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Feb. 13, 2023, 3:54 p.m.
Business Models

Media’s money problem

Transparency is a tricky thing in an industry that runs on a scarcity mindset.

On January 27, J. Elliott Lewis, a professor of journalism at Syracuse University, tweeted a picture of a “Now Hiring” sign from the popular burger chain Five Guys. The salary on the sign was advertised at an average of $17.85/hour, and the job comes with free burgers. “The Five Guys on the Syracuse University campus is hiring, and they’re paying $17.85 per hour. That works out to $37K per year. Attention local TV station managers: If you are looking to hire our graduates, are you paying better than Five Guys?” Lewis wrote.

The job at Five Guys pays significantly more than my first job in media, where I was earning $12 an hour to copy edit, blog, and manage social media for an online magazine. I eventually worked my way up to $15 per hour, but when I had my second child and asked for more money, I was told my position was being eliminated.

And it’s not much better now. In 2019, I was hired at my local paper for a columnist job that paid $49,500, which put me just above poverty-level wages in Iowa. According to the nonpartisan group Common Good Iowa, a single parent with one child in Iowa needs to earn $21.16 per hour to live above the poverty line. I am a single parent of two children and my salary worked out to $29.79 per hour (or it would have if I were working 40 hours a week — but the reality is I was working far more). It wasn’t a poverty-level wage, but it certainly wasn’t a living wage — not by my standards or by societal standards. And I could only live on that salary because I was earning extra money writing books and freelancing.

But I was one of the lucky ones.

Iowa Public Radio journalist Zachary Oren Smith has worked hard to be transparent about his salary.

From 2018 to 2021, Smith wasn’t earning a living wage with his job at the Iowa City Press-Citizen, but it was certainly a lot more than he’d earned elsewhere — for example, writing for $25 an article at the Jackson Free Press in Mississippi. Smith is now making $45,000 at Iowa Public Radio. His experiences and mine highlight the money problem at the root of local media.

Smith and three other Iowa journalists — Linh Ta, Elijah Decious, and Ty Rushing — are organizing a survey that they hope will provide transparency and solidarity in a state where journalists are overworked and underpaid, and where jobs in the field are quickly disappearing.

Pay transparency is an essential component of closing the pay gap and building trust between employers and workers. But the industry that prides itself on shining a light on the powerful isn’t often willing to shine a light on itself (unless it’s forced to do so).

Pointing out problems with money in media, especially local media, can meet with immediate pushback. In 2021, I called Peter Wagner, a local newspaper owner who had recently bought The N’West Iowa Review. Wagner was a donor to disgraced former Iowa congressman Steve King, and I had some questions. But when I called and asked Wagner about how as an owner he would separate his politics from newsroom coverage, he yelled that it wasn’t important and he didn’t have to answer questions. Then he hung up. When I tweeted about the incident, local journalists defended Wagner. Douglas Burns, the former owner of the paper who sold it to Wagner, didn’t reply to texts or calls asking for comment.

A newspaper in Iowa struggling and local journalists trying to advocate for pay transparency may seem like different issues. But they are the same. And they aren’t just Iowa problems. They are money and media problems.

In 2022, The New York Times noted that 360 newspapers had shut down since March 2020. And more have closed since. In the past month, large media outlets like Vox and The Washington Post have laid off journalists. Jaya Saxena, a writer for the Vox vertical Eater and a member of the Vox Union, told me that the layoffs have been seemingly arbitrary, affecting people who were high-profile and well-respected, who brought in high traffic numbers and won awards.

The layoffs and newsroom closures come during a years-long trend toward union organizing in newsrooms. Workers across industries are tired from working all the time, never receiving raises, and being told that, in a time of historic corporate profits, there is never enough money. Consequently, the approval rate of unions is at an all-time high. But union participation is at an all-time low. This may be because unions take time to form and consolidate, or because people are afraid for their jobs. Because the implicit corporate position is always, “Just be grateful you have a job. Don’t ask for more. Don’t criticize.”

The problem is that money matters maybe more than it ever has. And journalists should be asking questions about power and money — even (especially!) the power that employs them.

Transparency is a tricky thing in an industry that runs on a scarcity mindset. So many journalists are passionate about their jobs — passionate enough to take poverty wages and work grueling hours, only to get eviscerating and abusive emails from community members (in my case, at least, the same community members who they see at their kids’ school pickups or swim meets). Journalists hold on to those jobs through gumption and the income of a spouse (usually a husband — but that’s a whole other cultural sinkhole) and are often afraid of upsetting the balance for fear of losing their jobs. After I was fired, I heard from so many journalists that they felt that if they said the wrong thing they might be the next to go. Like ants, journalists can smell death.

But fear makes for bad writing and bad reporting. And it makes for bad newspapers and magazines.

Career journalist Megan Greenwell, an instructor at the Newhouse School of Journalism, sums up the problem this way: “Media outlets can’t attract people without doing good and interesting work. And they can’t do good or interesting work without paying people a living wage.”

It’s an era of disinvestment in local media. Newsrooms are being gutted, scrapped, and sold for parts. The newspapers and media outlets that do exist often don’t pay journalists enough to cover rent, but still expect them to be grateful. The result is a land of news deserts — vast regions of America where misinformation thrives. Where the only media outlets that hold power or sway — or can exist at all — are the ones funded by partisan media groups or right-wing talk radio, and where people find more local news of value to them on Facebook than they do in their newspaper.

I was recently talking to an elected official in Iowa who is working hard to combat the glut of bills being proposed by the GOP, and I asked her how she was doing with it all. “I don’t know how to fight all the misinformation people have,” she said.

So often I hear people asking me why reporters don’t cover certain stories, why they don’t ask certain questions, why they don’t push back against certain ideologies, I try to be transparent and say, “We don’t have enough journalists. And the ones we have are not getting paid enough to feed their families. And the ones who can survive and can hold on can only do so because of privilege — maybe they are white men and getting paid more; maybe they are women married to men who make money.” For me, I was freelancing and selling books while also working full-time. It was not sustainable and it left me extremely burned out.

Low pay and grueling hours mean barriers to entry that skew journalism toward a certain demographic — white and male. It’s impossible to do your best work shining light on the activities of elected officials when you make $12 an hour and those same elected officials are organizing social media campaigns to put you out of work altogether. And it’s impossible to cover the needed range and depth of stories when you are overworked and underpaid and understaffed.

If you are lucky enough to work somewhere that offers you a decent income and benefits, the constant turmoil of the industry sends a clear message, as Saxena pointed out. The message: “Be careful, or you could be next.”

Greenwell, who is also writing a book about private equity in America, sighed as she tried to describe the problem. “It’s like the snake eating its tail, or the monster you can’t kill — pick your metaphor.” For years, people have been trying to address the issue with non-newsrooms, digital startups, social media collaborations, pivots to video, and so much more. Some people blame media consolidation. Others blame Facebook. They’re all correct and also all wrong.

“The question,” Greenwell said, “gets to the heart of not just how do you change media, but also how do you change America.”

Change has to start somewhere. And that change starts with transparency.

I reached out to Lewis, the Syracuse professor, to ask about the responses to his tweet. He told me that many people pointed out that fast-food work doesn’t guarantee 40 hours per week or benefits. But he has heard from some reporters who thanked him for shining a light on the issue. “One former student emailed me to thank me for the tweet and told me he’d recently gotten a raise at the small-market television station where he works. But he said that was only because he lived in a state that had just raised its minimum wage.”

If you are a journalist in Iowa, please fill out the pay transparency survey!

Lyz Lenz is a former columnist for The Cedar Rapids Gazette and the author of Belabored: A Vindication of the Rights of Pregnant Women and God Land: A Story of Faith, Loss and Renewal in Middle America. She lives in Iowa and her writing has appeared in the Columbia Journalism Review, The Washington Post, and The New York Times. You can subscribe to her newsletter “Men Yell at Me” — where this post originally ran — here.

POSTED     Feb. 13, 2023, 3:54 p.m.
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