Reporters' Pay Falls Below U.S. Average Wage
May 5, 2014

Sarah Rose, 27, works full time as a newspaper reporter in Kentucky, but is considering taking a part-time job to help cover living expenses.

Rose earns $24,000 a year at the Glasgow Daily Times, where mandatory furloughs this year are projected to reduce her modest salary by $2,000.

“With these furlough days, I am living paycheck to paycheck,” says Rose, who holds a bachelor’s degree in mass communication from Mesa State College in Colorado.

Like thousands of other journalists, Rose is pursuing a career that has long been notorious for low salaries.

As it turns out, the purchasing power of a typical reporter’s pay has trended even lower over the past decade, as wage growth for reporters nationwide has failed to keep pace with either inflation or overall wages in the United States, according to data from the federal government.

The mean salary for reporters and correspondents rose from $40,090 in May 2003 to $44,360 in May 2013, an increase of 10.7 percent, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ Occupational Employment Statistics.

During the same 10-year period, the mean salary for all occupations rose considerably more – 28 percent, from $36,210 in 2003 to $46,440 in 2013, BLS data shows.

That caused a reversal: A decade ago, reporters and correspondents earned more than the average wage for all U.S. workers, but that is no longer true. Reporters, on average, earned $2,080 less than the national average last May, the most recent month for which data is available.

A “Lost Decade” of Inflation, Wage Stagnation

During the same decade, inflation took a big bite out of the purchasing power of the typical reporter’s paycheck. From 2003 to 2013, the Consumer Price Index, a common measure of inflation, grew 26.6 percent, more than double the growth rate for reporters’ pay.

Journalists, of course, were not the only ones whose purchasing power got whacked during a decade when the economy suffered a major recession and persistently high unemployment.

Stagnation of worker pay has been a focus for the D.C. think tank, the Economic Policy Institute, which characterized the last ten years as a “lost decade” for wages for a broad swath of the economy. The EPI reported that from 2002 to 2012, workers in the bottom 70 percent of the American wage distribution experienced flat or declining pay growth after adjusting for inflation.

Lawrence Mishel, president of the EPI, cited the weak economy and job uncertainty as key factors giving employers greater leverage in negotiating employee pay.

“Employers have been able to hold down wage growth, and they’re able to do that because most people are worried that their current job is going to be better than their next job,” Mishel said.

Newspaper Layoffs and Downsizing

In the newspaper industry, pressure on wages has been particularly acute because of widespread downsizing as advertising revenue got clobbered by the recession and Internet competition. Newspaper ad revenue is down 60 percent over the past decade, according to the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism.

This has given employers at many news outlets extraordinary leverage over their workers.

Lee Becker, a professor at the University of Georgia’s Henry W. Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication, said graduates of his college are simply looking for a job and will accept positions at low wages.

“Graduates have been willing to work for relatively low pay and employers have not been willing to pay very much,” Becker said.

Related story: “How Reporter Salaries Compare with Other Jobs”

Ted Shorack, 29, a court reporter for The Daily Astorian in Oregon and a 2012 graduate of the University of Oregon, said that when he decided to go into reporting, he knew he wasn’t going to be reeling in a big paycheck. He makes about $25,000 a year.

“I wasn’t really too concerned about the money. It was more something that I really felt that I wanted to do and thought that I would really enjoy doing,” Shorack said. “I was willing to work for a lower wage now doing something I enjoy doing.”

No Help from Unions

Another factor impacting reporter wages has been a decline in the leverage that labor unions have to negotiate salaries for their members, according to Michael Hill, who was active in the Newspaper Guild for decades and was unit chair for the Baltimore Sun from 2004 to 2007.

Hill said that the weakening of unions representing journalists dates back to the 1980s, when public companies began to buy smaller newspapers, causing many reporters to lose their jobs to large-scale “consolidation” of the industry. As newspapers began their descent, Hill said union efforts focused more on helping members keep their jobs and less on upping their salaries– at least, that’s what he observed at The Baltimore Sun.

“We loved the paper and we wanted to preserve the paper, and we thought that the best way to do that was to preserve a good workforce,” Hill said.

In the last 10 years, revenue pressures on the industry heated up, and at that point for unions, “there wasn’t much stuff to fight over,” Hill said.

Less Demand for Reporters

The wage issue is “as simple as supply and demand,” said Stephen Lacy, dean of the Michigan State University School of Journalism.

“What you have is basically less demand and greater supply, and in all of those situations, it depresses salaries . . . ,” Lacy said. “Add on to that the fact that journalism schools are still pumping out graduates every year, and they work for a smaller amount of money starting out.”

One way journalism graduates can earn more money is to seek media-related jobs other than reporter or correspondent, occupations the Bureau of Labor Statistics defines as those who “collect and analyze facts about newsworthy events by interview, investigation, or observation.” The reporting category encompasses those who work for various media types, including newspapers, magazines, radio and TV stations.

Editors, by contrast, make more money than reporters, on average, according to the BLS statistics. So do technical writers and public relations specialists.

Becker said he doesn’t see the typical pay for all reporters going up drastically any time soon, given that newspapers and other media outlets are looking to keep costs low and often will hire less experienced reporters at lower rates.

“If the employer were to say, ‘Well, we know we can we can get employees at this rate, but we want to hire quality employees, we want to start compensating people for advanced degrees or more specialization or particular competence in innovation,’ then you would expect salaries to change,” Becker said.

But he sees little evidence of that happening. A shift like this would require a “major mindset change,” he said.

Editor’s Note: Average or mean salaries can be misleading since they don’t reflect what most people actually make in a given profession. They are calculated by adding up all the salary survey responses and dividing by the total number of responses. Obviously, starting pay usually runs lower, and salaries for senior reporters at national news outlets typically run much higher. Also worth keeping in mind: Pay varies widely by geography, with higher mean wages in cities where the cost of living is expensive, such as Washington, D.C. and New York.

Follow AJR on Twitter: @AmJourReview

Update: An earlier version of this story incorrectly identified the “Glasgow Daily Times” as the “Glasgow Daily News.” This version reflects that correction.

  • Peter Erikson

    This article illustrates why the best and the brightest are no longer working at American newspapers. The New York Times and Wall Street Journal only employ the top 1 percent, so the vast majority of journalists are better off choosing another career. What can be done? Very little. Newspapers will continue to go out of business unless they change their business model. It’s not enough to simply have a website: Newspapers must embrace niche reporting. Covering a little bit of everything, but nothing really well, is a model from another era. Cut wire copy entirely and zero in on the community.

    • Sandy Smith

      Those online outlets that “zero in on the community” are even worse when it comes to pay. Because the potential base of subscribers willing to pay for the content is so small, they can’t really put up paywalls lest they get no eyeballs, and because the ad revenue stream is even smaller, there’s nothing left to pay the contributors after costs of running the server are taken out. I know several very good local sites in Philadelphia who are up front about being unable to pay for stories; I used to write for one of them before I found a “sponsor” willing to pay me because a news site could serve his main agenda of selling houses.

      It’s a real conundrum. Maybe we should all go into PR.

      • SocraticGadfly

        Actually, given that more and more media outlets run unedited canned pieces, or even advertorial, the industry has already started getting into PR more and more. And it’s not just newspapers. A lot of smaller TV stations run canned clips on their local news.

    • sbrannon

      and pay more

  • Robert Carter

    Correction: The newspaper Sarah Rose works for is the Glasgow Daily Times, not Daily News. (It’s in my hometown, and it’s where I started my career while still a senior in high school.)

    • Lisa Rossi

      Got it, that’s been corrected, thanks!

  • Jeff Share

    this story speaks for itself. newspapers have always been a racket. they chew you up and spit you out in little pieces until there’s nothing left to give.

  • OldNewsie

    The article fails to mention the old come-on from decades ago: “The pay is miserable, but everyone will know you.” They also failed to note the truth of the old adage, “When you go into newspaper work, you take a vow of poverty. You just don’t know it.” The situation has grown only worse in the era of corporate journalism, especially when the chain owners are equity firms. They care not for news, for employees or for anything other than net profit.

    • sbrannon

      You said it right on the money.