The phone started ringing just after noon on a busy Tuesday in June. The axe was falling again.
Friends at Gannett who had suffered through multiple rounds of cutbacks, furloughs and layoffs had just gotten word that 700 more of their friends were about to get the call no one supporting a family, trying to pay off a car or struggling with a student loan wants to hear. Heads were about to roll.
Each time their phones rang, they wondered: Is this the source I worked for months, nights and weekends, so I could write the story my community needs to know, which incidentally, may help my company sell more newspapers? Or is this the call that will help my company save more money by eliminating my livelihood?
No one questions the challenges facing media outlets today, most especially on the print end of the business. We’ve all read the numbers on circulation and advertising revenue. We’re also reading some other numbers with which you can’t argue.
Gannett CEO Craig Dubow actually got a 21 percent bump on his performance bonus alone in 2010, a $1.75 million payout as part of a total compensation package of $9.4 million. That goes a long way toward 700 jobs, the salaries for which rarely reach into six figures.
I’m not picking on Mr. Dubow here. He’s not the only media CEO earning millions while laying off thousands over the past few years. I’m not saying he or any of those leaders relish the thought of impacting people’s lives so significantly, though it must be nice to delegate that chore downhill.
What I’m saying is that it smells.
No journalist gets in this business to get rich. Most of us live on the low end of middle-class life. We do this because we believe our jobs are essential to our democracy. We serve as watchdogs over the thieves and cheats who would reign even more freely if they didn’t have to deal with a free press. We serve to protect our communities.
That’s why we accept long hours, high stress, constant deadlines and an ever-increasing workload in the name of productivity. That’s why we attend training in our off hours and buy new tools sometimes on our own dime. It’s why we accept salaries that cause late-night confabs with our significant others as to how we’ll pull off this month’s miracle.
Just one week before that phone line lit up June 21 bright with fear and angst, I was sitting with a group of young journalists at the Poynter Institute in St. Petersburg, Fla. SPJ sponsors an annual training program for reporters in the business three years or less, and honestly, I learn as much from them as I teach. The reporters shine with promise and possibility. They also bring a business grit that I don’t recall having at their age.
I told them what I believe, that the tide had turned on job losses and that new positions will replace many of those eliminated. The news business, far from dying, is just shifting. New technology that can deliver information quickly has fueled an ever-greater desire and demand from more consumers of news. That will create jobs.
I just don’t know what they’ll pay.
And I don’t know what they’ll cost, not only to future employees but to journalism as a whole. Compensation is dropping while demands grow. I wonder if those beginner’s salaries that continue to hover at minimum wage, as they did when I entered the business, will define a new and permanent lower bar that constantly feeds new generations — but not families. This must remain a business not just for the young, but for the experienced. A free press does not mean a free press corps.
Of course, paying less for labor fuels corporate compensation packages. But as a friend recently said about Gannett’s executive pay followed by this latest round of layoffs, this isn’t about new technology or shifting readership. It’s not about falling revenue or alternative ad sites. Sadly, it’s also not about journalism or democracy.
This feels like it’s about plain greed.
Hagit Limor is the 2010-11 president of SPJ. She is an investigative reporter at WCPO-TV in Cincinnati.