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The $30,000 question

February 7, 2012

Chris Shepherd is hardly the first reporter to get fed up with his pay and strike out in search of greener pastures. I’m sure he will not be the last.

But his criticism of the lack of money to be made will sound different depending on your Facebook info. In particular, I’m talking about your age, your relationship status and, perhaps most importantly, your location. It also probably depends on who your parents are and what you consider a comfortable life. I’ll explain.

We’ll assume that you have a little journalism experience, but not a lot. Say, two years. Most reporters seem to stop changing papers once they hit the five-year mark, or so. If you work in the Interior, two years of reporting experience is going to get you around $30,000/year (If I’m wrong on this, please correct me. It’s more or less a guess). Whether it’s more or less depends on what size of paper you work for. But go to the Lower Mainland, and you’ll get a hefty pay bump. The papers are larger, but you’re still looking at an extra $8,000, give or take some cash. That is huge and more than makes up for the higher cost of living. It also suddenly puts you near the provincial average wage of $42,000. One shouldn’t underestimate the importance of reaching an adult wage. I remember growing up and asking how much my dad made. My mom told me $40,000, which at the time was just a little above average. To make as much as your parents is important. If we tend to look up to our parents, then making as much as they made is a major milestone, even if it’s just average.

To not be able to get there, and to see no prospect of ever making as much as your parents, would be hugely dispiriting. And that’s before you even consider the actual tangible benefits that come along with making money.

That’s why your marital status and whether you have kids is so important. If you have a girlfriend or wife who has an average-paying job, then you can still look forward to a good life even if you’re never going to make more than $50k by yourself. A family income of $75k is pretty good. But if you’re single and a new journalist making $30k a year in the interior, then things become markedly more difficult. You’re no longer looking forward to the future. Instead, you’re merely subsisting in a basement suite and eating pasta. At that point, when you look to the future, you start looking at life elsewhere.

But even reporters in the exact same situation may have starkly different opinions on what a good life entails. I knew a reporter who was very good at his job and very passionate about the craft. But he dreamed of owning a cabin on a little lake and his job didn’t seem likely to ever be able to pay for that. So he left and is now working elsewhere, working at a job that uses some of his journalism skills while at the same time being not at all journalism. He was probably making more than he made at his old paper. But I doubt that he likes his job as much.

Then there’s the age thing. If you start at a paper now, you should know that any raises you get are probably going to barely match the rate of inflation. So unless you move in with a sugardaddy or momma, your standard of living isn’t likely to dramatically rise. You may still be relatively comfortable, but you may start to question whether you’re succeeding at life (if such a thing is possible).

There are a million other factors, but if you’re in a small town at a paper that will never pay you more than peanuts, of course you’re going to consider your options.

Of course the papers themselves are in a bind. “Pay your reporters more,” is easy to say until you see budgets and realize that you can’t do so without also either increasing revenues or cutting back in other areas. The Bob Halls of this world are important because of the long and continuous journalism they provide to their communities.

But what is to become of our newspapers when all the editors our there who are now in their mid- to late-50s retire? The question is not just whether there is a crop of younger would-be editors able to step into their shoes, but whether those editors will have the financial wherewithall to stick around and become the repositories of community knowledge that longtime reporters and editors provide.

In communities with one- and two-person newsrooms, those crusty old editors are already gone, replaced instead by reporters with bigger and better things in mind. One cannot blame the reporters and editors in such positions. And you can’t necessarily blame the papers. It’s simply a fact of life. But I worry that unless something drastic happens, larger communities will begin seeing a similar process begin to take place. Maybe, in such cities, the reporters won’t aim to leave town but instead pursue different career opportunities inside their own communities. But the result will be the same: a structural loss of knowledge and experience that damages both the papers and the communities they serve.

I apologize for the tortuous and circuoutous reasoning contained within this column. I know it may be hard to read and I suppose I could have hacked it up and recomposed it. But I didn’t. Sorry.

  1. February 8, 2012 at 2:42 pm

    You’ve articulated the concerns about the present editors retiring well. Better than I could have.

    Since I published that post, I heard from a friend of mine who went on to work with TIME magazine in New York and London. She was working as a reporter but left for financial reasons. It was great work, she wrote, but the pay was good only so long as she was content to:

    • stay 25 years old
    • live with roommates
    • in the bad part of town.

    That first point was especially hard to accomodate.

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