Tuesday, June 23, 2009

How The Sausage Is Made: Journalism

Because of the success of shows like Dirty Jobs, and the good response to my old entry about substitute teaching, I thought I'd do a series of entries about how some professions work. Obviously, I'm going to stick more to things I have firsthand knowledge about, unless this gets really popular, in which case I'll reach out and try to (gasp!) actually interview some people.

Anyway, because it is one of the few “real” jobs I've had, let's start with journalism. There is also the very real possibility that by the time I finish typing this sentence, every paper but The New York Times, The Washington Post and The Wall Street Journal will be shuttered. (And even then, The New York Times looked painfully out-of-touch in this recent Daily Show piece (video link). So maybe just The Post and The WSJ will survive the newspaper holocaust.)

I'll get to the doom and gloom later though. For now, I'll focus on how a newspaper is actually run. First, the key to remember is that practically everything is driven by advertisement sales. On a basic level, this means that the size of the paper is normally set by the number of display ads sold, since classifieds has its own section. Rarely is a paper's size driven by content, unless the story is so important (i.e. an expose on a local police chief's cushy benefits, the one real-life example I saw) that it demands it.

You would think this would create some sort of ethical dilemma, but there would be more practical problems during my three years or so as a news reporter on the college and professional level. For example, one week I would be furiously chopping all my eight stories I had to about 500 words, because that would be the only space left after the ads and photos were laid out. The next week, or even the same week for the sister community's paper, we might have double the size, meaning I'd have to stretch the stories I wrote. Often, I wouldn't know the paper's size until the day before deadline, so I'd have to scramble to shorten or lengthen stories on the night before deadline.

In my professional career, I wrote primarily for a weekly, which also carries time management problems that I admittedly didn't handle great. My inclination was to always wait until as long as I could to start a pressing story, whereas editors would encourage me to start as soon as I could. For example, start and try to complete a budget story at the start of the news week, Wednesday, even though it wouldn't appear in print until the following Wednesday.

My training was primarily with the Cigar, which printed four days a week, and another Rhode Island paper that was a daily. I think the immediacy of both helped me; I have an intense fear of failure, and with a daily deadline, I produced some good work for both. My time at the weeklies wasn't so great, because I knew that even self-imposed deadlines could be doing a disservice to the reader. I had problems just finishing (or even starting) something and then putting it aside, when it's possible something could have changed between when I started and deadline. And when the paper can swell to 30 or 40 pages during the summer, and you have two full-time reporters and a part-timer on staff, it means you have to be producing throughout the week.

Things started to get even tighter right before I was laid off, as the paper's deadline was pushed to the morning before that town's weekly council meeting. So much for the printed paper being the best source and watchdog for government action. Freelance budgets were also nibbled to the bone, management wouldn't pay out any overtime without a note signed in blood, employees were obviously being or about to be laid off, and for some reason, there was a resistance to using the local colleges for free intern support, except for one editor.

With such an ominous air hanging over the place, the quality obviously fell off a bit. It's almost impossible for anyone to work at maximum quality when you have the threat of the axe hanging over your head at all times. I can't say this was a factor in my own situation – I didn't think I'd get cut, since it meant the two remaining sports guys would have to cover about a dozen high schools by themselves. Uh, whoops!

Anyway, at most smaller papers – think The Chariho Times, The Narragansett Times, The Bristol Phoenix, Newport This Week – you generally have at least one staff reporter that will cover just town issues. This ranges from features on the town's oldest residents and bake sales by Girl Scout Troop 117 to investigative stories on corruption at town hall. Generally, this reporter will also shoot some of their own photographs as well. A staff photographer will help out with the bigger or better assignments.

Two to six pages are also normally cleared for sports, sometimes in its own B or C-section, although almost every Rhode Island paper now has their sports department split over several towns. i.e. One sports reporter or editor will cover Chariho, Narragansett and South Kingstown, while another takes Exeter/West Greenwich, North Kingstown and Coventry. (If you're a private high school or a college, don't expect regular coverage, unless you're having an unusually good season in a sport, or if a parent complains.) If two teams in the coverage area are facing off – NK vs. SK – then that game will normally be covered, regardless of the sport, and run in both papers.

There are a few layers beyond these front-line writers. Generally, there is a city / town editor, someone who will edit the work submitted by the reporters and work in conjunction with the layout personnel / design experts to decide how to fit things into the paper. This person will also sometimes function as a part-time reporter, or if they prefer to write, more of a full-time reporter than a full-time editor.

After that, most papers have a managing editor, who normally looks at each week's paper for a variety of towns. I think every paper in Rhode Island, excluding The Providence Journal, now belongs to a local chain, so the managing editor position exists pretty much everywhere. All papers have a publisher; think of them as the owner of a sports franchise. Some are incredibly hands-off and let their managing editors do everything, while others are the complete opposite. Most fall somewhere in-between.

This is the primary editorial (content) hierarchy for most places, which is the area I'm most familiar with. All papers also have a similar setup for their business and advertising wings, although I'm less versed in specific positions for that side, except at the collegiate level.

As far as salary goes, I started at the high end of the spectrum for an entry-level reporter at a small weekly... $25,000 ($12.00 an hour). Try not to laugh. For comparison's sake, assistant managers at McDonald's made more than I did. Even more sadly, most entry-level journalism work is closer to $20,000 than $25,000. Photographers, design and layout specialists earned similar salary, from what little shop talk I had on the manner. A typical pay raise is 3 to 8 percent, although in this market, you are luckier if your pay isn't slashed. Most companies still let you opt into health and 401k plans, although at such a meager salary, I couldn't afford either.

Before the newspaper industry began tanking, the best way to get a good raise normally was to just find a new job. Once you got that offer, you either forced your employer to match, or more often, moved to a new paper. Rhode Island is a bad example, because there aren't any real papers between the small weeklies and dailies, and the huge metro (Projo). But as an example, a reporter from a small weekly in Rhode Island might move on to a mid-sized paper in another state, then move on to a major metro, like The Providence Journal or The Boston Globe (which is getting its ass handed to it by The Boston Herald, by the way).


  1. Interesting stuff, Steve. Sounds like the journalism industry's pretty similar in the States and Canada; similar hierarchies and pay up here in my experience.

  2. I think I meant to ask you this at some point, but have you ever seen The Paper? It's a pretty good movie with an all-star cast. You should check it out sometime if you've never seen it.

    For some reason it's not letting me paste a link here so you'll have to IMDb or Wiki it. The Paper, 1994, starring the great Michael Keaton.

  3. @Andrew: From my limited experience with the Canadian newspaper industry, yeah, pretty much. A friend of mine has freelanced for some of the Canadian papers and the rates were similar, and I've looked into some sports job postings up there and it was the same story.

  4. @Kristi: I'll have to check that out. I still haven't seen Good Night and Good Luck, even though I bought it like two years ago. Sigh! Maybe I'll tackle it at work this weekend.


Try not to be too much of an ass, unless completely necessary. You are subject to tyrannical moderation.


Related Posts with Thumbnails