Migration to PR-part 2

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Money, working conditions dominate discussion

It's been 15 days since I ran the Migration to Public Relations item. This is the follow-up, as promised.

I received some comments via email, and solicited a few others by seeking people out. I also received some comments within that particular post, which do make interesting reading.

Bob Hallett was probably the most succinct when he wrote that "money and job security" are the reasons why journalists switch to careers in communications. David Cochrane added some layers of complexity including job burnout to those points, but he didn't exactly disagree with Bob. Then Greg Locke gave us a cold bucket of reality in the face, griping that journalism "is an honourable and rewarding vocation... but not a good career anymore."

I did receive some feedback in defence of journalism, from Nancy Kelly, a journalism student (she didn't indicate where).

"I understand how important job security is," Kelly wrote, "but money? Just how much money does a person need? I realize that NL is on its way to becoming a lot more like a certain Mainland province and people want to keep up with the Jones, but I for one would like to sleep at night knowing I supplied objective information to a public that, without journalists, they would not get. A big house and a big truck are one thing, but integrity and values are another. Unfortunately, I believe that the general public have a hard time believing what they read in the news is un-biased just as journalists have a hard time believing what PR's have to say."

I was encouraged by Kelly's note. It was something of a tonic, with all this talk about money, working conditions, job security, and so on. However, these issues do matter, and they become increasingly important when reporters hit their 30s, take on mortgages and start having children. A sense of mission doesn't always put a roof over your head.

This point was made by Frank Carroll, formerly a journalist and now a journalism teacher at the College of the North Atlantic.

"Employers will have to address the issue of compensation if they want to attract and keep good people," Carroll writes. "It breaks my heart to hear that in some cases new reporters are earning less than I earned as a cub almost 20 years ago. In one case, one of my graduates had to get a part-time retail job to make ends meet while working for a major Newfoundland media outlet."

Carroll points out that, in many cases, reporters are required to use their own vehicles on the job. "While they may receive gas allowances, these allowances are probably not keeping up with the price of gas and certainly don't do much to compensate for the costs of registration, maintenance and insurance.

"As for public relations, you can't blame people for wanting to support themselves and their families. And it's not an inherently unethical job. It's only the dark side' if you compromise your values. Of course, journalists never compromise their values, now, do they?"

Along these lines, I only heard from one journalist who now works in communications. And that journalist did not feel compromised in any way by the switch to the proverbial dark side'. This person, who asked that their name be withheld, said they don't take such pejoratives personally.

"I don't concern myself with what others think about my profession as a reporter or communications person. My name is my own. My career is based on my reputation. All you have as a journalist or a communications person is your reputation And I wouldn't work for any organization that I didn't respect and that goes for journalism as well as communications."

I also heard from someone who wanted to clarify that the communications positions within the provincial government are not political appointments they are hired by the Public Service Commission through a competitive process. This is certainly a worthwhile point, and a subject I may revisit later, in a separate post.

In terms of money, there is a wide gap between salaries paid at broadcast versus print media. CBC is probably the highest paying media outlet in town, followed by NTV (VOCM used to pay poorly, then things improved a little under Steele Communications, but I hear it's still not great). Next in the pecking order is The Telegram, followed by the community newspapers. But there is not a wide gap between them. Seasoned reporters at the community papers earn up to $600 per week if they're lucky, whilst reporters at The Telegram start in that ballpark, with considerable room to increase with time and promotions.

Compare that with salaries earned in public relations, which generally start in the $50,000 to $75,000 range, with benefits, more reasonable hours (sometimes) and plenty of room to advance. Salary is the most important but certainly not the only consideration for journalists. High on the list are working conditions especially hours of work and job satisfaction.

I spoke with someone in The Telegram newsroom, who allowed that working with a daily can be "a stressful, wearing grind of a life, but no one goes into it with the ambition of tossing out press releases for the Minister of Slops. Journalists get into this for the work, and only cut and run when the going gets too tough. A heftier pay cheque would do wonders for relieving the outside stresses that exacerbate the work-a-day strife."

At the community papers, the stresses increase while the salary shrinks. One reporter who asked to remain anonymous moved from a different career into journalism, actually taking a cut in pay to do so. That person's financial circumstances subsequently changed, and now the reporter struggles from one payday to the next.

"The only reason why I am still there is because I truly love the work sounds idealistic, but I feel that with me doing the job the facts are reported well. Obviously, being in a small town, there is a certain amount of notoriety which is attached to the job as well. Certainly no glamour. I believe the reporters should and can receive a pay increase."

That reporter's point is driven home by the experience of Kirk Squires (right), an experienced, award-winning reporter who recently left the Clarenville Packet after seven years at that paper to work as an assistant manager at the local Home Hardware store.

"It was a matter of money and time," Squires said, in an interview. "The (community) papers are not paying well Along with the money, it's quality of time with the family. I worked a lot of hours 50 hours a week was a slow week."

Squires said he threw himself totally into his work, enjoyed it thoroughly and actually won several awards for it. "But no pat on your back is worth your six-year-old daughter looking at you with tears in her eyes, asking Daddy, do you have to go back to work tonight?' Without family, I've got nothing. A house is an empty shell without your children and your wife. And my kids are going to be grown up and gone before I know it."

An impromptu conversation whilst out in the field led to a job offer including better pay and fewer hours that Squires simply couldn't refuse.

"I'm working 40 hours a week now, which means I get to spend a lot more time with my two young daughters. And I can honestly tell you, for the last eight weeks, everyone tells me I'm a different person because I'm spending so much time with my kids. It's a sheer joy."

Transcontinental owns almost all the community newspapers in the province, as well as The Telegram and The Western Star. However, Squires was one of several people who told me that the salary issue is not unique to that chain. The majority of community newspapers across the country do not pay their employees well, he said, and are facing similarly high burnout rates among their workers.

The fact that Squires can do better working at retail than in his journalistic profession does not sit well, with him or me. But Squires points out that community papers are facing substantial challenges, such as declining readership as populations move elsewhere to find work and a limited commercial base from which to draw advertising. This is grist for another post, which I will develop in the near future.

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  • Craig
    July 27, 2010 - 14:53

    I'm going to fire off this question, because I'm genuinely curious...The Telegram has a unionized reporting staff. When the Optipress papers were bought by Transcon, no attempt was made by the union to try and get the reporters from those papers into the union. To my knowledge, that's still the case.

    Now, I'm not going to say unions are the great saviours. But if community newspaper reporters were unionized, maybe it would make a difference.