We need more transparency
I think this is part of a larger story about what’s happening to wages in a lot of fields that provide essential services (teaching, professoring, childcare, healthcare). I think part of it is about gender (jobs that are traditionally or newly feminized pay less), part of it is about capital (providing essential services can’t generate big $ unless you only serve a niche client base), part of it is political (attacks on “big government” and “elites”, etc). I might even argue that right-wing attacks on “liberal” media, education, public health etc are enabled by racism and driven by the goal of dismantling the political and economic independence of the middle class, but I can’t figure out what the end game is supposed to be (maybe it’s just that short term profits > long term losses since an impoverished populace isn’t ppl you can sell things to but 🤷🏼♀️)
Lyz, great piece! As usual, you've nailed a core problem for most jobs in a capitalist society that is less and less regulated. The older I get, the more everything seems to trace back to what has become almost a mantra for me. It's ALL about greed for money and power. (Don't get me started on the dangers of care of humans for profit.) Employers are not transparent because they know they will not be able to justify or defend differences in pay for the same or similar jobs, or even between top and bottom levels of the organization, or how damn much money they are really making.
In a former job, I used to travel Iowa from "coast to coast" working with manufacturing companies. In the 20 years I did that work and among the hundreds of companies I interacted with, I encountered one that was transparent. On the shop floor was a display that listed company expenses and revenues and the salaries of every person in top level management. I can't remember if hourly workers were included or not, but these folks were hiding nothing about the success or failures of the company.
Most companies discourage and oftentimes prohibit employees from sharing knowledge of their wages with their colleagues. My brother worked for a defense contractor and he refused to tell me how much he made except to say, "It's obscene what they pay me." I worked for the state so anyone who was interested enough could look my salary up in the Des Moines Register database.
Just to repeat, it's ALL about greed for money and power.
The rise of "free news", which it turns out often has an agenda with shadowy, super-rich benefactors, has really been detrimental to the discourse and education of this country. I often think about what voting with your wallet means, and it's more than the restaurants you go to and the clothes you buy. It's who you can carve out a bit of budget for to make good things that make your world a little brighter, and hopefully the worlds of others, too. I try to manage my subscriptions carefully because they can really rack up, but I also need to do what I can to support what matters. And it's frustrating to subscribe to the Washington Post when they just gutted Launcher and run awful, false "opinion" columns, or even to support APM/Minnesota Public Radio when I know their union is unhappy with working conditions. Substacks feel more direct, which is great, but I also know there are voices Substack supports I directly disagree with. I guess I just hope more of the money goes to the people I DO support.
I hope the space gets better. It needs to. And I hope more people who CAN - which is a big caveat - decide that some things are worth paying for.
I started at a newspaper straight out of college when I graduated in 2000. I don't remember my starting wage, but I think it was around $9.25 an hour. It was a huge deal when I was promoted to county reporter and bumped to $10 about 6 months into the job.
Starting in 2003, I was a community editor at a community weekly chain in the suburban Twin Cities. My annual salary in that post was $30,000-32,000. When I left for a communications job at an area school district 4 years later, I doubled my salary. My newspaper salary was only tenable because my husband had a better paying job. But even at that we couldn't afford childcare for our newborn son, which was a huge reason I left for the school district job.
As a community editor, I attended countless meetings and evening functions. Worked all kinds of weird hours. I loved my job, and I know the community appreciated me and my work, but the company treated all of us like shit and didn't make any secret of the fact that they wanted butts in our seats at the lowest price possible. We did good work, even award-winning work, and most of the editors I worked with went on to great careers outside of journalism, even though we did love our work as journalists. But the companies we were forced to work for never appreciated us in return.
I don’t know what the solution is for newspapers but, I do know they are exacerbating a downward spiral. As a consumer I subscribe to a number of newspapers more as charity than any need on my part. The more they layoff and pay inferior wages the less they have to offer subscribers. I think the long term decline of the Des Moines Register has a lot to do with Iowa becoming a red state.
Not a current journalist, but the lack of living wage in media is real. My wife started in 2008 as a camera operator / commercial producer at $11/hour. I started in 2007 as a producer/director at the second smallest PBS station at $30,000 per year. I was let go in 2011, making a salary of roughly $34,000 per year.
When I was looking for a job after being let go in 2011, in Minnesota, I was offered a director position at a leading tv station is Des Moines -- at a 30% pay cut. I could provide more specifics, but I was amazed at the vitriol I received for negotiating a higher pay. Literally on my way home from the interview, I pulled off I-35 in Ankeny to call the Apple Store in Jordan Creek to see if they had openings.
As I was reading this article, I was thinking that you could switch out “local media” with “nonprofit” with virtually no other changes and it would still make sense. I’ve been working in the nonprofit sector for over a decade and the salaries are laughable with long hours that leave little time and energy for anything else. I have so many horror stories, but the gist is that I am drowning in this economy, as a single woman who, 5 years ago, through sheer luck of timing and a smidge of privilege was able to purchase an inexpensive starter home in the Midwest (had to move from the east coast to do so because I could not afford even a starter home there) before the market sent completely bonkers, with only 3% down. The majority of my coworkers are privileged to have dual incomes and/or a significant other who makes a good amount of money and/or familial wealth so they can survive on a nonprofit salary. When I brought it up with my boss she became angry because I alluded to knowing another coworker’s salary (“talking about salaries is unprofessional”) and was told that I should be able to survive on my current salary because my coworkers can. I desperately need to find a new job to be able to survive, but I am burnt out, dealing with stress-induced chronic illness and have lost hope that things would be different anywhere else. Thank you for shedding light on this... it helps to know I’m not alone. As a person with a college degree and Master’s, it’s hard to explain to people why I’m struggling. There is so much shame attached to it. I’ve tried to organize my coworkers to address the issues with management at our small fundraising firm (verbal abuse, harassment, scarcity mindset that leads to understaffing/insurmountable workloads, terrible benefits and below-market pay even though all of of our nonprofit clients have seen increased revenue during the pandemic and the owners own 3 houses), but everyone is too afraid of retaliation and/or they don’t want the trouble because they have the bandwidth to look for other jobs without having to worry about paying their bills. But organizing and transparency are the only ways forward. I guess we’ll all have to drown on this sinking ship before my peers with enough wealth/privilege to get by are willing to risk discomfort to help those with less??
The criminal underpayment of local media staff is everywhere. I'm in Upstate NY. In 2017 I was trying to break into local media off of a freelance job writing online about federal politics for a Bay Area start-up. I pitched a cover story to our local weekly newspaper about voter turnout which they picked up. I did hours of interviews with local politicians and the Board of Elections about the abysmal, single-digit voter turnout for most elections, transcribed everything by hand, and then wrote a damn fine article (if I do say so myself). I got paid $100, which worked out to less than $5 an hour.
Then I applied for the Executive Director position of a local online newspaper. The position was responsible to be the Editor and to do all the fundraising and promotion, since it was a non-profit. They were offering $27K a year, clearly expecting to either hire someone recently graduated from one of the local colleges or a faculty spouse. I sent in my application materials, they followed up with me, and when I told them that, if hired and successful with the fundraising piece I would expect to double my salary after 12 months because the money they were offering was criminal and contributed to the narrowing of local media voices and perspectives, they dropped my application like a hot potato.
Until or unless we figure out how to pay people in local media real money. Not even fantastic money, but at least livable wage money, we are never going to see the diversity of voices that local media needs and deserves.
This is great stuff, Lyz. The greed and shortsightedness of media company owners is breathtaking, and it never ends.
After college (circa 2004), I got a part-time job editing copy for a local newspaper. $7 an hour, baby! They boosted it to $9 the next year after I threw a tantrum about making less than the summer intern. Soon after, I got hired full-time for $25k a year/$12 an hour and thought I was the luckiest guy alive. That number didn’t move for the next 2-3 years until I got a $30K marketing job offer and got the paper to keep me by equaling that. I thought I was hot stuff for negotiating that, lol. I was fortunate enough to have a cheap place to live in a city with low cost of living, but I still racked up a ton of debt during those years. And I definitely had coworkers who were forced to take on second jobs or freelance to pay their bills. Eventually, I left the industry in 2014, making a cool $40K a year.
Since I can't comment from personal experience on the pay situation in media, I'll mention my experience with retail. Those recently higher starting wages at places like Five Guys, McDonalds, etc are great, if you're a manager who can get 40 hours a week. When I worked in retail, it was also usually only the managers who were working a full schedule. Everyone else was part-time, or even less. The lack of hours for non-management in sectors like retail and food service is pathetic in most cases. Then they wonder why no one wants to work for them, or quits right after starting.
From a consumer standpoint, it seems that all media is now behind a paywall. As much as I would like to support EVERYONE, it is not financially possible. I was wondering why access to media couldn't be more like radio music that pays royalties to artists as their songs are played. I'd be happy to "subscribe" to a media pool, and have a payout each time I clicked on some article I read. Probably would be impossible to set up, but it would certainly give me more access to media and might even earn more for media companies?
"the workplace is not your friend, contracts enforce our responsibility to each other" is so meaningful to me, as i'm entering year two on the bargaining team for a first contract, that i want to cross-stitch it and hang it on my wall
My last year in journalism, the publisher got us all together for his annual state of the paper address, and told us that profit margins were down to 12 percent, so we'd all have to work a little harder and smarter, and there would be some cutbacks. A few years before that, the paper had been doing as high as 20 percent. I imagine most newspapers would be thrilled to see 12 percent now. They got used to a near-monopoly, and then Craigslist and the Internet came and took that right out from under them. But that's the thing: newspapers and local news stations had decades of high profit margins and they still paid low wages. They still didn't invest in the product or the people. I'm not sure you can make money off good journalism anymore. It's more necessary than ever, but I don't know if anyone is willing to pay for it.
My husband and I both wanted to go to school for journalism when we were in high school but our paths went in different directions. I'm so glad we didn't do it. Media and journalism is in such a sad state of affairs right now.
I was a features editor for a small-town newspaper in 1995. I made $18K/year and had no vacation time or sick days. It was my first job after college.
After I had called home to ask for grocery money a couple times, my mom sat me down to go over a budget. It turned out I wasn’t spending too much; I made too little. I started applying to law school after that conversation.
The distribution of information in our culture--not just our country--is at a major turning point for several reasons: 1) methods of acquiring information are cheap, everywhere, and almost universally accessible because of technology; 2) digital technology is creating new methods of earning profits, thereby making traditional routes to professional status much riskier or obsolete; higher education schools are grinding out way more people who want to write as a profession, and if the market for jobs is crowded, job security is at risk. (I was a copy editor for a publishing house for 30 years, and when science publishers were consumed by European companies, I heard a major official say that "copy editors were a dime a dozen." All us liberal arts ladies getting English lit degrees!)
Then you have to consider social chaos, and that lying and conspiracy theories are rampant, believed, and accepted as normal. So "transparency" can be a commercial problem for news organizations. Plus, primary education in many places is so poorly paid and now liable to parental judgement about "acceptable" knowledge that our children are badly educated.
I don't have a solution, but more than wages for journalists is at stake now. Way more.