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Bright lights, big city ... low pay.

Nancy Walser didn't become a reporter to make money. Like most journalists, many of whom could have excelled in higher-paying fields, Walser knew that although her salary would be low, the reward for working in the nation's capital would be high.

Walser, a reporter with States News Service in Washington, D.C., is one of hundreds of print journalists who ply their trade in big city markets at below market value. States News Service reporters localize Washington news for papers across the country, giving readers the homefront angle on everything from Medicare to transportation issues.

Her starting salary 15 months ago, when she left a twice-weekly in suburban Virginia to join the service, was $15,600.

How to Walser and her colleagues make it at that wage in a city like Washington during tough economic times like these? "We don't," says Walser. "We all get subsidized in one form or another. Some people are living with other people, they're married, they live with their parents or they live cheaply in a group house situation."

Others freelance to boost their income. But Walser says money -- or lack of it -- was not an issue for her when she left the job in Alexandria, where she was making about $3,500 more a year. She was looking for a challenge and a chance to cover the city. Now her stories routinely appear in the Boston Globe.

Is it worth sacrificing money to work in Washington for States? "We jump from one complicated subject to the next," Walser says of her work at the news wire, where she reports only on news affecting Massachusetts. "I think that when people hear the word 'States,' what that connotes is a reporter who is willing to go that extra mile."

Elizabeth Roller, a rewrite person with Chicago's City News Bureau, acknowledges that she and many of her colleagues get "frustrated with the amount of money we aren't making."

But Roller, who makes $13,000 a year, isn't exactly complaining. She says working for City News in a big market like Chicago has provided invaluable experience. She says college professors consider work at the service prestigious, even if the pay is atrocious.

"The money aspect is definitely a sacrifice but you hope it pays off," says Roller, who helps make ends meet by living in the suburbs. "It's very tough sometimes."

Roller, like Walser, also took a pay cut when she started the job nine months ago. "I basically gave up money for the experience."

"The basics you learn there are the basics of the business," Pulitzer Prize-winner Seymour Hersh once said of his brief stint there in 1960.

Paul Zimbrakos, managing editor at City News Bureau, says his starting salary with the service 33 years ago was $28 a week, $7 a week less than he was making as a copy boy.

"For newcomers they can at least eat now," he laughs. "But there isn't a small weekly or a small daily that is going to prepare you like City News Bureau does. It's been a historical training ground for reporters over the years."

City News is co-owned by the Chicago Tribune and the Chicago Sun-Times. Although now used largely as a tip service for the two Chicago dailies, The Associated Press, The NEw York Times and 27 broadcast subscribers, City News has had its share of scopps.

A City News reporter broke the story that gangster John Dillinger had been gunned down in 1934, and the bureau was the first to report a number of unusual deaths in September 1982 that turned out to be the Tylenol cyanide poisonings.

"You can look at the roster of people working at the two dailies here and local TV stations," says Zimbrakos, "and you'll see that they're just loaded with alums from City News." (The list includes Chicago Tribune syndicated columnist Mike Royko. Novelist Kurt Vonnegut and the late actor Melvyn Douglas also worked there.)

Leland Schwartz, editor of States News Service, said the majority of his 55 staff members make between $300 and $400 a week, though many reporters covering Washington for other organizations make up to three times that much.

"People don't only come here thinking about the salary," says Schwartz, who has been with the service for 18 years. "We watch staff members routinely turn down jobs at twice the salary for jobs at a newsletter or something."

He says the newspapers that subscribe to States News Service -- the Boston Globe, New York Times, Miami Herald, Dallas Morning News and others -- routinely hire reporters from his bureau. And his reporters' stories are read by millions of people nationwide. Therein lies the trade-off.

"States is a ticket to a better job and that is the primary reason the staff comes here. We've seen about 300 reporters come through here and dozens and dozens of them are out working for some of the best papers in the country," he said. "A lot of people work at some wonderful places not necessarily for the salary."

Schwartz, whose staff is allowed to freelance, said most of the people he hires have had two or three other journalism jobs before working for States.

While most reporters use City News Bureau and States News Service as a jumping off point on the way to bigger things, that stopover is a little longer than it used to be. With fewer job opportunities, reporters and editors have lost flexibility to go on to the next step. Most are just glad to have jobs.

"In 18 years I have never seen the turnover so slow," says Schwartz. "Usually we hire 40 people a year. And it's down to a crawl."

"The whole economics of this place is that you spin out after a year or so," says Walser. "But with the recession in the industry it's harder to spin out. Still I think we all believe it will pay off--that editors will recognize the issues we have to deal with and the kind of hustling we have to do, which is still very important in this industry."

Like States News Service and City News Bureau, United Press International has been a proven training ground for journalists looking to hone their skills.

Roger Bennett, western region overnight editor for UPI, has spent 18 years with the organization. "There are a lot of people who are making great sacrifices to stay here," he says of the troubled wire service. "But there is still this inexplicable loyalty."

In November, UPI employees agreed to a 35 percent, 90-day pay cut to help stave off financial ruin. Top-scale reporters and editors went from $690 a week to $448. First-year journalists made $234 a week, instead of the usual $360. In February, employees voted to continue working for reduced pay another 90 days.

Bennett, who started with UPI in Salt Lake City, says part of the lure of working for UPI was the respect with which he was treated as a member of an international wire service. "There used to be some prestige with working for a wire service," Bennett says, even though the company has long been financially unstable. "Frankly, UPI has lost a lot of that prestige."

Walser says her stint at States News Service is based more on gaining experience than on prestige. "I'd call it boot camp," she said of her work. "If you can survive it then you've really made a substantial investment in your career, one that people still recognize. It would be a terrible day when it no longer mattered that you paid your dues."

Melissa McCoy is a Long Beach-based writer and editor for the Long Beach Press-Telegram.
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Title Annotation:Special Report: Journalism vs. the Economy; journalists' salaries
Author:McCoy, Melissa
Publication:The Quill
Article Type:Cover Story
Date:Apr 1, 1991
Previous Article:Cash in the sand.
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