Mar 4th, 2008 @ Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

The economics of the journalism job search

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The whole “new media” thing is usually a problem when looking for a journalism job.

As highlighted in a recent post here, as well as in a Mindy McAdams post, most newspapers don’t quite know what they are looking for. Many also have unrealistic expectations of their potential hires.

But one comment on Mindy’s post struck me.  It was by a commenter named “Nick”. Without a last name or Web site link, I can’t vouch for who this fella is, but his comment was:

Isn’t it funny (well not to me, Mr. Dedicated Journalist), that these sorts of jobs would pay $30,000 at a newspaper but pay at least 2 times that in other parts of the real world.

This is something that has bothered me. First, I have to state that I’m aware nobody gets into journalism for the money, and that this profession is first and foremost a labor of love. However, that was a reasonable sacrifice with the traditional demands on a journalist and journalism student. That is, your job was to gather information and then sit down and write it. Not getting paid top dollar for this work was not as big a concern, as writing jobs in general don’t pay much.

Fast forward to current day, and we are being told we should know how to edit video, audio, and maybe have some sort of Web production skill. But the problem lies that if I go into any of these fields, I may be able to make up to three times what an entry level journalist makes. For example one journalism job posting for a position in Wyoming is paying $15,000 – $20,000 a year. A quick calculation (20,000 / 50 weeks / 40 hours) shows that that is ten dollars per hour at best. I made that being a picker at a Delaware warehouse in the summer after my freshman year.

Okay, that’s Wyoming where the cost of living is low and in a small town where the “do everything” types are necessary. In California, a similar posting has a salary ceiling of $30,000. Given the drastic difference in cost of living the “actual salary” is pretty even with the ceiling of the Wyoming job being comparable to the ceiling of the California job. In Pennsylvania (where I currently live) the average is a similar $31,000.

Keep in mind, these are not editor positions but reporting ones. Now, lets say someone took their multimedia skills and chose a job more traditional to that skill. For example, if I can code HTML/CSS, I could be a full time Web designer. Could I make more than $30,000 dollars after one year? By my second? With one $500 site a week, I could equal my potential newspaper salary.

Now the point of all this is not to shed light on how poorly paid journalists are, but to show that the demands on new hires have increased. Yet salaries are not matching the educational demands placed on new hires. These days it seems you have to know more just to earn the same salary that would have been standard even 10 years ago (inflation aside).

This scares me, because as long as these conditions are true, newspapers will never attract the best and brightest new media minds. If I am a talented video editor there are many more appealing options in front of me than newspapers and journalism in general. I would essentially be asked to take my valeable skill to a place that would pay me less while having little job security.  Plus there is the sticky issue that most newspapers still don’t know how relaible something like video is to their business model. In other words, it is very possible newspapers (or any publication) will one day decide video is too costly and ax the concept all together. Suddenly an idealistic video editor will be stung, and will surely tell any peers with similar skills to get out of the journalism market.

Until jouralism becomes more appealing, it can never break out of the downward cycle it is in. This goes beyond just simply money, but all the factors of a good job such as job security and benefits. Both are areas that journalism is not exactly known for these days.  How can an industry have declining job quality, yet ratchet up its demands on new (and old) employees?

So I ask given two options: a low paying job in a shaky market where your talent may not be needed in a few years, or a more “traditional” job for your skillset that can pay 1.5 times as much (a modest estimate) and, depending on the company, offer benefits as well. Most people will choose door number two.

Which leads me to ask, how the hell is journalism to compete with this?

Sources: How to be a Rockstar Freelancer, CNN Money, Journalism Jobs, Monster.com, PayScale.com, a left brain

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