Tuesday, December 27, 2005

Remembering Those Less Fortunate Media Types

To all of you who read this blog, I hope you had a joyous Christmas, and I wish you a happy and prosperous New Year. Whatever success this blog has achieved is the result of your patronage, comments, and suggestions. I hope you will continue to visit this site in 2006, for a continued exchange of ideas on national security, the media, and other topics of mutual interest.

As we celebrate the holidays, we should, of course, remember those who are less fortunate. Many are facing tough economic times, or dismal employment prospects. However, these particular victims are not survivors of last year's killer tsunami in South Asia, or the recent hurricanes along the Gulf Coast. Instead, these "unfortunates" populate the nation's newsrooms and live in trendy urban neighborhoods, or exclusive suburbs near major cities.

I'm referring, of course, to America's media yuppies. Until I read a recent Slate article, I didn't realize how tough it had become for a mid-level journalism couple to make it in the nation's media capital, New York City. As Daniel Gross postulates, a typical media couple (she's a reporter for the NYT, he's an editor at the Wall Street Journal) can earn a combined $250,000 a year. Not bad, you say. But when you factor in the city's higher cost of living, astronomical real estate prices, good schools for the kids, etc., well, it's downright difficult for these media types to make ends meet.

Mr. Gross claims that New York-area journalists don't want--nor do they deserve--pity. Fine, but why waste 1,000 words on a subject that's hard (for most of us) to get excited about. I will give him credit for one observation: Mr. Gross notes that most journalists "like comfort and access, but we don't want to work all that hard." And that's what seperates the media types from their neighbors who work on Wall Street, at the big law firms, or in the upper echelons of big business. In those sectors, princely pay checks are usually based on a certain degree of performance, risk-taking, and (yes) profit, words that are anathema to most media types.

If present trends continue, Gross believes that some of the best and brightest journalistic types will vote with their feet and head for greener pastures. I'm not so sure. A four-year journalism degree--even from "prestige" schools like Columbia, Northwestern and the University of Missouri--may prepare graduates for an entry-level reporting job, but it is not a foundation for success as a Fortune 500 manager or executive. Besides, the "nice pay check/little work"mindset that Daniel Gross describes won''t take you very far at a Wall Street firm, or anywhere else in corporate America. Consequently, I don't see a stampede of journalist types to the "greener" pastures of the business world.

Besides, there are plenty of eager, talented reporters who are willing to report for major media organizations for less than the elites now earn. It's the old law of supply and demand; since Watergate, the nation's journalism and communications schools have churned out far more graduates than the market can absorb, keeping wages low. My first full-time reporting job in the Mid-West in 1980 paid just over $13,000 a year--and that was with a college degree and three years of professional experience. My last journalism job (before joining the military) paid a whopping $14,500. Back in those days, my "dream job" was a reporting gig in Memphis, St. Louis or Nashville that might pay $2o,000 a year.

At those wages, I obviously wasn't working for the NYT or NBC news, but there was plenty of competition, even at that level. One of my chief competitors in those days was Erin Hayes, who later became a national correspondent for CBS and ABC News; a young woman named Kelly Ring worked as a summer intern in my newsroom; she's now the primary anchor for WTVT, the Fox-owned station in Tampa, Florida. And, across the border in neighboring Kansas, a young fellow named Brian Williams was cutting his teeth in the TV news business.

Twenty-five years later, starting salaries for aspiring journalists remain low, thanks again to an over-supply of j-school graduates, and limited demand in the job market. If the media elites decide to take a hike, there are plenty of hungry, ambitious young journalists willing to join the Times, WSJ, or the networks, for two-thirds the salary of an established reporter, producer, or editor. And, with many MSM companies in financial trouble, it's an offer that management finds increasingly attractive. There's been an exodus of experienced reporters from the Times over the past year, with many accepting buyouts or early retirement from the paper. It's a good bet that new hires will earn only a fraction of what their predecessors were paid.

So remember these unfortunate media types this holiday season; the would-be yuppies who can't afford the lifestyle they crave; those poor journalistic couples trying to scrape by in NYC on a measley $250K a year, forcing them to choose between pricey Manhattan real estate, or a "long, painful commute" from the 'burbs. Theirs is a dire predicament, made more difficult by the notion that they somehow "deserve" a megabucks salary, palatial apartment (or house), luxury cars and hefty stock portfolio for their "work."

As John Stossel might say, "Give me a break."

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