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Working for peanuts.

In the summer of 1989, Betty Gray, a 36-year-old reporter for the Washington Daily News in North Carolina, uncovered a giant scandal. She revealed that for eight years, public officials knew -- but kept silent -- about cancer-causing chemicals in the town's water supply.

Her storiesm had tremendous impact. Politicians were swept out of office in the next election, emergency measures were taken to make the water safe and environmental safeguards were put in place to make sure that American communities of 10,000 people or smaller -- previously considered too small to have their water supplies monitored by the state or federal government -- would be protected.

For her efforts, which included months of investigate digging, 70-hour work weeks and tough encounters with deceptive politicians, Gray won a Pulitzer Prize for public service, the most distinguished award in American journalism.

She also got a $25 raise, boosting her salary to $15,000 a year.

"My salary's on a par with a maintenance worker for the city," says Gray, who couldn't stop laughing when called for this story on what journalists earn compared to other high-pressure, high-performance professionals.

"The editor said to me, 'You realize this is not the highest paying newspaper, and we do value you, but it's not reflected in your paycheck.' Obviously it gets frustrating, we'd all like to get paid more. But I'm doing what I want to do."

Thousands of reporters throughout the country do what Gray does. They commit economic suicide to work killer hours, master complicated subjects on deadline, and bring news and often much-needed change to the communities they write about. They also work under the unspoken threat that they can get sued for libel, be fired or ruin someone's life or reputation -- not to mention their own -- if they get it wrong.

Yet compared to other pressure-ridden professionals, like doctors, lawyers and businessmen, reporters are paid peanuts.

According to figures from The Newspaper Guild and the Survey of Journalism and Mass Communications Graduates, the average starting minimum salary for Guild-represented reporters has gone from $12,946 annually in 1980 to $20,944 in 1989. For reporters with about five years experience, the average top minimum for Guild reporters is now $32,661, compared to $20,611 in 1980.

Even in New York City, where newspaper salaries are among the highest, reporters will never get rich. At The New York Times, for example, the minimum salary for a reporter with several years experience is $1,143 a week, or $59,400, the highest of any Guild newspaper in the country. Yet starting pay at top New York law firms for law school graduates with not a day's experience is $85,000 a year.

In the mid-range, journalists can earn around $675 a week ($35,000 a year) at papers like the Modesto Bee in California, the Indianapolis Star or the Portland Press Herald in Maine.

On the low end of the pay scale, you can work at the Newport News Daily Press in Virginia for $340 a week ($17,680 a year) or the Glens Falls Post-Star in New York for $240 a week ($12,480) with one year experience. Or the Chattanooga Times in Tennessee for $425 a week ($22,100) -- if you have at least four years experience. At Betty Gray's paper, the Washington Daily News, it's even lower: The entry level salary is $225 a week ($11,700 a year).

That puts journalists a lot closer to policemen and firemen than to white collar professionals like doctors, lawyers or accountants. In a study of the six largest police departments in the U.S., the Police Foundation found the entry level pay range to be $23,000 to $29,000. The top minimum scale range is $30,000 to $44,000. The International Association of Firefighters says the 1990 average base pay in its field was $24,922. Top scale was $31,756 (for a 50-hour work week).

There are several reasons why reporters come out on the short end of the salary stick.

First, most medium- and small-sized newspapers are not unionized, and there is little or no organized pressure on the owners to significantly increase wages.

In addition, the corporate owners of many newspapers are forever seeking ways to cut costs in order to boost profits. Reporter's salaries are an easy target since the supply of job-seeking reporters always exceeds the number of avaialable jobs.

Finally, journalists may be their own worst enemies. Many of them, like Betty Gray, enjoy their position so much -- being at the center of events, brushing shoulders with the power structure or serving as a public watchdog -- that they are willing to accept comparatively meager wages for their efforts.

"This is one of the biggest problems we have in organizing and in bargaining -- convincing reporters that they are worth more," says Eric Geist, an organizer for The Newspaper Guild, which is based in Silver Spring, Maryland. "It's fine that you like to do your job, but you should be compensated for it."

Ben Bagdikian, professor emeritus at the University of California at Berkeley's Graduate School of Journalism, calls the salary structure "inexcusable" and "shortsighted" on the part of independent owners and giant chains, some of which have annual net revenues in excess of $3 billion.

"The best people find that when they have children or can no longer keep their 12-year-old cars going that they will leave the business," Bagdikian says. "Even worse, the kind of highly competitive and skilled people who entered journalism 25 years ago will stop coming into the field."

Paul Critchlow, a former reporter for the Philadelphia Inquirer, is one of those lured away from journalism by the prospect of better providing for his family in a more lucrative field.

"I was getting good assignments and I just loved it, the thrill of the byline and ability to influence the course of events. My pay just never rose very quickly," he recalls. "Then we had a child in 1974. With With each move upward, I expected a significant pay raise. In my mind that would be $50 a week, or $2,500 a year." Instead, after six months in his newest assignment, he received a $20-a-week raise, to $22,500 per year.

"That is when it really began to sink in (how poorly reporters are paid) because living in Philadelphia was not cheap," Critchlow says. "My wife was not working. We wanted to have other children. We were constrained from doing so."

So he quit and took a $4,500 annual raise to become the press secretary for a gubernatorial candidate who went on to win the election. Critchlow was making $60,000 when he left the governor's staff in 1984. He later became senior vice-president for communications at Merrill Lynch, replacing Larry Speakes. Although he won't reveal his current salary, his predecessor was reportedly earning $300,000 a year.

Bagdikian and others point out that it is only in major American cities, like New York, Los Angeles, Washington, D.C., and San Francisco, that reporters begin to get salaries commensurate with the professional demands made on them. At the non-union Los Angeles Times, for example, it is not uncommon for veteran reporters to be earning upwards of $85,000.

Foreign correspondents are usually paid well, and they often receive generous perks such as free housing, maids, drivers and salaries on which they don't pay taxes.

But these are the exceptions to the rule. The average reporter's minimum salary at a Guild newspaper is $658 a week ($34,216 a year), according to a December 1, 1990, survey by The Newspaper Guild.

"We have had a $1,000-a-week minimum goal for a number of years here for every paper we represent," Geist says. "We think that people, wherever they are working, are working just as hard. It's obvious that if you look at newspaper profits, even in poor times, they make money."

In many industries, labor unions attempted to remedy these kinds of inequities. But they are not a power at most mid-size and small papers. The Newspaper Guild, in fact, represents only 124 of the 1,626 daily newspapers in the U.S., and reporters are often reluctant to risk even a low- or average-paying job to join a union and risk antagonizing management.

The Guild's defeat at the Gannett-owned Stockton Record, a paper with a circulation of 52,601 readers in northern California, is a prime example. Guild reporters there had not gotten a raise since their contact expired three years before, and it was commonly believed that if they ousted the union, the company would reward them with a raise. The Guild members did just that -- and they got their raise.

"We jus had our Guild unit decertified . . . we threw away our Guild representation," says Dana Nichols, a 30-year-old education writer who earns $525 a week. "People are really dispirited, and feel completely powerless having to trust the corporation."

Nichols, who had worked in one of the paper's bureaus, sued his employer in 1989 because they refused to pay Social Security taxes for bureau reporters. The company maintained that bureau reporters were independent contractors -- not covered by the Guild contract -- and thus were paid a flat fee, got no health insurance and had to pay their own Social Security taxes.

"Once I made it onto the staff in the main newsroom, I filed a complaint with the National Labor Relations Board on behalf of three reporters and a TV critic -- who were paid under the same unfair system -- and we got a $30,000 settlement for four people."

As a result, Nichols believes, he was put on nights and weekends for 15 months. Punished, he says, for filing suit.

Nichols, who is married with no children, says he thinks his pay is fine, enabling him to live in a nice place, go backpacking when he wants or travel to the Philippines later this year. "But there is no way I could afford to have kids," he says.

If lack of union power is one problem facing reporters, unrelenting corporate pressure to hold the line on costs is another. This is especially true during a recession.

"Publishers are pressed by parent firms for exorbitant profits and in turn treat their reporters like migrant workers," Bagdikian says.

The late C.K. McClatchy, editor and chairman of the California-based McClatchy Newspapers, warned of newspapers becoming "cash cows" for their parent company. He said the owners of newspaper chains sometimes are so worried about the bottom line that they don't pay enough to keep quality personnel.

A final reason why salaries remain low is the work habits of reporters themselves. Many works nights and weekends in addition to their regular shift, without pay, simply because they want to keep up with their bear or avoid missing a good story. For them, a typical lunch hour consists of wolfing down a sandwich at their desk in 15 minutes while they cradle the phone in one ear or read the wires.

"If you want to make a lot of money you don't go into this line of work" says Don Singleton, a veteran reporter for the New York Daily News who started his career at a New Jersey paper in 1959 for $80 a week and now earns in excess of $50,000.

Singleton, 54 , says he earned enough money to raise a family, but a house and a car and work in a profession he loved. His often poignant stories have told of people's triumphs and tragedies--including coverage from Lockerbie, Scotland of the families who lost loved ones aboard terrorist-downed Pan Am Flight 103.

He recently recalled the time when he was the first person to interview a Bronx mother whose 11-month-old baby was killed when stray bullets ripped through their apartment door.

"I just consider it a privilege and a great responsibility to take the most precious moment in a person's life and do the right thing with it. And I don't think it's any less important than brain surgery.

"You can't measure everything in money," he says. "The idea of being able to come to work in my Wrangler work shirt and jeans, and not having to wear a suit and tie, that's worth a lot of money to me."

Back in Washington, North Carolina, Pulitzer Prize-winner Betty Gray continues to put in long hours for her hometown paper. She and her husband are learning to deal with the fact that she earns 70 percent less than when she ran her familiy's insurance business. No more trips to New York at Christmas time to buy presents or see a Broadway play. Not even weekends in Raleigh to shop or eat in nice restaurants.

She takes it in stride when told that the janitor who mops the floors at City Hall might get to $16,000 before she does, or that the man who operates heavy equipment or supervises the city hall storeroom gets a bigger paycheck than she.

"Eventually, when I move on, I would expect to get paid more," Gray says. "I went into this with my eyes open. You have to be very dedicated because your reward is not going to come financially. One of the rewards for me is knowing that you can help somebody--or help teach the public about what's going on around them."

Ashley B. "Brownie" Futrell, Jr., the 34-year-old publisher of the Washington Daily News, called the $25 raise given Gray for the Pulitzer "very aggressive for us.

"I painted a very accurate picture for Betty about the economic realities of the business when she wanted to come work here. I told her I thought she had lost her mind (to give up her insurance company job)." Futrell refused to say how much of a profit his paper makes.

"Yes I think our reporters are underpaid for the work they do. I regret that, but in the scheme of things we are doing the best we can," he says. "My conscience is clear."

Heidi Evans is a reporter for the New York Daily News and a recent winner of the George Polk Award.
COPYRIGHT 1991 Society of Professional Journalists
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Copyright 1991 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Title Annotation:Special Report: Journalism vs. the Economy; journalists' salaries
Author:Evans, Heidi
Publication:The Quill
Article Type:Cover Story
Date:Apr 1, 1991
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