who govern and lead. This is not easy work.

Asking tough questions, digging for information, researching, writing and reporting takes time, skill and stamina, and no one is expected to do this for free. Adding to this pressure, we have seen local television stations add hours of live, local news to their program schedules while barely adding staff. The result has often been an endless wheel of repetition that has helped drive audiences away and made it harder to generate advertising income in the process. Cord cutting and a disaggregated viewer base are only making things worse.

For too long, we have been told that the general public does not want to hear “complicated” stories and is tired of “bad news.” Yet were it not for nuanced stories and investigations, we might never know about lead-tainted water in Flint, Mich., or PFAS poisoning the food supply in rural Maine. We might fail to understand the implications of a re-districting plan that could very well eliminate the votes of thousands in a single county and the ripple effect that might have as it spreads, unchecked, across the country.

Caught in the middle of all of this are the journalists and videographers, producers and directors who are often underpaid and forced to choose between their passion for storytelling and their need to support themselves and their families.

Television news has always existed under a bit of two-tiered pay scale. On-air anchors and perhaps, the most seasoned and valued reporters have generally been paid well for their work. Top 25 markets have been known to pay their main anchors handsomely and union representation has, in some cases, allowed for a more-than-respectable rate of pay for most of a newsroom’s staff.


But go beyond the big cities and you might discover salaries that are the equivalent of minimum-wage positions found in a fast-food restaurant. It is no wonder that a recent RTDNA-Newhouse School survey shows that for the second year in a row, overall industry salary increases failed to keep up with inflation, dropping a cumulative 8.3% in real wages. This is bad news for budding journalists and is making life difficult for over-burdened news directors looking for new hires.

Years ago, I received a call from a young reporter who wanted some advice. He was working in a mid-size market under a contract but had recently taken a second job on the weekends just to make ends meet. After re-signing another two-year deal, he finally threw in the towel and took a job outside of journalism because he simply could not make it work. Just when he had gained some experience as a working journalist, he quit. What a shame.

Responsible broadcasters are trying to find ways to improve their overall benefits packages and some have created programs to help employees pay back their student loans or provide assistance with securing housing. These are great efforts, but they cannot replace the need for a living wage.

It is incumbent upon the owners of these companies that they consider the welfare of their employees and the impact their wage scales are having on both the organization and the individual employee, not to mention the viewers/users who rely on these newscasts and online feeds for vital information and perspective.

With rare exceptions, change cannot be implemented at the station level but must be tackled, head-on, by the corporate or group heads charged with defining their companies and delivering the bottom line to their owners. If they are serious about journalism, they need to own up to this challenge.

I am well aware of the pressure being exerted by corporate owners, many of whom are publicly traded and have a fiduciary responsibility to their shareholders to provide as much as a return as possible. But these owners also have a responsibility to their employees who sometimes find themselves in a financial bind.

In addition to damaging morale, low pay tends to thwart efforts to improve diversity, equity and inclusion, which only further exacerbates our inability to understand one another.

Perhaps most importantly, continuing to pay journalists less than a living wage robs each of us of our right to watch, read and listen to well-crafted, deeply researched stories that allow us the opportunity to ponder, understand and act as informed citizens of this sprawling and divided nation. And that is a damned shame.

Emily Barr is the former president and CEO of Graham Media Group.

Comments (2)

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BeyondTheBeltway says:

August 30, 2023 at 11:25 am

The assumption here is that higher pay at local stations will result in “holding the powerful to account and shine a bright light on those who govern and lead”. That is a self aggrandizing myth. Just watch any network or cable news channel for two minutes. You will see overpaid network reporters and anchors ignore, distort or slow walk stories to FAVOR those in power. Pay has little to do with it. Ideology is the driving force.

Local stations don’t want real journalism at any price. They want a product that looks like journalism that appeals to the lowest common denominator for the highest CPM at the lowest cost and that also doesn’t rattle too many feathers of those who can cause them problems.

The real story here is that American broadcasters are having a “going out of business sale” due to internet competition. They want their margins to look better to justify higher valuations. The FCC recently greenlighted up to 100% foreign ownership for roughly 1300 radio stations. TV is next. If you think TV news is bad now, hold on to your hats. The new international owners have ideologies of their own.

Former Producer says:

August 30, 2023 at 1:34 pm

It is long past time for TV newsrooms to pay up. The terrible salaries have been part of the business for decades.

Only now are news managers and ex-TV news executives so publicly concerned about the pay disparity. Why? Because journalists are leaving the TV news business more frequently than ever before, and fewer people are willing to take those jobs.

So much for the tried-and-true news director response of, “Take it or leave it. I have other people who will take this job for the same pay.” To any news director who still says that, my response is simple: “No, you don’t.” TV stations large and small have multiple job openings that remain vacant for weeks or even months. I’ve heard from hiring managers who say they can’t get ANY applicants, qualified or not, for their jobs.

The TV news business is reaping what it long sowed.