Are Journalists Underpaid?

Pity the sad, broke New York Times reporter.

The New York real-estate boom is claiming a different kind of casualty, according to an article in Sunday’s New York Times. Keying off a new report issued by the Center for an Urban Future, Jennifer Steinhauer noted that, thanks to high housing prices, many of the creative types who work in Manhattan-centered fields like advertising, publishing, and the arts are being priced out of the city. This, presumably, could damage New York in the long run, since it’s an article of faith among nouveau-urban thinkers that the creative classes are a huge economic advantage, as the author Richard Florida has persuasively argued.

It could also damage journalism. The journalists who write these stories about people who can’t afford to live in New York can’t afford to live in New York, either. And that’s a trend that may prove just as corrosive to establishment media as any disruptive technology.

In an article today about layoffs at Time Inc., David Carr refers to the magazine giant as the General Motors of the magazine industry. It’s an apt metaphor. For at the publications of Time Inc., and the other two members of Manhattan’s historic media Big Three—the New York Times Co., and Dow Jones, publisher of the Wall Street Journal—wages have been stagnating for years. (Disclosure: I derive a portion of my income from the Times.) It has long been the case that a reporter for the Journal or Times or Time couldn’t afford to live well in Manhattan. But increasingly they can’t afford to live well in Park Slope, either.

Journalists have long suffered from what David Brooks (in his excellent Bobos in Paradise phase) identified as status-income disequilibrium. Journalists received low wages compared to many of their peers and neighbors but enjoyed higher prestige and job security. But for employees of the media Big Three, both the prestige and job security are fading as the publications hemorrhage audiences, advertisers, buzz, and public esteem. Meanwhile, the wages for other professions that New York journalists’ neighbors and peers work in (law, consulting, financial services, hedge funds) have been rising fast.

So, journalists there are worried about their 401(k)s, the barriers thrown up by co-op boards, and the excruciating choices they face: public or private schools, Brooklyn or Montclair. In his recent New Yorker takedown of New York Times Chairman Arthur Sulzberger Jr., Ken Auletta noted that “at a newsroom meeting at the end of November,” editor Bill Keller found that “most of the questions directed at him did not deal with Miller.” They dealt with money-related issues. (Steinhauer herself told Auletta, “I really think the financial issue faced by this company and this industry is the big concern, and not Judith Miller. The health-care fund for Guild employees”—the Newspaper Guild—”went belly up last year, so we had to give up our pay raises to fund it. Our stock options are under water.”) Meanwhile, over at the Wall Street Journal,the best business-news organization on the planet, employees are perennially crabby at the way management scrimps on benefits and wages.

Most experienced reporters and editors at the publications in question earn salaries in the low six figures. They can expect salaries to rise by a few percentage points a year, if they’re lucky. Salaries that barely pierce six figures certainly aren’t insulting to most Americans. But everything is relative. A couple doing quite well—he’s an editor at the Journal, she’s a reporter at the Times—could make up to $250,000. But after New York taxes, New York child care, and New York housing, you’re not left with much. In New York City, you can’t buy a co-op or a condo with only 10 percent down. In most desirable suburbs, you can’t buy a starter house for less than $700,000. When children arrive, the couple has to choose between living in an expensive town with good public schools (which means long, painful commutes), or the prospect of private-school tuition at $25,000 per kid per year. Given the types of lives many journalists wish to lead—and think they’re entitled to lead by virtue of their education and positions—the wages aren’t anywhere near sufficient.

It’s ironic that much of the expanded coverage of both the Times (Thursday Styles, House & Home, Real Estate)and the Journal (the Friday weekend section, the Saturday edition) is dedicated to the sort of high-end consumption that reporters can’t really afford. As a result, there’s a nose-pressed-to-the-glass quality to much of the coverage.

Today, neither journalists nor their employers have aligned their self-perceptions with the wages they pay and the space they occupy in the world. For decades, companies like the media Big Three have seen themselves as among the elite employers of New York, analogous to Goldman Sachs, or McKinsey, easily able to recruit and retain the best and the brightest. The Times, the Journal, and Time Inc. want to hire yuppies, the better to connect with their yuppie readerships. And reporters and editors want to be yuppies. But the economics of the business—and of the home town—no longer allow for the upwardly mobile portion of yuppiedom. (It’s somewhat different in Washington, where the rich aren’t so rich and housing isn’t so expensive.)

We New York-area journalists shouldn’t ask for pity, and we don’t deserve it. As a class, we’re bourgeois and ambitious. We like comfort and access, but we don’t want to work all that hard. Working for clients, as our lawyer neighbors do, is anathema. So is taking on risk, the task for which our neighbors who toil in the financial vineyards are so richly rewarded. Most people who choose to become journalists have great advantages—good educations and the sorts of skills that can translate into other professions. Writers unhappy with their wages can always switch fields, seek other jobs, or leave. If housing prices continue to rise, and if wages continue to stagnate, the media Big Three may find that their captive creative class might quit for greener pastures.