A piece of cardboard that says "Will work for byline," with newspapers behind it.

Illustration by Traci Hafner

Pressing Issues

Illustration by Traci Hafner

Here’s the Real Cost of ‘Elite’ Journalism

The pay rates are ever-declining and newsrooms remain as white and male as ever. That's not only bad for readers—it's bad for business.

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We hear a lot about the decline of jobs in the Rust Belt, and how the turn toward automation will impact various industries. And we hear a lot about declining revenues in media, and how organizations are scrambling to remain financially stable. But it’s only rarely that we hear anyone talk about journalists with the same concerned tone we use to describe coal miners or steelworkers. It’s easy for people to take a sort of “who cares?” attitude toward the decline of American journalism when everything from TV and film to the President is telling them that journalists are by turn elitist, out of touch, or just plain power-hungry frauds.

Were the stats on journalism applied to any other industry, it seems likely that people would be up in arms about it. In 2014, the American Journalism Review reported that reporters’ pay had fallen below the U.S. average wage. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, wages for journalists have failed to keep pace with inflation. From May 2003 to May 2013, when the mean salary across all occupations rose 28 percent in the U.S., the mean salary for reporters and correspondents rose only 10 percent. The mean hourly rate for reporters today is about $18/hour. To put that in context, a quick scan of Craigslist in my part of the country (Reno, NV, a generally low-wage market), found the following other positions for the same wage: nanny, teacher’s aide, and office assistant, none of which require the college education or experience that a mid-range journalism job would. Salaries are higher in more expensive markets, of course, but those increases merely keep pace with the cost of living.

So far, the only people concerned about this are media critics and journalists, the latter of which can usually be relied upon to pen an angry essay or tweet thread that goes viral every few years. The most recent storm centered around Ebony magazine, which had failed to pay writers for several months. The last publication to find itself at the center of a wave of writerly rage was The Atlantic, when veteran journalist Nate Thayer shared an email exchange between himself and editor Olga Kazan on his blog. Thayer had been approached by Kazan, who had seen another of his stories and wanted something similar for The Atlantic. In response to an email from Thayer asking for specifics like length, deadline, and pay rate, she replied: “Maybe by the end of the week? 1,200 words? We unfortunately can’t pay you for it, but we do reach 13 million readers a month.” The exchange continued for a few back-and-forths, with Thayer explaining that “exposure” won’t feed his children or pay his bills and Kazan explaining that she knows it sucks but is out of freelance budget and some writers find the platform boosts their ability to get other work. It kicked off responses by Cord Jefferson at Gawker, Choire Sicha and various other media luminaries at The Awl, and, of course, ultimately, rebuttals of some of Thayer’s complaints by both Alexis Madrigal and Ta-Nehisi Coates in The Atlantic.

We haven’t seen much of an insightful exchange on media rates since then, probably in part because the folks mentioned above and others of their ilk have moved up the media ladder and are all making decent money these days (Jefferson is a writer for Aziz Ansari’s show Master of None, Sicha is the New York Times style editor, and Coates is perhaps the best-known writer of our time). But it’s also because the generation behind them never knew any better, never expected more. Here’s where people who are not writers trying to figure out how to make ends meet should pay attention: People entering media today more or less know what they’re getting into. They know that they may not be able to make a decent salary for a very long time, that they may need to work for free or very low rates to build credibility. That means journalism will continue to be a system rigged in favor of those who already have money. And while it opens the door for people with an agenda, a trust fund, a lust for fame (and, often, all three) to jump on the media train, it closes the door for many others, not always in obvious ways.

Maya Francis, a whipsmart Black writer who contributes to DAME, as well as Philadelphia Magazine and Esquire, among various other publications, is a classic example of how this system keeps some people out. “I got an interview for an internship at Marie Claire years ago in New York, and somehow the wires got crossed and I was on the phone afterward with my Mom, explaining everything to her. ‘Unpaid?’ She said. ‘No, you can’t do that.’ And I remember explaining how commonplace that was.”

In fact, unpaid internships were the norm in media until first Fox Searchlight and then Condé Nast lost high-profile class action lawsuits in 2013 and 2014 in which judges ruled that the interns should have been classified as employees and paid minimum wage. In the Condé Nast suit some 7,500 interns accused the company of failing to meet the U.S. Department of Labor’s requirements for unpaid internships (there are six criteria—in this case, interns argued that their internships were not educational or training-focused and that the work they performed materially benefitted the companies they worked for, which included The New Yorker, W Magazine, Vogue and Vanity Fair). Even at minimum wage, it’s tough for interns without other sources of income to put in the hours necessary to advance up the mainstream media ladder. It may seem minor, but not being able to get a foot in the door via an internship can materially harm any future journalist’s career.

Since Francis couldn’t take that internship at Marie Claire, she had to take less prestigious internships in Philadelphia, where she’s from. “I can still see the logo on the wall at the entrance; to be honest, I’ll always wonder how my career might have been different if I’d had that opportunity,” she says. “My parents have always been super supportive and encouraging but it was inconceivable that I’d be in New York City of all places for three months with a limited source of income. I remember my Dad asking how I’d be able to get a job if I was working for free all day. (A fair ask!) And for them, helping me pay an over-inflated short-term lease to live in New York just wasn’t an option. So it’s important to realize that the New York media hub is cost-prohibitive for many. The media landscape reflects that kind of privilege, especially when you start to think about how internships become incubators for titles and folks move up the chain and on to related work.”

This idea that you need to be able to afford to “pay your dues,” as it were, doesn’t necessarily make journalism any different from many other industries; you’d be hard-pressed to name any job where having independent financial stability or contacts from a particular university, or the sort of cultural knowledge that comes with being raised in a particular class doesn’t put you in a better position to succeed. The problem lies in the function of journalism—to educate and inform the public—which becomes difficult to do well when the system is tailored toward a very specific subset of people, who come with particular viewpoints about what makes a good story, source, or angle.

“The three-legged stool of media was always audience, editorial, advertising. So the question now is where to use different revenue models to increase diversity and the types of stories being told,” says Patti Wolter, an associate professor at the Medill School of Journalism (and former editor at Mother Jones and Self). “That’s not happening right now because the people who control the purse strings are doubling down on older, richer people. When you have things dependent on advertising and commercial revenue, it’s hard to have the guts to tell the stories that are different from what the mainstream thinks it wants to hear. And the mainstream is still being defined as the white monied status quo, even though there’s plenty of evidence of demographic shifts.”

Key voices rarely heard in media today include:

  • Women, particularly women of color. Every year VIDA does a count of bylines to determine how many women are making it into print. In its most intersectional count yet, of 2015 publications, the organization found that no mainstream publication has reached parity on its bylines by gender, and women who are members of marginalized racial or sexual identity groups continue to be far less represented than anyone. “I think it takes a lot more for Black writers to get supported or championed or be made visible in media spaces,” Francis says. As Ashley C. Ford has often pointed out (with respect to her mentor Roxane Gay), Francis says the key for Black writers tends to be finding a mentor who can teach you the ropes and help connect you with editors, but these mentors are few and far between because women of color in particular have been kept out of the upper echelons of media for so long (2017 did bring some notable changes in that respect, with Elaine Welteroth taking the reins at Teen Vogue and Radhika Jones taking over at Vanity Fair).
  • Men of color. In numerous studies from the mid-1990s to early-2000s, researchers found that Black, Latino, and Muslim men were disproportionately represented as criminals, low-wage workers, and terrorists, while whites were disproportionately represented as figures of authority and power across a variety of both local and national broadcast news. Updated studies in 2015 showed some amount of improvement for Black men, but found that Latino men were now overrepresented as criminals (hence the efficacy of all that “build a wall” rhetoric) and Muslim men were overrepresented as terrorists. This matters because the vast majority of Americans still get their news, and especially their local news, from T.V., according to a 2015 Pew study of American media consumption.
  • LGBTQ men and women. According to Jen Christensen, national board director for NLGJA (the association for LGBTQ journalists), newsrooms still don’t include questions about LGBTQ members of the press. “Anecdotally I can say, having been an NLGJA member for 21 years, I have seen a shift over time in our membership,” Christensen says. “We’ve seen a growing number of TV members join our group and a decline in print.” She attributes those shifts in part to the decline of print in general and the lifting of “morals clauses” from broadcast contracts, which, in the past, prohibited TV anchors from coming out publicly. Where Christensen says we’re sorely lacking perspective these days is on trans issues. “Generally, I think journalists want to get the story right,” she says. “They want to understand the facts. They want to know what’s true, but sometimes you don’t know what you don’t know. Our Rapid Response Task Force gets a lot of stories flagged that fail to cover the trans community accurately. Often, when we reach out to the reporter, we learn they won’t have intentionally, for example, mis-gendered the person they covered. What happened is that they don’t know the proper terms or they don’t know anyone who is trans to ask. Or they may not realize how important language is in this circumstance, and they don’t understand exactly how much pain that mis-gendering can cause. When we speak with them, most reporters and editors will quickly fix their mistake, and they thank us for helping them better understand the issue. That wouldn’t be as much of a problem if newsrooms fully reflected the diversity of the community.”
  • People who don’t live in D.C., New York, or L.A. New York City has been the magazine industry’s hub for several generations, while D.C. has had a stranglehold on political reporting since papers started hiring reporters to cover Congress back in the 1800s, and broadcast news has always been dominated by L.A. and New York. What’s changed in the past decade is that magazines and newspapers in smaller markets have collapsed, and “local” news channels have been snatched up by national syndicates. Journalists who live outside these major markets often struggle to find work, not because they’re inexperienced or untalented but because they are less likely to meet a potential future editor or boss at a party or to build an in-person network of other journalists and writers who let them know, for example, when a particular editor is looking for pitches or a particular station is hiring. Digital networks have helped, in this regard, but are far from a replacement for the real thing. “It’s important to talk about diversity around race, and we certainly haven’t figured that out, but we’ve also just started the journalistic conversation around diversity across socioeconomic representation, and we are reevaluating how to write about political viewpoints,” Wolter says. “For example, until recently, there were fewer stories from rural, low-income people or places across the board.”

Why readers should care about newsrooms

One need look no further than the near-total miss in predicting Trump’s ascendancy for evidence of how this hurts the general public. In covering the “media bubble” that allowed such a thing, plenty of conservative pundits pointed to the “liberal media” and its bias, but that argument stopped holding water as soon as you looked at any of the data on coverage of Hillary Clinton’s emails. Then FiveThirtyEight’s Nate Silver wrote back in March about the dearth of Republicans in America’s newsrooms (he found that as of 2013 just 7 percent of American journalists identified as Republican), but the media bubble story in Politico’s May/June 2017 really got at the heart of the matter, highlighting the massive geographic concentration of the media into a few key areas over the past decade.

Coverage of police violence against Black men is another obvious example of how the diversity of newsrooms, or lack thereof, impacts what gets covered and how. It took Wesley Lowery getting into a position of power at The Washington Post before the mainstream media joined advocates in counting how many police-perpetrated homicides were happening each year and how disproportionately often black men appeared as victims.

There are impacts at the local level as well. Under editor Mara Shalhoup, the LA Weekly became far more diverse in its coverage, for example. “If you look at our recent issues up to our latest one, every cover story was a woman of color or a woman over 40,” says April Wolfe, the alt weekly’s former film critic. “We needed the paper to reflect the city itself in a way that other publications didn’t. Our newsroom, like so many others, was too white, but we were actively out this past year trying to engage specifically with women of color to try to get them submitting and teaching them how to pitch and how to submit.”

When the paper was purchased earlier this year by Semanal Media, a company owned by several conservative businessmen, Shalhoup and Wolfe were fired, along with most of the rest of the staff. Semanal has not stated its intentions for the publication, and in fact kept its identity secret for months after the sale, but Wolfe says she’s concerned about the loss of certain coverage, not only because of Semanal’s conservative bent but also because it’s comprised of people with little to no experience in journalism.

“It sounds funny, but I’m worried about losing coverage of the school board,” Wolfe says. “This past race we had there was a lot of dark money invested in the race, like $11 million being spent. That’s happening right now, we know there’s some dark money there, and there are a lot of issues with charter schools and the L.A. teachers union and we worry that something like that will either slip under the radar or not get fair coverage because the new owners are very pro-charter school. It’s up to readers now to be watchdogs.”

When the beat does not go on

Losing a staff that’s been immersed in L.A.’s top local industry—film—will also have consequences, according to Wolfe. “What we were building up in terms of coverage of the politics of the film industry will get lost,” she says. “We treated film and the industry as our local labor beat and these are our neighbors, so we looked at it differently than national publications do, or even the LA Times.”

If your response to plummeting rates for journalists and the increasing shutdown of local papers is that journalists should just get different jobs, you should know that they are! And that’s another problem. In the past three years, at least a dozen reporters I know, most of them with years of expertise on a particular beat, have given up and jumped ship to more lucrative communications or PR jobs. They have taken with them institutional knowledge and, more importantly, beat knowledge, the lack of which will impact future reporting.

Take climate science for example—it’s a complicated beat and one filled with political minefields. Would you rather have someone covering it who has a decade or more of experience, knows which scientists to talk to, and how to debunk a jazzy press release, or someone who’s really good at infographics and social media? Because I can tell you from experience that many magazines and newspapers are hiring more of the latter than the former.

We’ll look at some of the solutions to media’s money woes in the next installment of this series, but in the meantime, consider that the problem is not an industry problem or a journalist problem, it’s a democracy problem. Democracy relies on an informed public; if we want the media to continue to play a role in informing people, we have to figure out a way to fund it transparently and pay journalists a living wage.

As Wolter puts it, “If we’re not going to pay people to do journalism well, we’re not going to get good journalism.”

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