Journalists’ High-Paying Pre-News Employment

In the decades-long push for real, last-resort data on labor markets in the United States, little was known about whether reporters make more money than other media workers, which helps explain why the issue has a certain allure to reporters, and why it is often picked up by policymakers. These issues don’t get much attention in the nation’s leading papers: Not until last December, with a column about well-paid Democrats, did the New York Times write an article about “how wage gaps in the media work,” until now.

In this week’s paper, Maureen Dowd, the Times’ lead news columnist, includes a particularly notable but not surprising bit of data: that reporters earn far more than television, radio, and print journalists who field a relative trickle of the national press corps. But why?

Do media reporters get paid more than their colleagues in some of the same jobs, but on less media time and with lesser resources? Since much of the industry is volunteer, you could say that’s true. But that seems an odd explanation to take to the relationship between labor rates and their production.

This is not an issue to focus on naively, in my view. To speak about it fairly, journalists are technically not the kind of people who are paid to be available and work on the evening news all day and the weekend. They are journalists, and, in the process of producing quality journalism, they are paid less than the average person whose main job is to be present at any given moment and to perform a host of other more traditional production tasks. The point of this salary gap may well not be the same as the national wage gap, but it does seem reasonably clear that media outlets are out of step with the salaries of most other media workers.

I asked several New York Times reporters about this, and they were mostly confused. Indeed, I received plenty of replies to my conversation question about the salaries of journalists that focused primarily on pay discrepancies between that particular sector and other sectors, never mind between journalists and other professions that are not media at all. The Times journalists I spoke with each could not name a single example of how much more they are paid than the head of an organization of three or four full-time journalists.

They pointed me to an article by Jeremy W. Peters in April, which made a case, after being asked a question I considered fairly innocuous, that New York Times journalists’ combined salary rose steadily between 2015 and 2017. This “a stunning 96 percent jump,” Peters noted, “is roughly equal to the wage gap between [New York Times executive editor] Dean Baquet and columnist [opinion page editor] Bob Cohn,” (the two of whom he accused of having talked about the salary gulf and who both claim to be earning in the low five figures compared to something in the mid to high four figures). So sure, the salary gap between media journalists and other journalists does indeed seem to be large; no, not big enough to be interesting or important enough to have a lot of news outlets as a source of data. But that is not really the point. If journalism is, according to your conversation with me, more important to you than the job of working on the evening news, then all the surprise you can produce at your superlative salary for delivering a superlative product may be just as important to you as it is to the part of your role that you proudly call “consumable.”

If you’re wondering if I might have accidentally fallen off of your salary scale, I would never try to shame you into getting a non-journalist job over a journalist who needs the cash. (That there is a “diverging superlative,” as Peters wrote, probably doesn’t help.) But I am impressed, in general, by my colleagues’ aptitude for shaping newsrooms as institutions to better serve the best interests of citizens. You worked incredibly hard to get your job. That is an excellent and worthy work, one of the few noble things happening in journalism right now. Rather than bully yourself or someone else into the other job (which is perhaps where the real, wild discrepancies begin), put your skills to the most productive and serviceable use you can.

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