Getting What You Pay For
Are low salaries driving top prospects away from TV news?
By Deborah Potter
Deborah Potter (email@example.com) is executive director of NewsLab, a broadcast training and research center, and a former network correspondent.
I HAD A DISCOURAGING conversation recently with a new college graduate.
Jennifer earned her degree in broadcast journalism from a large state university in the Midwest. She's bright, personable and quite experienced.
Like many of her peers, she built her résumé through an impressive series of internships and summer jobs in newsrooms.
So where is she working now? In public relations. Not because she couldn't get a job in news, she says, but because she couldn't afford to. Her PR position pays almost twice as much as she was offered by one newsroom.
I suspect that many broadcast journalists and educators have met a Jennifer over the past few years. I seem to have met a lot of them. And I'm concerned, because I believe their stories say something important about the future of our business.
Who's going into television and radio journalism these days? To hear a lot of news directors tell it, they're not seeing the best and the brightest come through the door.
Many of these young college graduates can't write a clear sentence, it seems, but they all want to be on the air. They have little or no knowledge of government or history. They appear to think they're entitled to work the day shift, and by the way, they want their weekends off.
Of course, it's unfair to suggest that every new graduate is so woefully unprepared for the real world of the newsroom. But just for a moment, let's imagine that all the eager youngsters applying for broadcast journalism jobs are, in fact, less than qualified.
If that were so, why would it be? Could it be that entry-level pay is at least part of the reason that more outstanding students are not attracted to the field?
The median starting pay in television news was just less than $20,000 in 1999. According to the annual survey of journalism and mass communication graduates by the University of Georgia, that's the lowest full-time salary paid in any journalism field.
No wonder students are flocking to new-media jobs, with a starting average salary of $28,000 (see "On the Upswing,").
Broadcast news is rapidly becoming "one of the lowest-paying jobs a college graduate can find," says Bob Papper, who teaches journalism at Ball State University and conducts a separate salary survey for the Radio-Television News Directors Association.
Supply and demand play a part, of course. Five years ago the Georgia survey found as many as 10 eager applicants for every television news opening. But while the job pool may have expanded since then, so, unfortunately, has the salary gap.
"We started off a little behind," Papper says, "and we have fallen way behind."
Want proof? My first television job, in 1972, paid $6,000 a year. Plug the numbers into a cost-of-living calculator and that turns out to be the equivalent of $23,913 in 1999 dollars▀almost 20 percent more than today's starting average. That's grim.
Lee Becker, a professor of journalism at the University of Georgia who conducts the annual survey of graduates in the field, says the numbers send a clear signal. "The general message is, you have to want to do this for some other reason than benefits and pay."
It may always have been thus, but as Becker puts it, "I don't think that is a particularly compelling message for this generation in this job market." Especially when the message is sent by an industry seeking and achieving ever-higher profit margins.
If low salaries are turning some of the brightest prospects away from television news, consider the effect of paltry starting pay on efforts to increase diversity in newsrooms. Who's left out of the mix if the only new graduates who can afford to work in news are those who made it out of college debt-free, or who can count on their parents to help when the landlord wants two months' rent up front?
Becker says his latest survey of journalism graduates found that nonminority applicants are hired more often than minorities for TV jobs, but that gap disappears among equally qualified applicants. "A smart, able, energetic [minority] person may decide to follow a different track," he says.
Television news executives confronting the reality of a shrinking audience for their product might do well to look for a reason inside their own newsrooms. Are the people they're hiring really up to the job? Or are the stations reaping the results of that old adage, "You get what you pay for"?