The Los Angeles Times newsroom erupted last February when word leaked that investigative reporter and columnist Jon Markman was in negotiations for a six-figure salary. Markman had been offered a cushy job as an editor at the Web site Microsoft Investor, and the Times was trying to hold on to him with a competitive counteroffer. The news incensed reporters and editors -- some of whom were Markman's superiors and were earning considerably less -- and spurred them to send a petition, signed by about 100 people, to then-editor Shelby Coffey, demanding greater equity in the newsroom.
"This guy [Markman] was not even in the first tier of reporters," says Bob Baker, an assistant metro editor involved with drafting the petition. "There were people, reporters and editors, just doing their jobs and not cutting deals, and they were paid so much less."
The outcome was auspicious for all: Markman moved to Seattle, happily taking Microsoft up on a fat offer, while back in L.A., Times management made about $200,000 available for newsroom raises. "It was an effective technique," Baker says of the petition. "But it was a horrible way to have to do business."
The Times brouhaha underscores the extent to which salaries are a sore -- if not taboo -- subject in American newsrooms. Case in point: Of the 17 journalists interviewed for this story, only six revealed their salaries, and only four would put their names on the numbers.
By most newsroom standards, Markman's salary offer -- reportedly $125,000 -- was exceptional. But increasingly, at metro dailies like the L.A. Times, salaries are handsome. As of April, the New York Times paid reporters with only two years' experience a minimum of $67,000; reporters with five years' experience at the Boston Globe and the Chicago Sun-Times earned $61,000 and $57,000, respectively, according to the Newspaper Guild.
Interviews revealed similar findings. An editor at a metro California daily told me he made $80,000, and a young editor at a New York daily revealed he earned $75,000. "It is quite ridiculous how well-compensated I am," he said sheepishly. Many papers, including the New York Times, reportedly have "publisher's lists" -- designations bestowed on star reporters and columnists whose salaries do not have to conform to union scales. (A New York Times spokesperson refused to discuss whether such a list exists there.)
"Many of us [at big city papers] are well-compensated these days," says Howard Kurtz, media critic for the Washington Post. Kurtz worries that as reporters move to the suburbs and send their kids to private schools, they lose touch with the people they cover: "We have to break out of our cocoons and walk the streets a little, rather than relying on cell phones and faxes."
In addition to the size of the newspaper and a reporter's age and experience, geography is the leading indicator of salary. The West is the most lucrative region for newspaper journalists, with the Upper Midwest the least, according to the Society for Professional Journalists. To wit: A reporter with five years' experience at the Battle Creek (Mich.) Enquirer earns a mere $18,000. The vast majority of reporters, those who work for mid-size dailies like the Enquirer, aren't living large. A 1996 Freedom Forum report warned journalism students that "this calling, like being a priest or a nun, can involve, at least in the early years, a virtual vow of poverty."
While not poverty-stricken, Paul Dudley, a reporter at the Skagit Valley Herald in Mount Vernon, Wash., is just eking out a living. A recent college graduate, Dudley earns $10.30 an hour covering city politics, a wage he says "isn't going to change anytime soon." So why is Dudley toiling away for so little, especially since he once worked in the lucrative computer industry? "I love doing this," he sighs. "So for now I'll burn a hole in my bank account."
Jeff Israely, a reporter at the Oakland Tribune in California, earns $580 a week -- just $40 more than he did when he started at the paper three and a half years ago. "I'm one of the lucky ones," says Israely, one of several reporters trying to form a union. "Some people at my paper haven't gotten raises in seven years."
In addition to bargaining power, union membership often equals higher pay. On the other hand, union newsrooms are often peppered with people who have long since lost their Woodwardesque zeal for nabbing a story.
"There are people who have been here forever who do shit," complains a critic at a large, unionized Eastern daily. "There are people who are not pulling their weight who make a great union wage. "
A sports reporter for a large California daily works six days a week traveling with local sports teams. He is in his 20s and has no family to support, but feels the $29,000 he earns a year is just too little. "Right now I love my beat, so I am willing to suck it up," he says. "I have to remember I didn't get into this to be a millionaire."
The "I didn't-get-into-this-for-the-money" spiel seems to be part of the newspaper journalist's lexicon. It's a stoicism born from the idea that the job is equal parts public service, sacred calling and, well, art. Griping about salaries is simply ingrained in newsroom culture: Most of the reporters I talked with concluded that working as a journalist is a trade-off -- a lower salary for an exciting job.
"We always hear, 'I didn't get into this to get rich,'" says Jeff Gottlieb, a city editor at the Los Angeles Times. "But I think that denigrates us. It's like saying, 'Don't pay me that much.'"
Further down the salary scale from daily newspaper reporters are those at weeklies, many of which pay meager salaries and have high turnover rates. "In lieu of big money, we offer young writers the chance to get noticed," says Michael Lenehan, executive editor of the Chicago Reader.
At the Reader, proofreaders and editorial assistants earn about $9 an hour; starting salaries for staff writers are in the low $20,000s, and freelancers earn up to $2,000 for a reported cover story or about $50 for a calendar blurb. (Even at prominent papers, freelance writers are often paid poorly. A frequent cultural correspondent for the Wall Street Journal says he is paid $500 per 1,500-word article, a fee that has not increased since 1990.) "We recognize that writers are not making a living writing for us," Lenehan says, so he tries to be liberal in allowing his staff to freelance for other publications.
Not all alternative weekly staffers bemoan their fate. One writer at the Village Voice -- which, unlike most weekly papers, is unionized -- said the money was fine but declined to go on the record, fearing a loss of bargaining power in the next salary negotiation.
"In many ways, a reporter's job is a lot more interesting than jobs in the average office," says Josh Sens, a former reporter for the Oakland Tribune who left the paper in part because of his low salary to seek more lucrative writing opportunities. "But when I think about the people who write schlock like ads or screenplays for a living -- and make millions of dollars doing it -- I think, 'I can write schlock like that. I did it every day.'"