DISCUSS: Is journo pay paltry?

DISCUSS: Is journo pay paltry?

By Emma Morgan 18/01/13

DISCUSS is a series in which IdeasTap members who are part of our Creative Space programme debate issues around the arts. As part of the Pay Debate, Maxine Frances Roper broaches the topic of journalists’ pay...

Journalism suffers from skewed ideas about pay, whether from online trolls (typical comment: “I can’t believe you got paid to write this drivel!”), wannabes at uni or well-meaning relatives. Most people realise that although only a tiny number of, say, actors, novelists or artists are super-rich and a few more could be described as “comfortably off”, this isn’t common across the entire industry. But write one article for a national newspaper and some readers think you’re in the media jet set with a penthouse flat and a wine-club subscription.

Yes, national newspaper editors are six-figure earners. For basically surrendering your social life, family and relationship, you’d want that too. (In her book, Half a Wife, the Observer’s ex-Political Editor Gaby Hinsliff describes trying to balance a laptop on her baby bump...) But they – and celebrity columnists who earn big for being famous – are about as far from the life of a jobbing journalist as a cashier is from an investment banker. I wasn’t surprised by research saying 28% of freelancers are effectively unemployed. The average journalist’s starting salary when I finished training in 2006-7 was around £10-14,000pa; since then, we’ve seen a rise in unpaid internships replacing entry-level jobs. And it’s not just recent graduates who’re routinely expected to work for free. The closer you get to 30, the less fun it is to get three or four emails into a conversation with an editor before reading the dreaded words “We sadly can’t pay”. National newspapers do pay but less than you’d think, especially for freelance work. The Guardian’s Comment Is Free pays freelancers £90 per article. (I know this, being in the sort of financial position where I’ll take £90 for the pleasure of having my medical diagnosis dismissed by unqualified strangers...)

Journalists’ earnings don’t necessarily match their profile. One prominent political commentator tweets about mould in her shared flat; another columnist – who had 10 years’ experience before being made redundant – was eligible for JobSeeker’s Allowance while writing a column, and is now a trainee teacher. The obvious culprits for funny ideas about journalists’ pay are Hollywood and TV; Carrie Bradshaw’s likely salary with that solitary column? £500 a month before tax. I’m genuinely terrified at how many 15 year olds might be thinking they can make a living by writing a couple of reviews a month, contributing to poetry anthologies or blogging their thoughts on the issues of the day. But then most so-called journalists aren’t journalists in the traditional sense – they’re actually PR consultants, copywriters and freelancers whose main source of income comes from corporate writing.

Of course, perspective is always useful. Journalists are often seen as privileged, insular types whose lives are on a school-university-newspaper conveyor belt and who’ve never done ‘real’ jobs. As one who has, I can tell you that a part-time Learning Support Assistant working with schoolchildren who have special educational needs earns around £300 a month: that’s as much as a paid 1,500-word feature might fetch. But then compare the number of available LSA jobs and applicants with the number of advertised journalism jobs and journalists...

What’s maybe most striking about the Pay Debate is that, while everyone has an opinion, few – including me – are prepared to discuss their earnings in any great detail. As ever, what’s unsaid perhaps can tell you the most.

The opinions expressed in DISCUSS do not necessarily represent those of IdeasTap.


Are you a journalist who’s barely scraping by? Let us know below...

Image by Yersinia Pestis, used under a CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 licence.

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