“Why does journalism pay so poorly?”

Posted: August 29, 2014 in journalism, journalist

“Why does journalism pay so poorly?”

A former student posed this question to me today on chat (her views are pasted below). The answer, I think, is because I believe some idiot somewhere in the past decided that journalists were doing immense social service to mankind by writing about the ills in society and speaking up for the oppressed – never mind if he or she WAS one of the oppressed – so they didn’t need to be paid as much as a professional.

I guess only people who are perennially broke and living off tea, cigarettes and vada pav can write with that ‘feeling’ about those who lead a hand to mouth existence! And thanks to the idiot who planted the first seed about the social status of journalists, newspaper managements took it all very seriously and decided that since “any damn fool can be a reporter” why pay them anything more than a pittance! Of course, I am just making light of an issue but can someone seriously tell me why, journalists are paid so poorly?

Is it because the first impression of a journalist is one of a pajama-kurta clad, cloth bag over shoulder, bathroom slippers on his feet? Or is that classic, ‘What came first, the chicken or the egg?’ story? Was he wearing that because he couldn’t afford a designer label or did the newspaper owner decide that the bugger anyway only wears a P and K so why should I pay him too much money? And anyway, all he does is write stories, so how much effort does that take?

I remember the case of a couple of newspaper managements in the 1990s who refused to pay what the wage board had instructed them to pay because it was “too much”! They then decided to grade salaries as per circulation figures of each centre. I know what journalists in Pune felt like doing to their respective managements when they heard the news! Since we were a single-edition local newspaper we were luckier.

I mean, honestly, newspaper managements thought that when they had given around 5 per cent as a hike, they’d done their bit for humanity. So what is 5 per cent for a guy making 10,000? His fortnightly fuel bill? And thanks to the contract system, nowadays, journalists get no other benefits. When we were on the wage board, our increments used to be anything from 30 to 75 bucks!  Thank God, the government decided that because otherwise a lot of managements would have got away with a 20 buck increment! It’s a shame that after 30 years in the profession, a journalist in a newspaper retires on a salary of 40-60k a month, whereas a professional with the same experience will be drawing three or even four times that when he calls it a day.

That is not to say that today, journalists don’t make money. The big city papers have raised salaries of staff and some of the seniors and editors make more money in a year than most of us have saved in our lifetime. I am not grudging them that; they deserve every penny, but what about giving newcomers a better deal? You can’t say that newcomers should be paid low salaries because they need to understand that journalism isn’t only about money. Huh! The rupee doesn’t go very far nowadays! And ever since my salary started being wired into my bank account after being converted from the dollar, I understand that even better today.

Secondly, a lot of kids are armed with degrees or diplomas from media schools that charge the earth. A kid looking for a job to repay a student loan is already calculating how many years it will take him/her to repay it. And when he hears what his salary for the first three years is going to be, he is already walking around with the weight of the world on his shoulders. There are those rare exceptions that end up in journalism because that is all they wanted to do, so don’t look at the money that closely. But even they realise a year or two down the line that the money just isn’t enough and they need to supplement it with something else.

That is why so many of us freelanced on the side writing for some publication or the other. I remember writing for a Gulf newspaper with approval from the management where I worked in the mid-1990s. One article gave me around 1500 bucks which was a lot for a guy taking home a pittance. I usually wrote two a month. In reality, when I was freelancing in Delhi in 1998, I earned double what I earned as a salary then. When I joined HT, I started on an even lower salary than what I was earning in the last job! But then, the dream of working for a national newspaper had an irresistible pull for a guy from a small town! And I needed another job! I wouldn’t have exchanged it for anything else in this world. A little more money would have helped, though!

It’s sad, really, because journalists play with their lives to get a story and at the end of the day, get very little in return for it. The world of journalism is awash with stories of journalists killed or wounded covering wars, terrorist attacks or getting killed doing an investigative report. Not everyone ends up becoming a star anchor or reporter. Some end up like Daniel Pearl or James Foley or even cartoonist Irfaan Hussain. Incidentally, 11 journalists lost their lives in India in 2013. Any idea what state their families are in?

And while we are at it, let me just say that it is still a fantastic profession to be in – long working hours, shitty bosses, poor salaries, minimal family life notwithstanding. Not for one moment am I suggesting that those who love it should give it up. Those of us who’ve been there, done that know that nothing beats journalism in all it’s forms. It’s just the mindsets are changing, attitudes are changing, living costs are changing. Paying a little more money wouldn’t hurt the profession. Or would that take the fun out of being a journalist?

A newcomer’s view

Here’s what a former student sent to me when I told her I was writing the blog:

Given the amount of time, energy and emotion we put into the job – failing which we risk a pink slip – the benefits often seem outweighed by the pitfalls. I’ve forgotten what it is to have a social life and I’m ok with that too. But to label our job as a “public service,” is just bunkum. It’s a phenomenal profession – one I wouldn’t trade for anything else. But the label may have held good 20 years back when media proliferation was still contained. Today, it’s turned into a perfectly competitive market with every publication/ channel offering the same content at exactly the same price.

And where is the reward? The remuneration? With all due respect to those who crunch numbers on the job, as dull as the job might appear to be, the pay cheque more than makes up for lost time.

Everyday seems a struggle after the 10th of every month. Once the bills are settled and the rent paid, even a dinner out seems like luxury. Those are days when journalists – especially the ones who’ve recently joined the profession – look out for greener pastures. For, all said and done, as glamorous as the profession may seem, it doesn’t really make an offer we can’t refuse.

‎Before we joined the profession, we all held a very romantic perception of what the industry had in store. So naturally, given the backdrop of the war in Afghanistan and now Syria, an assignment on an exposed manhole on the city’s streets seems far from rewarding.

Of course, the profession exposes you to myriad subjects too. I’ve had a fantastic time covering the Lok Sabha Polls. I’ve escaped being raped in the hinterlands of UP, stayed in shady hotels and overlooked death threats. But for what it’s worth, when you turn the pages of the newspaper, the byline on the story makes all the trouble seem justified.

One only wishes that the fraternity didn’t have to fight tooth and nail ‎to make ends meet.

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