Why media companies get away with paying journalists so little

PH/Bradlee

There’s a common phrase you hear while working in the journalism industry: “Going to the dark side.” It’s employed whenever a news reporter takes a job working in marketing or PR, and it’s based on the assumption that this person gave up the noble pursuit of truth so that he or she could get a nice pay bump. If you decide to pursue a career in journalism, it’s pretty much hammered into you from day one that you should expect grueling hours and little pay. And while working those grueling hours, you’ll likely have to deal with PR people, many of whom are former journalists who love to start their conversations with you by reminiscing about their gumshoe days.

Though I’ve never completely left journalism, I’ve often been pulled to the dark side. When I left my job as a newspaper reporter to work at a digital marketing firm, I saw an immediate 50 percent bump in pay. And within a year of taking that new job, I more than doubled my salary. If I had remained in newspaper journalism, there’s no conceivable way I could have seen that sharp of a pay increase that quickly.

This pay dynamic has been so widely accepted that it’s rare that anyone questions the actual reasons behind it. While it’s understandable if someone leaves a non-profit or a government position to take a private-sector job that she should expect a pay raise, why should a person who’s working for one private corporation receive so much less compensation than a person with equal skills working for another private corporation?

This disparity is pretty easy to explain: those working in PR and marketing are much more closely connected to the revenue side of a business, and so it’s much easier for them to discern their worth to a company. Having worked for a few marketing and PR agencies, I’ve often been required to regularly fill out time sheets which tracked my billable hours for each client I worked for. I also knew what the firm billed to the client for my time. Even in cases where we weren’t billing by the hour, I knew what the monthly retainer was, so if we were charging a client $40,000 a month and I was one of three people working on that account, I knew I was producing roughly $13,000 a month in value for the firm. If I worked on an average of three accounts at a time, then some easy back-of-the-envelope math would tell me that I was responsible for $468,000 a year in revenue for my company.

I was also closely tied to the new business pipeline. Every time we had a new prospective client, I was responsible for conducting research and developing a communications plan, and once I reached a certain stage in my career I was also expected to pitch this plan to the potential client.

Compare this to newspaper journalism: I only had a very vague knowledge of what it cost to run an ad in our newspaper. I certainly wasn’t kept up-to-date on the day-to-day goings-on in the advertising department. Several years later, when I worked as an editor at a major national magazine (I briefly left the dark side for about two years), I was never told what our average CPMs were and was given very little access to the business side of the company despite having a good bit of interest in that subject.

Many news companies pride themselves on having a strict separation between their business and editorial divisions; it allows them to maintain editorial integrity and independence, or so they say. But this partitioning places journalists at a distinct disadvantage by keeping them completely in the dark when it comes to revenue. It can be argued that the journalism forms the very backbone of a media company, and the business side would be unable to generate revenue without the editorial staff, but the current setup allows the journalists to be viewed as little more than factory workers, assembling content against which their business counterparts can sell ads.

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This is what I think NYU professor Jay Rosen was getting at when he wrote a post explaining “when to quit your journalism job.” In it, he argues that “if you work in any kind of editorial organization, it is your job to understand the business model. If you feel you can’t do that, you should quit.” While I don’t necessarily agree with his prescription — most people don’t have the luxury to just up and quit their jobs — I do agree that reporters are doing themselves an unnecessary disservice by convincing themselves they’re above worrying about the revenue generation that funds their work.

This separation also pushes them in directions away from their core competencies. As Hamilton Nolan detailed in a Gawker essay titled “Against Editors,” reporters who want to advance their careers and escape a life of penury are often forced to take tracks that don’t always necessarily play to their strengths.

Here is the traditional career track for someone employed in journalism: first, you are a writer. If you hang on, and don’t wash out, and manage not to get laid off, and don’t alienate too many people, at some point you will be promoted to an editor position. It is really a two-step career journey, in the writing world. Writing, then editing. You don’t have to accept a promotion to an editing position of course. You don’t have to send your kids to college and pay a mortgage, necessarily. If you want to get regular promotions and raises, you will, for the most part, accept the fact that your path takes you away from writing and into editing, in some form. The number of pure writing positions that offer salaries as high as top editing positions is vanishingly small. Most well-paid writers are celebrities in the writing world. That is how few of them there are.

As Nolan goes on to point out, being a good writer doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll be a good editor, and vice versa. So you have talented reporters who suddenly find themselves editing copy when they’re not really qualified to do so, and in order to justify their higher salary, they must edit with gusto in such a way that doesn’t necessarily improve the original draft. Nearly every reporter has been forced to accept edits that they, being much closer to the source material, know are wrong. I recently wrote a freelance feature article for a major national magazine. I was astonished by how many levels of edits it received and the number of editors who reviewed the piece. In one absurd instance, an editor asked me why I had included a certain passage that a previous editor had forced me to add in. Then she promptly removed that passage.

All this is not to say that there aren’t downfalls when journalists become too closely involved on the business end. We saw that when a former Vice editor leaked emails from his superiors in which they forced him to suppress negative reporting on Vice’s advertisers. But to distance yourself too far from the revenue generation is to place yourself in a weakened position where you can’t make an informed argument for your worth. Once that worth is realized and you’re able to use it as leverage for a higher salary, suddenly the dark side — where you’ll spend the remainder of your days writing press releases or bland marketing copy — becomes much less alluring.

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Simon Owens is a tech and media journalist living in Washington, DC. Follow him on TwitterFacebook, or LinkedIn. Email him at simonowens@gmail.com. For a full bio, go here.

Image via Washington Post