Your first newsroom may seem like a foreign country, but a reporting internship or cub spot at a media outlet abroad imparts a steeper learning curve. But with an open mind and a willingness to try anything once, a move outside the comfort zone will sharpen a young reporter’s powers of observation and empathy.
Judy Johnson, former chief foreign copy editor at China Daily, and David Randall, news editor at The Independent on Sunday in London and author of “The Universal Journalist,” spoke with Quill about their countries’ work cultures, perception of reporters, major issues and, of course, media salaries.
Q: Describe your newsroom’s work culture.
JJ: The workday starts around 10 a.m. (and for those on the late shift, they’d come in around 5 p.m.); we’d be done by 6 or 7 p.m., depending on the flow of the copy. Lunch was an hour and a half each day. Most people went home, made some lunch, and then napped for an hour, an expected part of every Chinese worker’s day. If you were a little late getting back from work, no one complained, as long as the copy flowed.
DR: If you want to get ahead, you get busy, on your own time if necessary (and it usually is). But, being the U.K., we have far more annual leave than the U.S. Five weeks paid holiday is about the norm in white-collar work. Senior newspaper executives on nationals get at least six weeks.
Q: Compared to other professions, how are journalists paid in your country?
JJ: We foreign experts received $500 a month, half in Chinese currency, half in U.S. currency. My apartment (in a high-rise building on campus) was rent-free, and transportation was so cheap it was almost criminal. A $3 taxi ride would take you just about across Beijing. Buses and subways were about 40 cents a ticket.
A canteen was located on the compound, and you could eat there if you chose to do so for about 16 cents a meal (about 10 cents for breakfast) and 2 cents for a 24-ounce bottle of beer.
DR: Journalists in the U.K. work in an industry that is pretty Darwinian. National newspapers are like the top league in sports, with the city and regional papers and magazines acting as feeder leagues.
So, if you work on a city or regional newspaper, you will not be well paid, unless you are the editor, and then not spectacularly so. Same for nearly all magazines and online work.
But if you work for a national paper, you are dramatically better paid. Example: a newly qualified reporter on a regional paper gets about $36,000, while national newspaper reporter (and you don’t get to be one of those much before age 28 to 30) will get at least twice that.
Senior executive on regional paper gets around $80,000, national counterpart again at least twice that. Columnists or top interviewers on nationals invariably get in excess, sometimes well in excess, of $200,000.
Q: How are journalists viewed in your country? Do they face any danger?
JJ: Journalists are viewed as a necessary evil, much like they are in (the United States). TV journalists are stars and cause riots when they try to go shopping. Print journalists are not. If you try to cover the “Three Ts” (Tibet, Tiananmen, Taiwan) from any point of view other than the government’s, you’d probably be targeted. If you write about opposition political parties, you’d be targeted.
Editor’s note: The term “targeted” could mean anything from being arrested (for a Chinese journalist) or being deported (for a U.S. journalist).
DB: Journalists regularly score very low on public esteem surveys, coming in only slightly ahead of real estate agents and beating only telemarketing staff and a few other disreputable trades. The reason is two-fold: the behavior of journalists working for the “red top” tabloids, with their exaggerations and clichés and aggressive “kiss and tell” stories; and the hypocrisy of a public that condemns such newspapers yet buys them in extraordinary quantities. The best-selling ones sell in excess of 4 million copies a day.
We face no dangers, only the bore and inconvenience of operating in a culture that is far less instinctively open than the U.S., and which lacks the legal entitlement to information that U.S. reporters have. To get the information that regularly wins Pulitzers for investigative journalism would, in the U.K., require you to organize a burglary. And even then the chances are that the information is simply not collected.