'Nobody writes for free'

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Community papers have a history of paying poorly

I have written previously about the migration of journalists to PR, and the factors that eventually drive many journalists over to the "dark side" (chief among them being rate of pay and quality of life issues).

At the bottom of the pay scale are this province's community newspapers, which pay so low, one seasoned reporter quit to go work with Home Hardware, where the pay was better and hours more tolerable.

Transcontinental owns almost all community papers in this province, but they are relatively new to this game. The truth is, the genesis of this problem goes back, away back, to the days of Robinson-Blackmore (R-B).

I spoke with an employee who worked with the company for more than 20 years, and was there when it was sold to Optipress in 2002. I will call this person Leslie, because anonymity was requested. According to Leslie, life under R-B and even Optipress a publicly traded company was worse than it is now.

"They took over a company that existed for years, with a lot of bad habits and attitudes," Leslie said. "In four years they've made a lot of progress, but when you buy a lemon you've got a lot of fixing up to do."

Leslie said there was one publisher, in particular, who epitomized what was wrong with the organization.

"I could name names but I won't," Leslie said. "There was a mentality that, number one, if you were a woman and certainly if you were married, your husband was the main breadwinner and they could get away with paying you less."

Then there was the overall attitude that, if reporters were willing to work for cheap, why not take advantage of that?

"This was other mentality that proves the thinking process that was going on. I remember being at an editorial conference, and we were talking about the need for freelancers at community newspapers. Every paper was paying differently, even for freelancers, but we weren't paying very much. Some were paying $20 per story, others $30. At this conference, I said that in order to get people writing freelance, we had to make it worth their while. We were having a discussion and the publisher was there, floating back and forth between the advertising discussion in the next room and our discussion, and I remember his words distinctly. He said, Maybe there are people who just want to write and you can get them to do it for free.' I looked at him and said Nobody writes for free anymore.' But that was the mentality their view of what it was worth. I told them to forget it."

There were other little tricks that were applied to pay reporters a little more without officially giving them a raise, Leslie explained.

"They jiggled around numbers. If someone went looking for a raise, they'd try to find ways of not putting it on the paycheque. There was one reporter who needed a raise so they increased his car allowance, so it wouldn't show up on his pay stub. The car allowance was used to hide salary increases. The publisher was a bit of a shyster, knowing that if that person left, he could easily whip out the car allowance and bring the salary back down again.

"I had seen it happen over the course of six or seven years, where you go through three or four reporters, and a person comes in seven years after the first one left at a salary not much better than was paid seven years back."

There are challenges to community newspapers and the publishing industry in general presented by the explosive growth of the Internet as an information source. Leslie said that circulation at all of the papers has seen a gradual decline, anywhere from 10 to 20 per cent, over the last few years. The company is looking at ways of capitalizing on the Internet, such as charging for online subscriptions or going after more paid advertising, but the learning curve is steep.

Leslie has also seen some progress in the pay scale, since Transcontinental took over in 2003, but it has been incremental. More importantly, the company is in the midst of a comprehensive salary review.

"They are working toward pay equity," Leslie said. "They have gone through a long, drawn out process and people are getting discouraged. It has been kicking around for a long time and people have heard a lot of promises some say same old same old,' but things are happening. I know that some people are going to see improvements in their salary. It's hard to know how it is at other papers, but I'm sure some were being drastically underpaid. People are going to be compensated based on experience, education and the job description. Transcontinental started out with a bit of a mess but it does seem to be moving and making progress."

If you are living at home and enjoy the notoriety that comes with being a big fish in a small pond, then working at a community newspaper may be feasible for you. But if you want to make a career and a living from journalism, you will probably need to move to a more urban market.

"I have seen some good people walk away; not because they didn't like the job, but because they couldn't afford to stay," Leslie said. "And that can still happen today. There is still high turnover. It is a place to get experience and if the reporters are any good, they're going to move on."

So here's a question. If the papers invested substantially more money in paying their reporters, would they see a return on that investment, through a better quality paper that wins a bigger circulation?

"I think they would," Leslie said. "We're moving into the Internet age and you've got to have good content to put out a good newspaper in print or online. There are people who have always read the paper and always will, but they, for the most part, are over 50. We have to find a way to get the under-30 generation reading newspapers again. And in order to do that, you must have good content."

Coming soon, part 2: A former reporter speaks on the record

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