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The $30,000 question

February 7, 2012 1 comment

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.

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Chris Shepherd explains why he’s quitting as Nelson loses another journalist

February 2, 2012 1 comment

On Monday, Inthekoots/Nelson Post managing editor (and, as Stephen Colbert would declare, friend of the blog) Chris Shepherd filed a bitter farewell column in which he more or less tells (professional) journalism: “I’m quitting you.”

It begins:

I think journalism is in trouble. So much trouble that I’m leaving, rather than go down with what I see as a sinking ship. There is a way for the community to have a vibrant media however, and I’ll tell you what I see as the solution.

I hope that doesn’t come across as bitter, but the fact is I’ve stopped being a journalist because there’s no money in it.

more…

Chris talks about the extremely high turnover rate in certain small (and not-so-small) northern and interior towns, how it is linked to the lousy pay, and why it’s bad for the communities themselves. He singles out a rash of new reporters at the Nelson Star to illustrate his point, on which Star editor Bob Hall weighs in. But more on that later.

Chris also notes that the community itself needs to step up to the plate if they want continued coverage. (I could echo his sentiment: this blog won’t exist for much longer unless readers start pointing me towards interesting stories). Chris says that community members need to start telling their own stories, instead of waiting around for others to do it for him. (It’s a sentiment I repeat often at my paper. How can I know about your event,  your problem, if no one tells me about it.)

Chris explains that while he’s exploring other career options, he’ll continue to be involved with Inthekoots in a limited, voluntary way.

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In the comments section, Nelson Star editor Bob Hall bids his competitor goodbye:

Chris, it’s unfortunate that you have decided to leave journalism. From what I could tell over the last few years, you have some pretty solid skills and it was a pleasure to work in the same community for the time we did.

What I find more unfortunate about the above is the way you have decided to go out. You write about ideals and then proceed to only tell a sliver of the story as it suits you. The facts you are spewing about the Nelson Star are weak and skewed.

Bob takes exception to Chris’s comments about the Star. Frankly, I think he takes a little bit too much exception. Chris didn’t exactly attack the Star; he just mentioned the amount of new reporters who have come through the town in recent years. And, he does it in such a way to underscore the importance of keeping journalists happy and well fed, which I think is a noble goal. That said, Bob does have a point when he notes that sometimes it’s good to have reporters with ambition to continue on to bigger things. We all know of reporters or editors who start to mail it in after X number of years at a good enough job. But it still annoys me when journalists get defensive after being subjected to mild criticism.

The pair have traded comments in the days since and Nelson Star reporter Megan Cole has chimed in to bid Chris a fond farewell. Others, including other reporters, have done the same and the comment stream on the story is well worth a view.

Whatever the case, Chris’s departure is most unwelcome. The news industry has taken a thumping in Nelson in recent years. It’s pretty obvious that there is less journalism today than there was five years ago. There are, clearly, some structural problems. Perhaps Nelson simply isn’t big enough to sustain more than one news organization. I’d like to think otherwise, but until something structural happens with the online news industry as a whole, I think that’s probably the case.

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Why hick towns rock

February 10, 2011 Comments off

Chris Shepherd of In The Koots wrote such a great comment on my last post that I’m just going to repost it here, verbatim:

My first job was in Fort St. James, a logging town of 2,000 people at the end of the highway. I took the job there because nothing else was opening up at the time and I was desperate for work. Frankly, the drive up to the Fort was one of the most bleak in my life. I was leaving friends and family in Vancouver for a complete unknown in Central B.C.

I was sure my career was over before it even started.

How wrong I was. Fort St. James was great for all those freedom-loving reasons you listed, blogger. I was in a one-person newsroom where even the publisher was 45 minutes away down the highway so what I wanted to cover got covered. Yes, there was some rather tedious stuff, but I still managed to make the short list for the 2007 BCYNAs for a series I wrote there.

Small towns can have big stories. This blog has mentioned the great work done by the reporter in Vanderhoof around the murder of a 15-year-old girl is just one example.

While Fort St. James wasn’t my first choice, I knew I wanted to work in the Interior where I hoped the newspaper could play a vital role in the community. I was so cute. So earnest. I wanted to write stories that had a direct connection to the reader. My rationale was that a story about a development, for example, would have less relevance to readers in a large centre like Vancouver (where the development would be across town) compared to a development in a smaller community where everyone reading my story would drive by the proposed project.

Actually, even now that I’m 32-year-old grizzled news hound (ahem), I still feel that way.

I’m sure that idealism will be beaten out of me eventually.

I agree with it all.

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Nelson down to one paper: Express closes

January 5, 2011 Comments off

Six months ago Nelson had three papers. Within a month it will have but one.

Former editor Chris Shepherd of the Nelson Post (an online news site) is reporting that the Express will publish its last issue on Feb. 22. Shepherd, who edited the Express for two years between 2007 and 2009, writes that the Express is a 22-year-old newspaper that began as a monthly before becoming a weekly newspaper after two years.

From Shepherd:

The Express newspaper will close its doors early next month.

The paper is one of the last independent newspapers in the province, owned and operated by Nelson resident Nelson Becker. The Express has started notifying advertisers and businesses there will be two final issues: Wednesday, Jan. 19 and Wednesday, Feb. 2.

Becker has said he will speak with the media next week.

more…

Remaining news outlets in Nelson include the Black Press-owned Nelson Star (which is now edited by the former editor of the Daily News), Post and sister site News in the Kootenays, the Nelson Daily (a site run by two former Daily News reporters) and a pair of radio stations, the Bridge, KBS Radio and Kootenay Coop Radio.

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