Media payscale datapoint of the day

By Felix Salmon
February 11, 2010
advertising for a social media intern:

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ProPublica — a 501(c)(3) nonprofit — is advertising for a social media intern:

ProPublica offers one distributed reporting/ social media internship each spring, summer and fall. The spring and fall internships last 16 weeks. The summer internship lasts 12 weeks. The internship is full-time, based in New York, and pays $700 per week.

Let’s put this in perspective here. The average 15-24 year-old makes $9,862 per year, or $190 per week. The average 25-29 year-old — older, one would imagine, than ProPublica’s social-media intern — makes 27,436 per year, or $528 per week. Indeed, $700 per week, or $36,400 per year, is higher than the median wage for every single age group in America. Even the highest-earning of the lot, the 50-54 year-olds, only make 36,138 on average.

Now if you’re Paul Steiger, the editor of ProPublica, pulling down $570,000 per year, or $10,962 per week, then I’m sure that it’s barely conceivable that anybody could get by on a mere $700 for a week’s work. And it’s true that New York City is an expensive place to live. But it’s also true that the median per capita income in New York City in 1999, the last year for which there’s census data, was just $22,402, or $431 per week.

Of course, I have nothing against high wages, especially not in journalism. But it’s pretty clear to me what’s going on here: the high wage is a signal that this internship is for high-achieving upper-middle-class ivy-leaguers; even, dare I say, for the Young Global Leaders of tomorrow. “Applicants should have experience reporting and/or managing volunteers (or online organizing),” says the job listing, “and a track-record of innovation”.

The spring internship, which is hiring now, will pay a total of $11,200 for 16 weeks, on top of all the transferrable skills and contacts that it is designed to help build. It’s a plum gig, which will surely be snapped up by someone who doesn’t really need it, as opposed to someone without a fabulous and expensive education, without a middle-class upbringing, maybe even without a place at college — but someone who might still have a real aptitude for navigating and leveraging social media.

The fact is that ProPublica is looking to fill this position with someone who might consider $700 a week to be a fair wage for doing clever things on Facebook for a few months, but who reasonably assumes that they’ll improve upon that figure once they get a proper job. If you’re part of the majority of the population who would consider $700 a week to be an enviable wage at any point in someone’s career, you’re really not the target audience. And simply offering that much money is a signal to most such people that, sorry, this is a job for the privileged elite.

If ProPublica pays its summer interns $700 a week, and its editor $570,000 a year, then you can get a pretty reasonable idea of how much it pays its full-time staff. And you can compare that to the way that Jake Dobkin characterizes the economics of the New York blogosphere:

If you don’t want to fire more journalists, you’ll have to cut their salaries. Full time bloggers make about $40-50K. There are plenty of qualified journalists out there who will work for those salaries (many with Ivy-league J-school degrees!)

I think that the idea of non-profit journalism is an interesting one, which is worth experimenting with and exploring. And I think it’s noble that a non-profit like ProPublica has decided to set a high bar when it comes to pay. But I also fear that if ProPublica is ultimately doomed by its high cost structure, that could do unnecessary damage to the whole model of non-profit journalism. And I fear too that ProPublica is going to end up being staffed by a group of privileged and talented white guys who are convinced that their intelligence and their expensive educations are reason enough, in and of themselves, for them to be earning six-figure salaries. Meanwhile, the Sandlers, footing the bill, will be congratulating themselves on the quality of staff that they’ve managed to attract with their high wages.

In other words, there’s a downside to paying well — and that’s a degree of complacency and self-regard which is not uncommon in non-profits at the best of times. And to come back to the internship, a social-media job at ProPublica is never going to be easy in the first place, just because the whole edifice is set up so as to broadcast the work of a few excellent journalists to a large and grateful world. An organization of highly-paid elite professionals will never be collaborative or particularly accessible.

Personally, I prefer the cheaper and messier versions of ProPublica — HuffPo, say, or maybe Current TV. But interestingly, both of them are for-profit organizations, who feel no shame about paying small amounts of money for talented staff, no matter where those staffers might come from.

So while there’s undoubtedly a lot of upside to the message that ProPublica is sending with its payscale — that journalism is a high-value proposition, well worth paying serious money for — it’s worth being alive to the downside, as well — the message that journalism is an elitist profession, inaccessible to most Americans. Especially when the fact is that, even today, both of those messages are true.

Update: ProPublica’s Dick Tofel responds in the comments:

We’ve actually made it a point at ProPublica not to have unpaid internships, precisely to level the playing field between children of privilege and those who need to work for a living. Our research indicates that what we pay is the prevailing wage for such jobs (I wonder what Reuters pays interns?). And note that our interns don’t receive benefits. By the way, using 11 year old data for income seems funny for a business journalist. More recent figures indicate that median household income in New York in 2007 was almost $49,000, and New Yorkers in their 20’s were reported by the New York Times to make a median of $33,000 in 2005.

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