The shame of starting salaries in TV news

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Some issues just won’t go away. More than a decade ago, I wrote a column for American Journalism Review in which I posited that some of the best and brightest J-school grads probably weren’t going to work at local TV stations because the salaries were so low. Last week, I got a call from a journalism prof asking me if I thought things had changed. Sure, I said, some things have, but not the bottom line.

My case in point in the original column was a new college graduate named Jennifer. She had earned her degree in broadcast journalism from a large state university in the Midwest. She was bright, personable and her résumé boasted an impressive series of internships and summer jobs in newsrooms.

So where was she working? In public relations. Not because she couldn’t get a job in news, she said, but because she couldn’t afford to. Her PR position paid almost twice as much as she was offered by one newsroom.

Back then, a lot of news directors told me their job applicants left a lot to be desired. Their writing skills were weak, they had little or no knowledge of government or history. They appeared to think they were entitled to work the day shift, and by the way, they wanted their weekends off.

That was before the recession hit, of course. With jobs scarce in every field, my guess is that highly qualified graduates were more than willing to “settle” for local TV jobs, if they could get them. And after several years of slashing payroll, stations did start hiring again as the recovery took hold, particularly for entry level jobs.

But if employment was up sharply, salaries were not.

The median starting pay in television news was about $25,500 in 2011. According to the annual survey of journalism and mass communication graduates by the University of Georgia, that’s the lowest full-time salary paid in any journalism field. And it’s been that way for a very long time.

The bottom line is that new hires in TV newsrooms today make considerably less in terms of purchasing power than I did when I started in this business 40 years ago. My first television job paid $6,000 a year. Plug the numbers into a cost-of-living calculator and that turns out to be the equivalent of $33,412 in 2013 dollars, almost 24 percent more than today’s starting average. That’s grim.

Broadcast news has never been the business you’d choose if you’re trying to get rich. But as the economy improves and entry-level salaries in TV news stays flat, I suspect we’ll see many of the most qualified graduates once again taking jobs in some related, better-paying field.

Bob Papper, who conducts a separate salary survey for RTDNA, once said that broadcast news is rapidly becoming “one of the lowest-paying jobs a college graduate can find.” With student loan debt hitting $1 trillion, only those whose parents can subsidize them may be able to afford to work in news. And that’s just sad.

Originally published at NewsLab


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