Well-paid reporters, and other fantasies

January 21, 2009

Mitch Ratcliffe over at ZDNet’s Rational Rants blog is my new best friend because of a post he wrote the other day. At a time when the business of journalism is getting harder than ever to sustain, he articulates a full-blown reporting fantasy: The best kind of reporter needs the best kind of pay to do the best kind of journalism.

Here’s his breakdown:

  • $130,000 salary and benefits
  • $4,800 a year in subscriptions and other information sources
  • $2,500 a month in travel
  • $1,250 a month in legal and insurance coverage
  • $179,800 total, and that’s before the cost of IT, telecom and office space

I say fantasy because, unless you’re in the major leagues of journalism, this isn’t the kind of pay that most of the press corps made even when their bosses’ coffers were overflowing with money.

(Personal note: My first reporting job was at The Alexandria Gazette-Packet in 1995. I was, either at once or at different times, city reporter, politics reporter and arts and entertainment editor and writer. I resized my photos with a pica pole and a wheel. I laid out my own pages, and I frequently took the paper to a building miles away where it was pasted up and printed. That got me $18,000 a year before taxes. Our paper was in receivership, and we had no guarantees that there would be money in the banks to cover our pay checks. Often, there wasn’t. So I like this $180,000 idea of Mr. Ratcliffe’s.)

Ratcliffe lays out a scenario that involves non-profit cooperation and paying small amounts of money per reader to each reporter to make this work. Read his entry, as it’s lengthy and the rest of the details are there.

The notion of a highly paid reporter has produced more than a few snorts of derision among my colleagues, but I’ll say this: If it takes the death of today’s news model to create a new situation like the ones that Ratcliffe envisions, then bring it on. I have urgent home repairs that need to be paid for.

One comment

We welcome comments that advance the story through relevant opinion, anecdotes, links and data. If you see a comment that you believe is irrelevant or inappropriate, you can flag it to our editors by using the report abuse links. Views expressed in the comments do not represent those of Reuters. For more information on our comment policy, see http://blogs.reuters.com/fulldisclosure/2010/09/27/toward-a-more-thoughtful-conversation-on-stories/

Robert — glad you share the idea that reporting might be worth more than “free.” My first writing jobs, for weeklies, paid 2 cents and 5 cents a word. It was years before I made a living doing it, but I’ve also seen the peaks of compensation and it was good, too. If we could get 3,000 independent people to $65K and operating expenses covered, it would change the news.

That said, when starting to solve the problem of how to build a new business, it is critical to have a goal people want to work towards. The scenario I identify is one of an independent reporter succeeding. There is a lot of work to do to get there, but it has been done many times within the traditional media, so why not shoot for it, again?

In sharp contrast, we are seeing plenty of bloggers being cajoled into writing for nothing, so that a publisher can build their business, then offer them some pay. That’s how Wired built its business in the 90s, how thePrintedBlog intends to do it today. Yes, we could have publishers dictating what they will pay, or we could change it by connecting reporters directly to the market for news.