Let’s Talk About Local News Pay
It’s the solid-gold elephant in the room for many journalists. The money “sucks”. Sometimes it’s unlivable, especially in those starter markets. I made $8 an hour in my first job, and it didn’t occur to me to mind at the time, because you know the old phrase “paying my dues”.
But that was 23 years ago. The economy was different. There weren’t some of the costs we have now, like mobile phones (but you did have to budget for long-distance when you’d call back home, or have your parents call you so it was on their dime). We weren’t saturated with ads at every turn of the eyes to risk binge purchases we couldn’t afford. I shopped only off clearance racks.
There also wasn’t a rallying cry for higher wages. Hey, we are Gen X, we get what’s handed to us and make the best of it. We adapt and are cynical, so wages were just something else to be cynical about.
Even if you still abide by “paying your dues”, you still have to pay your rent, car insurance, student loans, etc.
My very first paycheck was $5 more than my rent. Thank goodness for graduation money.
There were also the “perks” if you can call them that. Free gym memberships through a deal with the station, trade agreements at salons, station swag so you always had a shirt or jacket to wear if you hadn’t done the laundry. But it felt like you were getting a little something more.
I remember my second job, I made $26,000 a year (back when producers were salaried) and I thought I was RICH. Until about the third month, and I realize I was just less poor than before.
Third job? Same thing. Made a big bump up – bought all the Ann Taylor Suits (on clearance) because I was making “grown-up” money now. Three months later? Needed a raise.
So, I can tell you this, person who doesn’t make enough money – start your financial planning now. It’s too easy to always learn to live within or at your means. You get so excited the day you don’t need to buy ramen to live and get to buy actual cuts of chicken you suddenly have chicken, brie, a bottle of wine, and a cheesecake.
“WE HAVE SERIOUS PROBLEMS TO SOLVE, AND WE NEED SERIOUS PEOPLE TO SOLVE THEM”
That’s not my line. Stole it from a speech in “The American President”. But it’s a good line.
We seriously, as a business, need to figure out this pay problem. I’ve seen it as a starving employee and as a News Director insisting I don’t get a raise so other people can have the money that would have been my raise.
A few years back, when Raycom Media existed, we were working on a fantastic project called “The Newsroom of the Future”. Each News Director was challenged to “break the mold” of what we do and how to do it better.
Top of my mind was the pay scale. Second was “how do we do everything we need to do?”.
I tried to tackle it from this angle.
1. Forget everything you know about how local news has been done. Forget processing film, typewriters, tape-to-tape, linear editing, news sets, desk arrangements, current staff lists, and “how we’ve always done it”. We would go at this like we were the first people ever to say “Hey! Let’s gather information and disseminate it to people. I can’t believe nobody ever thought of this before!?”. We would go headfirst into “How we’d be a news startup NOW instead of centuries of communicating information starting on stone tablets all the way to Snapchat stories.” If someone would say “But we can’t get rid of the edit bays!”, I’d say, “Edit bays don’t exist because we haven’t created that idea yet.”
2. We won’t consider money, resources, or people – to start with. We’d just talk about what we need to get news done. If someone would say “We can’t afford that”, I’d say my branded line of “money, resources and staffing limits don’t exist right now”. I still say that every time I start any kind of brainstorming. Start with possibilities, not limitations. Also, once you clear your head of “editors make $ and producers make $$ and reporters make $$$ and anchors make $$$$” it’s an easier task to accomplish. You just have to find that headspace (hard when you’ve got a team of cynical Gen X’ers, but we acclimate as always.)
As the short-lived plan evolved, it was jarring to see editors, producers, and reporters making the same amount of money at first. It was odd to think there was a position that combined all three into one job. It was incredulous to have anchors making that amount of money, but I’d have to say “Don’t think of the people we have NOW, think of this as just a plan and we haven’t hired people yet. We’ll work out the reality of it later.”
Then our company got sold and the “Newsroom of the Future” was nixed.
But the idea remains. And the need is present and ugly. We are losing potentially good people and great people because of pay (and stress, yes). I talked to someone last week who told me the starting salary of her job offer and I cringed. It was the lowest I’ve heard in a while.
When I first got into the business and learned about market sizes, I always wondered “Why do people in Casper, Wyoming, deserve news that isn’t as good or experienced as Boston or LA?”. It kept me awake at night wondering what stories were being missed, swept under the rug, as journalists cut their teeth in a small market. Plus, when you don’t stay in those markets long, you don’t get good sources and by the time you know enough to do better journalism, you are already applying for another job in a strange city. Back then I didn’t know about budgets, BCF, EBITDA, Retrans, etc.
In my News Director years, I’ve made plenty of “We HAVE to fix this pay problem” presentations, pleas, and after-work dinners with higher-ups. I’ve even done a chart to show how much of MY salary is going to recruiting, interviewing, vetting, and reference-checking people who end up saying “No” because of the money.
I once had a GOOD producer tell me she wasn’t going to re-sign because she “wanted to move out of her mom’s house.” Good Lord. We gotta fix this.
Years ago, I had a dream of being a producer in Boston. I wanted to work for the coveted WHDH, with flashy fast-paced newscasts, it was my jam. I found out the ballpark salary which was TWICE of what I made where I lived in Memphis. Once I did the research, I figured out (add state income tax, cost of living, average apartment, etc.) I’d be bringing home $300 LESS a month by doubling my salary.
I’m not going to tell you I have all (or any) of the answers here. But I think I can give us all something to think about as we try to stop the personnel bleeding and the “just hire someone to get them here”. Hiring a non-qualified person is more cost-inducing than paying someone good more when you factor in time spent by OTHER people picking up the slack, doing additional training, filling in for them calling in sick often, re-posting the job, recruiting for the position again, etc.
So, let’s start here, just for the purpose of this conversation. Don’t go run to a GM with this, because we’re just brainstorming.
1. Figure out the cost of living for the average person in your market. Figure in rent, utilities, assume a student loan and car payment, mobile phone bill, car insurance rates (Florida was 4X higher than my Nebraska car insurance. That stuff matters). When you arrive at that number, there’s your starting wage. No experience of the candidate is considered in this, this is just the “how you can afford to live here” money. If people are stressed about groceries and money, or can’t pay a car repair bill, they aren’t going to be their best selves at work. More money is lost with people picking up slack.
So, let’s lay this out.
I’m going to pick two random cities.
Missoula, Montana (because I recently interviewed for a job there and have some knowledge) and Gainesville, Florida (because it’s on the other side of the country and a realistic market for most journalists).
**This isn’t perfect math, but it’s a good estimate using some reliable cost of living websites.
Average Rent – $1095 for a 1 bedroom (up 24% from a year ago) according to Zumper.com. That’s more than $13k a year just on rent.
**I saw some reports around $800, but when you actually LOOK at apartments there, that number is WAY off. Why? In the past year, pandemic and all, people with money figured out Missoula is a picturesque perfect. They can work at home an18d would rather pay Montana taxes than California taxes. They are driving up the prices and causing a supply issue because Missoula doesn’t have much room to grow with mountains and all surrounding it.
State Income Tax: Up to 6.9% (if you make more than $18,400)
State Sales Tax: 00% (HELLO NO SALES TAX!)
Register Your Car: Around $200 (not going to the weeds on this one, but you are welcome to!)
Average gas cost: $2,189 (getting 15 miles a gallon and traveling about 15k miles a year with gas prices at $2.25). Keep in mind, it’s a state of WIDE OPEN SPACES and you’re going to do some exploring which means some long drives. (From Great Falls Tribune)
Car Insurance: Minimum coverage is around $350 and the highest-end coverage is around $1700 per year. (bankrate.com)
Average Student Loan: $400 (educationdata.org)
Average Car Payment: $400 (lendingtree.com)
So just looking at the things you HAVE to get, you are at $26k a year (again, very loose math). We haven’t even gotten to phones or cable/OTT or groceries or shopping or pets. If a person is making $30,000 a year after taxes they bring home $24k a year (not including 401k activity). A $2k gap to even just basically make ends meet.
Now maybe you don’t have a car payment, but that old car will eventually break down (RIP to my 1992 Mitsubishi Eclipse that made it until 2001) and it will need maintenance. The good news is if you buy a car in Montana you don’t have to pay sales tax!
This is how you need to look, as a journalist, at the salary vs. cost of living. We’ll get to some other ideas on how to “do better” in a bit.
Average Rent – $984 for a 1 bedroom (up 6% from a year ago) according to Zumper.com. That’s almost $12k a year just on rent.
State Income Tax: 00%! (So, you can subtract the amount of income tax you pay now and add that to your take-home)
State Sales Tax: 6%
Register Your Car: Around $400 (more details here)
Average gas cost: $2,000 (and gas prices fluctuate so this is hard to gauge. And in Gainesville that game-day traffic can burn some fuel!)
Car Insurance: Florida is one of the most expensive in the nation. I was shocked when I got my premium bill. Between $1101 for minimum coverage to $2364 for full coverage. (bankrate.com)
Average Student Loan: $400 (educationdata.org)
Average Car Payment: $400 (lendingtree.com)
Just bare minimum? You need $25k a year. That’s just about how much you bring home after taxes.
When you are looking at places to live, it’s IMPERATIVE you review these types of things. Create an Excel or Google document with the list of ALL the expenses you get in a year. Start with the NEED list. You NEED rent, car insurance, the lights to go on, etc. Then do the WANT list, pedicures, clothes shopping, Netflix (it’s NOT a need, but I know it’s dang close.)
If you don’t look at any possible expense you aren’t going to realize things like the first time you register your car in Nebraska the cost is going to be HIGH. Like $1400 – $2500 high. There’s just a whole bunch of taxes rolled into that sucker. For my car, a 2020 Crosstrek, a renewal this year will cost me almost $600. That’s a far cry from the $150 I paid in Florida for a car the same age.
Even the Montana housing prices shocked me. That’s why I explained the story behind it. You can’t trust someone who said, “I lived there 15 years ago and it’s very affordable”. What is happening now? The pandemic changed so much, and Missoula is another thing it changed. What other cities are dealing with that? You are a journalist – do journalism for you by you.
Then you at least know what your average living costs will be and you can better go into “this is what I need to make ends meet.”
Now, ways to save. (We’ll get back to the bosses needing to cough up more dough in a minute).
1. Roommates. I know, I know, I felt the eye rolls from here. BUT.. think about it in TV. If you live with a roommate from work who is on the morning shift and you work nights, it’s like you live alone most of the time. Someone is always either sleeping or working. Apartments have come a LONG way with split floor plans, so your side of the apartment is like your own apartment. Maybe you find a roommate who travels a lot, and you have more alone time.
2. Yes, generally you can get a second job, but who has time for that in news? It’s more stressful and takes away from your community focus but I get some people have no choice. Now a side hustle is something you enjoy and make money doing. Intriguing. I’ve seen people make GOOD money off a Poshmark store. If you are good at TV makeup, maybe do wedding makeup for people in your sphere? Walk the dogs anyway? Why not start a dog walking business. At least it’s exercise from all those fast-food meals you scarf down between interviews. If you don’t have a dog it might cure your zest for one if you can’t afford the cost.
3. If you know you are going to be moving around a lot in the early part of your career, move lightly. I didn’t buy my first grown-up couch until my second job, and it was a pain to always pay to move it. I should’ve kept that futon longer. I rarely spent time at home anyway.
4. Have a “Wish List” on Amazon with necessities like toilet paper, cleaning products, hair stuff, clothing you need for the upcoming winter, etc. Share with your family or friends. I wish I had this option when I was starting out. It’s not “begging” for help when a loving aunt wants to send you something nice, or when your best friend ended up in law school and is now raking in money and wants to help you out. Those little things add up. Care packages are a part of the news journey tradition.
What potential employees might not know:
1. Headcount. It’s an important number. Full-time vs Part-Time is a difference in cost of hours, yes, but also benefits, which is a cost for employers. It’s not easy to add headcount and no News Director wants to lose headcount. But when you play the “shell game” of the budget, you can’t give everyone a 10% raise while eliminating 4 positions. Then you are mad those positions are gone. Much like your budget, we have budgets too.
2. Percentages. I’ve talked about this before in my articles. You want a $5k raise. We want to give you a 5% raise. News bosses and corporate bean counters are focused on PERCENTAGES of increases, not real numbers. So, I might offer you a 5% raise, the top tier I have to show you how important you are, and you are offended we are $3k off from what you wanted.
3. Overtime. I’ve worked at places where every second is accounted for and documented and others where it was the wild world of work as long as you want. You can’t plan for a certain amount of overtime, although we do budget for it most places. So, if we want to find an extra among of money to pay someone, it might come from the OT budget. I once had the task of corralling OT at a place where the hours ran over like wild horses. One person, fuming, came to me and said, “So you are essentially giving me a $5k pay cut”. I said, “No, I’m now paying you what you agreed to be paid. There is no guarantee of OT, but with hurricanes and breaking news, you’ll still get some. You just can’t come in an hour early and stay two hours late without getting it OK’d”. Pretty sure that person still hates me. I can’t say I don’t get where they are coming from, but I saw it as “be glad you milked the system for so long” instead of a punishment.
4. Employee Bonuses. Some companies offer these. Ask. If the station and company make a certain profit, they share that profit with employees. As a News Director, it used to be a staple to have an incentive bonus. To quote Clark Griswold “When people count on it as part of their salary..”, but then the bonuses are part of the cost-cutting. I know, you are thinking “Cry me a river, a manager who makes so much more than I do and didn’t get a bonus.” I get that, but I also know what I do all year long to earn that bonus and the hours you don’t see and the meetings you aren’t in and the positions we save, etc. It’s part of what we “hope” to get if we do our jobs right. But more and more some companies give “profit-sharing”. Ask about this in your interview. Prepare for the worst, hope for the best.
5. News is always going to take hits the hardest. We are generally the largest department in any building, so when cuts need to be made are they going for the 2-person accounting office? Or the 40-person newsroom? When you have to answer to the Board of Directors and/or Shareholders, you’ve got to show at the higher levels you are being fiscally responsible.
6. This problem can’t and won’t be solved overnight or by the end of 2021. It’s going to take an industry-wide effort to raise those salaries, maybe a little at a time, but to have an end goal in sight of “By 2023, all producers start at this” or whatever the case might be. We just can’t magically make money appear that isn’t there. But we can plan money that will be there in the future and how to distribute it.
7. Yes, you might have a crappy “whatever” system at your station and wonder why you pay so much for it. Contracts. That’s why. Most vendors come with contracts for a certain length and a certain time. It costs a lot to break the contract. So don’t get frustrated if you hear “We are getting a new system in 2023!”. That’s probably at the end of the vendor contract.
NOW FOR THE BOSSES
Ok, leaders, what CAN we do to fix this? Why do producers generally make less than a reporter? (Just asking, not judging.)
I once had an anchor, Randy Garsee, may he rest in peace, who said to me while working on a special project “I think it’s crap what they pay producers. I think producers should make at least half of my salary.” Now, it sounds like an insult, but it wasn’t. He was a seasoned anchor with military experience and a leader among the staff. He earned the right to his salary, and I guess I was making probably 33% of what he was making. I thought it was a nice comment. I half-jokingly said, “Anytime you want to give me some money, I’m down for that.”
I know it’s taboo to talk about pay, but we KNOW everyone does. I once had someone come in my office raging mad who had a contract with a previous News Director, and I hired someone at a different rate, and that person said “I need help with an apartment. I make XXX a year, so what can I afford?”. So, literally just told someone she makes more than the current employee. They are going to talk about money whether we like it or not.
When you see producers are now editing video or posting to websites, why do digital producers make different salaries than broadcast producers, and can we just combine the positions? Most recently, I was in the middle of a project where there were not going to be News Producers or Digital Producers. There were Content Producers. Half the day on digital, half the day on the broadcast. That way nobody can say “I don’t know how to send a push or post a story” and when a broadcast producer calls in sick a digital producer is left to figure out how to back time.
Every producer was going to know how to edit video, post to the website, set up live streams, line produce, booth, and do live shots. If they wanted to go on air? Ok, let’s explore that too. The more skillsets you have, the better, in my opinion. It breaks the monotony and local news is no longer a “you chose this path” mentality. We can and sometimes have to do it all. Some people WANT to do it all. You think a producer can’t edit? Check out their Reels or TikTok, they do. They are pretty damn good at it too.
They all were going to start at the same base salary, with higher salaries only based on experience.
Also, we need to stop being so stingy when it comes to salaries. I can’t tell you the number of times I had an anchor or reporter opening and the salary was “Set” for the budget as a certain amount. Rejection after rejection came in. I even once got scolded about “how can it take you so long to hire one of the most prized positions in the newsroom?”. Well, when I found a candidate I liked, the person who scolded me agreed to up the pay $10k. I could’ve filled it in week 4 of the opening if that had been the salary to begin with! Don’t wait until your managers are interview-exhausted to open the purse strings. I realize we have to make money, but we also gotta have good journalists. Plus, what work HAVEN’T we done as news bosses while we’ve been a Crocodile Hunter of potential new recruits?
If you’ve ever interviewed with me, you know I put money out front and center in the first call. I love money. It makes me happy. I don’t mess around with it. I don’t play the game. Here’s what we have. Does that work for you? Not really? Okay. When I’ve got about 5 people who say “No” to the salary I create a pretty little spreadsheet and go to my boss and say “So, here’s why this position isn’t getting filled. For $5k more we can close it in the next two weeks. Or we can keep paying $1000 a month to list and recruit for a job that isn’t getting filled.” Ideal to do this if you’ve seen a good revenue trending report in the past week.
I spent this entire summer interviewing people on weekends because I didn’t have a lot of time to coordinate during the week with candidates in school or in other jobs and a big project I was spearheading. I gave up weekends for the greater good, only to get rejected time and time again. I found people who were great, but man it took some time.
Can we reinvent this wheel? Can we take a good hard locked-away-in-a-room-for-a-weekend look at the budget and how to fix this? Or do we want to chase the tail of, “new employee comes, gets burned out, can’t afford to live here, breaks contract, moves on, people filling in get disgruntled, you start interviewing, new employee comes in. Rinse. Repeat.”, forever?
Here’s another thing I offer up. Sometimes it’s the little things that matter, even when the budget can’t budge. It was about 10 years ago I stopped taking any gift cards from the station or extra tickets sales had to events. If I got a $100 gift card at Christmas? I gave it to an employee. Maybe it was someone I know who had a new baby at home and was struggling. Maybe it was the person who just moved here and needed supplies. Maybe it was the person who always went above and beyond. Maybe I did a drawing. Each one was different. But that $100 (combined with their own $100) was going to be a grocery trip like they haven’t been able to do in a year. I once worked at a place where we gave out fancy restaurant gift cards for $50. What is $50 going to get you for a full meal at a fancy steakhouse? They were going to have to come out of pocket a LOT for that. So, I would give someone mine. I can absorb the cost of that, they can’t.
**WORK HACK: I once worked at a place where we did get $100 grocery store gift cards every single year. We knew it was coming. We plotted. Anyone who wanted to join in, we’d go on a mass shopping trip (ok to the liquor section mostly) and have our own Christmas party with spirits leftover for New Year’s Eve through Memorial Day. Adding up all those gift cards made for one hell of a Merry Christmas and there was no “2 drink maximum” like at the company holiday party. (Yes, there used to be company holiday parties at fancy resorts!).
Most recently, I had someone from an entertainment venue reach out to me to offer two tickets to the debut show of the season. This happens a lot in news (and please speak with your boss about any company policy on this as a payola or plugola). I said “Thank you, but I cannot accept this. I am COVID cautious and don’t go in public just yet, but I’d love to be able to donate this to someone new on my staff who doesn’t make a lot of money and would really enjoy getting to know part of the community.” COVID was my reason, but also my excuse. I can afford tickets without causing financial ruin for the rest of the month.
Another time the station where I worked had tickets offered to a REALLY good show coming to town. A certain show I oversaw had done a bunch of segments on this. There were 5 people who would’ve needed the tickets, but they got stingy when they only offered 4. I said we needed 5. They said no. So, I bought an extra ticket out of my own pocket and gave it to the 5th person. If we expect teachers to come out of pocket for some expenses, I see no reason a News Director can’t do the same.
I once worked at a company that did something I loved, as a money-hungry individual trying to make ends meet. If you gave them a sales lead that panned out, you got $50 or $100 in your next paycheck. If you referred a candidate to any station in the company after that person passed 90 days you could get up to $1000 referral fee (hiring managers were not eligible for this, for obvious reasons). I cashed in on that. We get pitched so many sales leads that aren’t news, it’s easy to forward an email or let a salesperson know about a new business we saw. I’ve got more incentive when I’m cashing in a little bit of that. And I’m helping the greater cause of “Revenue” which helps us get people and stuff. Those little amounts add up big time. You also learn a little more about how sales works, which is a good thing.
On the flip side, I once worked at a place where I sent a sales lead, and they got a big deal out of it. The salesperson even bragged about it and how much money they were making off of it. I said “Awesome! I’d like Chipotle as thanks!”. That Chipotle never came. It never will.
We also need to realize some of the financial lessons our newer staff members might not know. I’ve heard “What does the stock market have to do with my 401k?”. Seriously. But I explained it. I’ve had an employee who needed a new car, but she had no idea about the process, negotiating, etc. I put her in touch with a salesperson I knew to help her out. She didn’t realize credit ratings mattered so much.
I know for a while the word “Adulting” was hot. We’d do sessions to show people how to do basic things they hadn’t been taught by helicopter parents.
We can’t pay people poorly who don’t have the financial wherewithal, to begin with, and then be surprised when they freak out about money.
Look, I’m not saying “let’s move everyone to $50k a year minimum!”. I’m just saying let’s take a real, good, hard look at it. We have to. Or else we’re going to make ourselves extinct.
Let’s figure out the newsroom of the future before the future destroys us.