Has the Fun Gone Out of Journalism?

A couple months ago, I came across a discouraging set of statistics regarding the future of journalism. According to a study commissioned by the San Francisco State University's journalism department, a person graduating from college with a journalism degree can look forward to earning an average of $20,154 a year as a newspaper reporter. While many would consider $20,000 to be a good annual salary, it's not what you would expect a college-trained professional to get paid. Journalism is considered a profession, like law or medicine. Unlike the aforementioned fields, journalism pays very little. I know, having been a journalist for over 16 years. I've never been paid more than $20,000 a year for my labors, and some folks make even less. Right now, 22% of journalists under age 25 earn under $15,141 -- the federal poverty level for a family of four. It's tough to pay off huge student loans and achieve even a modest standard of living with that kind of paycheck. Little wonder that 43% of this year's journalism grads said in the SFSU study that they might soon consider another career. Public relations was their top choice. Publishers and newspaper owners like to think of their reporters as professionals, mainly as a way to get out of paying overtime. In practice, most get away with not paying for any work done beyond a 40-hour week. Print and broadcast reporters in the small towns routinely work 50-60 hours a week without ever getting overtime. It's illegal, but the bosses can get away with it. Wage and hour standards are poorly enforced and most reporters are afraid of losing their jobs if they blow the whistle on their superiors. The romance and glory of journalism gets old fast under these circumstances. For an underpaid journalist, the siren song of public relations is hard to resist. It's little wonder that when public relations firms offer double or triple a reporter's meager salary to cross over to the opposition, many jump at the chance. It's pretty sad when a profession drives out its best people, but it happens far too much in journalism today. Many other things besides low pay are to blame: bottom-line corporate management, publishers who are afraid of offending advertisers, editors who won't stick up for their reporters, declining prestige in the eyes of the public and the cumulative effect of reporting under constant grinding deadline pressure. Journalists have always griped about their pay, their working conditions and their owners. Whenever they gather as a group, they will quickly start swapping horror stories about the latest economy drives in their newsrooms, layoffs that have either occurred or are about to occur, and the latest rumors about papers about to be sold or closed forever. But reporters usually put up with the low pay and lousy hours because they believed they were doing something useful. I always felt that journalism was a public service, and that the readers cared about the work we did. Writing for money for me was a good way to make a living, and sometimes it was even fun. "Journalism is a Ticket to Ride, to get personally involved in the same news other people watch on TV -- which is nice, but it won't pay the rent. Years of working harder and harder for less and less money can make a man kinky,'' Hunter S. Thompson once wrote. While there is no money in journalism, "there is action,'' wrote Thompson, "and action is an easy thing to get hooked on.'' Despite the buzz I got from the action, the fun of journalism for me disappeared after twice going through the sale of the newspapers I worked for. In both instances, I lost my job. If any reporter is still clinging to the hoary myth of the news business being News first and Business second, I offer you the wisdom of Denver media mogul William Dean Singleton. "If I had my choice between pleasing one banker or 1,000 journalists, I'd rather please the banker,'' Singleton said in an interview in the October 1995 issue of the American Journalism Review. "You can't run your business over what the newsroom thinks. You can't worry about that. I'd rather be demonized and be successful than be the most wonderful guy in the world and go down. If a newspaper doesn't support itself, it goes.'' Singleton bought my old paper, the Brattleboro (Vt.) Reformer, last summer and slashed the pay and benefits of everyone in the building. Of the 12 full-timers that made up the editorial staff of the Reformer last August, eight -- including myself -- have left. There's little reason to stay and work for an owner who feels you are overpaid and underworked. But this is not exactly a new situation. The late, great press critic A.J. Liebling -- before he became one of The New Yorker's best writers -- labored in daily journalism for over a decade. One of his last stops was the New York World-Telegram in the early 1930s. Roy Howard, the co-founder of the Scripps-Howard chain who owned the paper, routinely pinched pennies and cut the salaries of his reporters. Liebling saw his paycheck cut 20 percent in eight months. "This took all the carefree, juvenile jollity out of journalism for me, definitively,'' Liebling wrote in his classic 1947 book, The Wayward Pressman. "It taught me that society is divided, not into newspaper people and nonnewspaper people, but into people with money and people without it. I did not belong to a joyous, improvident professional group including me and Roy Howard, but to a section of society including me and any floorwalker at Macy's. Mr. Howard, even though he asked to be called Roy, belonged to a section that included him and the gent that owned Macy's. This clarified my thinking about publishers, their common interests and motivations.'' While the business side and the editorial side of newspapers have battled for years for control, it's now clearer than ever that the business side has won. Newspapers in 1990s are being run no differently than any other business. In his 1992 book, Read All About It: The Corporate Takeover of America's Newspapers, former Chicago Tribune editor James D. Squires wrote that if the journalists were given back control of the newspapers and if the owners cut the newsstand price of their papers and improved their quality, circulation would increase and long-term profitability would follow. "But improved quality, better service and lower pricing all negatively affect a newspaper's bottom line in the short term,'' wrote Squires. "Why they are not employed is the dirty little secret of newspapering." Squires wrote that newspapers crave an upscale, affluent readership and that practice discourages higher circulation. But newspaper ad rates are based on total circulation and to eliminate that system would destroy the basic economic base of newspapers. The other thing it would do is destroy the credibility of the newspaper industry. "(It) claims the right to put vending machines on public streets and in airports, the right to sit in courtrooms, the right to see public records, to question the president, the right to have a front row seat at the war - all on the basis that it is an institution exercising the people's right to know," wrote Squires. "Never does it claim the right to such access on the basis that it is in the business of delivering advertising information for profit." This is the mindset that rules in newspapering today -- where reporting the news is secondary to maintaining a 30 to 40 percent profit margin, where the majority of journalists are paid slave wages and treated as disposable cogs in a machine, where the readers ultimately realize they are being shortchanged and stop reading newspapers. And perhaps the saddest thing about all this is that there appears to be no way to change it.

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