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.

Comments
20 comments so far

Aren’t you giving the worst possible spin on this? Here’s another story.

NYC is _very_ expensive. Say I’m from nowhere-state university, up to my eyeballss in debt, parents have no money or don’t care about my education: to get this internship I need to move to NYC, and later back, rent somewhere for 16 weeks (no rent control, no long-term lease, no second income, no connections) and I’m paying NY city and NY state tax (and full FICA, etc) , so all of this is what? $7K cash-in-hand to pay for all this?. Doable, but I’m hardly adding to my nonexistent savings! This pay makes it all viable but, say, half the wage it would simply not possible be no matter how much I could do for them or them for me.

On the other hand, consider my family is moneybags from Ct. “Whatever” it takes is just part of the cost of my education, and is viewed in the same pot as other college costs. If the experience/connections are worth it, they’ll make it livable for me. $11K pre-tax salary, $1K, $50K, it’s largely irrelevant. Or at least, the parents will happily top up a similar amount to which 16 weeks of school would cost anyway.

Posted by bxg2 | Report as abusive

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.

Posted by rtofel | Report as abusive

Felix, you’re really on a nonsense roll. Paying your workers a decent salary indicates that they must be born privileged and leads to complacency? What’s the real reason you’re so grumpy with ProPublica?

The above posts are dead on. I’ll add that the low pay-scale in many public interest jobs guarantees that they are held mostly either by the idle children of the rich or the least competent workers available (with a few highly-frustrated competent idealists mixed in). Those who have useful talents tend to want to earn enough money that they don’t have to share a studio apartment with three people and eat Ramen every day for the rest of their life. There’s a reason that our bankers repeatedly outmanuever our banking regulators, and it has a lot to do with the fact that our bankers are funded at 10-100x the level of the people who are supposed to be clever, experienced, and motivated enough to regulate complex financial institutions. Maybe if Reuters could afford to pay a little more we’d get a financial blogger who knows something about how to interpret statistics and complex financial issues. You write about interesting topics with a witty style, but your last few weeks have been full of howlers that never get corrected.

Posted by najdorf | Report as abusive

I guess using the words “white” and “privileged” in the same sentence was Felix’s good deed for the day.

Posted by Mega | Report as abusive

I’m all for paying interns – indeed, I’ve argued repeatedly that the abuse of internships is the main reason that the British media remains so class ridden. But $700 still seems like a hell of a lot.

“NYC is _very_ expensive”

So is London, and most full time London based journos don’t earn anything like $700 a week. Starting salaries are typically in the low double digits per year, and apart from a handful of editors and columnists, even experienced journos are lucky to earn £30k-£40k a year.

Posted by GingerYellow | Report as abusive

This is crazy talk! I’m a lower-middle class college student buried in debt that will be applying to this internship precisely BECAUSE it offers a wage that makes it possible for me to live and work in NYC. ProPublica is doing a service to poorer students (or even those not in college) who can’t afford to work a full-time unpaid internship (especially in New York).

The signaling argument is just bizarre. Why would you discourage higher paying internships? They make it possible for those without Daddy’s trust fund waiting for them to take the job.

Posted by ceisenhood | Report as abusive

I checked today: Reuters pays its summer interns in New York $750-850 per week. So two more questions: 1) is this “a signal [by Reuters] that this internship is for high-achieving upper-middle-class ivy-leaguers; even, dare I say, for the Young Global Leaders of tomorrow”?; and 2) is there some reason ProPublica should not be allowed to compete with Reuters for talent?

Posted by rtofel | Report as abusive

Felix, a meta-comment prompted by comment #3 above.

Maybe you are confident of your opinion on this particular issue. But I agree with #3 you do tend from time to time produce absolute “howlers”, but I’ve never
seen you clearly retract any opinion in the original forum – if anywyere. Worse, there have been times when you form an opinion on something that turns out to be factually incorrect, and your blog remains unchanged in form. At best “X!!! Hence, long discusive hence Y….”. Becomes “X!!! Long discursive hence Y… . (Update: by the way, I was misinformed, X isn’t at all true.)”

I’ve been a big fan, but it’s becoming increasingly
offputting to me how the commercial demand to produce incessent provocative comments appear to corrupt your honest thoughtfulness. I think it’s inconsistent to try
to post your off-the-cuff impressions on every hot topic
as soon as you have an emotional thought about it, and at the same time as you push a dictum that “I wrote it down in my blog, it’s inviolable now”.

-bxg2:

N.b. congratulations. You sometimes load on firefox.
Great advance since last month. It took three minues before your partner sites gave up trying to spam be, but you got through. All congrat’s to Reuter’s tech team. 1990′s, here we come!

Posted by bxg2 | Report as abusive

Dick, you should probably ask Reuters those questions, rather than me, I certainly don’t speak for Reuters on these or any other matters. (See the disclaimer at the top of this page.) But if you want my personal opinion, Reuters is massively overweight the upper-middles in general, and the English, privately-educated upper-middles in particular. At least when it comes to the journalists, I can’t speak for the rest of Thomson Reuters. (And journalists make up, I think, about 4% of Thomson Reuters employees.)

As for “competing with Reuters for talent”, you not only can, but you do: Jesse Eisinger being a prime example. But there isn’t any kind of competitive market in interns, where the Top Talent ends up working for the news organization which pays its interns the most money. Why does Reuters pay its interns that kind of money? I don’t know, ask them — but I suspect that the Guild would not look kindly on any attempt to bring in journalism practitioners on the cheap.

bxg2, I’m not sure what you want from me. On many occasions I’ve said that I was wrong about something, and I’ve generally done that in one of two ways: either I’ve put up a whole new post detailing exactly how I was wrong, or else I’ve put an update at the end of the blog entry in question. I think it would be intellectually dishonest of me to retract a post after I’ve posted it: after all, it is what I believed at the time, and all I can do after the event is update it or change my mind.

But of course I don’t in any way consider my opinions to be inviolable after I’ve published them. I contradict my previous opinions often, sometimes in the space of one day. One of my slogans is that “if you’re never wrong, you’re never interesting”. Ask me one of these days about that whole series of blog entries I wrote about CPDOs. Or, for that matter, the long post I wrote on why Reuters wouldn’t buy Breakingviews.

Felix, thanks for responding. I’ll try to explain what I “want” from you but please recognize that I recognize you have no obligation to me; I’m trying to be constructive…

Short story: you get credit for acknowledging you
are wrong when this turns out to be objectively so (not a small feat!), but I am thinking about opinions: you have them so forcefully and publicise them so immediately: is there no case where a few hours reflection (and maybe some comments to help you along) make you rethink? If never, well … I think highly enough of you so don’t believe this … so ignore this case. But if you do ever revisit your opinions, how does this show up in your blog?

Your BreakingViews comments an issue apart. You wrote a strongly worded opinion centered around a prediction, and from your language everyone could see you were going out on a limb; yet many months later reality proved otherwise. And credit it due for not just ignoring it, but acknowledging that your prediction was wrong and speculating why – this is a good thing. It’s hard, but just not _that_ hard.

But my concerns are not over this. Let’s start with the
“facts unravel in real time” thing. There are now very many examples, this one sticks in my mind for some reason:
http://blogs.reuters.com/felix-salmon/20 09/12/14/private-jet-divas-miss-their-me eting-with-obama/
Within small hours of posting, it turned out your premise was incorrect and you IMO _slowly_ added updates while keeping the story as is. The provocative title remains, the text remains. Personally, I would added a new first sentence acknowelding that everything to come was basically bogus AND retracted the traffic-whore title. You can keep the text online, including the title, but there’s a difference between “I SCREWED UP (here’s what I originally wrote)” and “My original story (By the way: “Update”s, the underlying facts are wrong.)

Now let’s get to more subjective things. Your opinion on ProPublica internshipts was wrong IMO and the comments, both opinionative and factual (e.g. your error about NYC wages) should be convincing to someone of your calibre. But this is one issue people can disagree on. Yet I’ve seen many such recently. FREQUENTLY I read a story and think I agree and think I have learned something, but then read the commentary or related news and revise my opinion. “Don’t give money to Haiti” was another example where I felt this way. You can differ on these examples.. But the point is: I _never_ see you do this.
“This == unforced, revisit the opinion you formed and posted in the first moments after after some event”

You are not a primary source for facts; you offeopinion. Yet somehow, you never revisit your opinion
unless facts force you too and even so you bring the philosopy of a 20′th century newspaper (We can print a legally-minimal correction, in the smallest font possible, on page 27, rather than change things to say
“I was wrong/changed my mind”. Even if you are changing
an opinion piece 2 hours old!).

Short short version: Are you a news source, or are you an opinion source? If the latter, and given you under pressure to react ASAP to everything, don’t you think there shoudl be a few “Well, I’ve rethought this, and…”
posts/corrections?

Posted by bxg2 | Report as abusive

N.b. sorry for the incoherent typos. Your tech team
has come a long way since the darkness of December (though I still think it needs to hire someone who can QA the reuters site on something other than Microsoft’s-latest-brower-on-a-vanilla-i nstall-of-MS’s-most-recent-OS).
Still, if you are after suggestions, the (elsewhere-standard) ability to preview before posting would surely be nice.

Posted by bxg2 | Report as abusive

I’m following up to my own follow-up (shouldn’t there be a a law against that?). But you still embed content
through “gigya.com”: who is getting the kickback
here? If you were a private company it wouldn’t matter
how Reuters channels money to its directors’ friends,
but I thought you were public? Even if it were legal
to do this, do you think it would be possible to simply
wire them whatever money you want to give them rather than funnel it the way you are doing? The way I see it: you pay off gigya directly, and your website is more functional since you don’t have to pretend to “involve” them”: isn’t this win,win,win?

Posted by bxg2 | Report as abusive

(Last comment, I promise…)
My previous comment was stupidly naive. By apparently providing a “service”, no matter how detrimental it may be, I’m as sure both Reuters and “gigya” reap tax advantages. I nevertheless think it should be possible to come up with some claimable psuedo-service they could provide to Reuters which preserves any tax benefits yet doesn’t actually impinge so negatively upon the real world.

Posted by bxg2 | Report as abusive

yeah, I see that gigya thing too. Not sure what it is, I’ll try to find out, it does seem to slow down pageload times.

bxg2, you make some good points. Let me first address the main one, which is the “private jet divas” post. As soon as I found out the divas were flying commercial, I updated the post — not just at the bottom, but at the very first point in the text where I speculated that they might have been flying privately. Most of the text remains germane despite that point, and I hate changing headlines after they’re published because if people linked to my post saying “look at this idiotic headline” I want it to remain just as idiotic as they think it is without giving the impression that I’m going back and covering up my tracks in any way.

As for the NYC wages, there are errors on both sides: it’s just as silly to use household income as a basis of comparison as it is to use old numbers — and I used the old numbers because they were the most accurate ones I could find. I feel that I was making quite a subtle point, saying yes on the one hand this is good, but then on the other hand, and people ended up concentrating only on the second part and not on the first. That’s fine, maybe they need to feel that they’re inhabiting the unalloyed moral high ground. But I think that a lot of things are more complicated than they might at first seem.

Finally, yes I change my mind, and I do it in public. I changed my mind on mortgage-backed securities, on whether nominally recourse mortgages were actually recourse in reality, on whether charging for anti-malarial bed nets was a good idea — even, causing quite a stir by doing so, on whether nationalizing banks was a good idea. I actually pride myself on changing my mind more than just about any other blogger out there in the economics and finance space: what I find valuable is the debate, not the destination. But you’re right that probably I should do it more often.

Excellent story.
Virtually no one examines Propublica or its spending.
-Why does it spend $623,394 this year on rent, for example?
-Why does the Knight Foundation give Propublica grants when a) Paul Steiger is on the Knight Foundation board and b) Alberto Ibarguen of Knight is on the Propublica Board? Does the conflict not exist if they are in the journalism business?
-Does Propublica ever do stories on Herb Sandler?

Posted by JOURNOPROF | Report as abusive

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