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Craig Welsh dishes on life at a community paper

In researching yesterday's post, about the pay scale for journalists at the Robinson-Blackmore (R-B) chain of community newspapers, I contacted another veteran of that company for comment.

Craig Welsh worked at the Clarenville Packet, starting in 1998, and then moved, in 2001, to The Express in St. John's. He left The Express in 2005 to move to Iqaluit, Nunavut, where he works in public relations and writes the popular Townie Bastard blog.

Craig agreed to send me, via email, some comments that I could use for attribution. What he provided was forthright and comprehensive. In fact, the only way to do it justice is to reproduce his entire note in full. Here is Craig Welsh's blunt recollections of life with R-B, Optipress and Transcontinental.

I know it's perhaps tacky to talk about how much money people make, but I think if the general public had an idea just how poor print reporters can be paid, it might make them appreciate a bit better the amount of work we do (or did, in my case) for the salary and hours.

First of all, starting community newspaper reporters making crap money. Always have, probably always will. I heard horror stories of prairie papers requiring reporters to have their own car and camera equipment and paying them $14,000/yr. This was as recent as 2003.

The feeling has always been among many editors, I think, that they're not going to stick around anyway, no matter how much we pay them, so why bother. They're here for the experience and clips, so we'll pay them crap. It's short-sighted, but that's the way it works.

How much was I making at the Packet in '98? Starting salary was $18,200. Mercifully I didn't have to provide my own camera equipment and the paper had a van I could use. Otherwise I couldn't do the job. Because of its proximity to the refinery and Bull Arm, Clarenville at that time was actually expensive to live in. When I left in '01 I was making just over $20,000. There were some performance bonuses involved based on the paper's performance as well. Oddly, those bonuses started to evaporate when the paper routinely exceeded expectations. The bar was set so high that it was impossible to get a bonus.

I should mention that Barbara Dean Simmons, who was my editor, fought ferociously to get me raises and a job title bump. The problem was upper management, who didn't want to pay me (or anyone else) more. I got the job bump to associate editor while at the Packet, but it was more for it to look good on a resume and as a sign of respect for the work I was doing at the paper. There was no salary increase that went with it.

The Express lured me in with more money, which was around $25,000 a year when I started in '01. Plus, I'm a townie and wanted to be closer to friends and family. When I left in '05 I was making around $28,000.

Did the Express get preferential treatment? Possibly. Lord knows you didn't have to press hard to get an editor from the rural papers to complain about the Express. (I think there was one memorable occasion around '00 when staff with the Express got bonuses because they didn't lose as much money as they were supposed to that quarter. Other papers that made money got nothing. You can imagine how that went over.) But the Express was considered the Flagship. It had the highest readership and the largest profile. So yeah, it probably did get preferential treatment. Then again, I know some papers liked to just be left alone and be allowed to do their own thing with as little interference from head office as possible.

As for Transcon doing a salary review, that's been promised before. When they took over in '03 (I think) there were big promises of straightening out the wide disparities in salary between reporters and other employees. There was talk of using a Hay scale to fix things. There was a lot of excitement about it.

Nothing came of it. If Transcon is saying that now, great. I'll believe it when I see it. I bet I'm not alone in that view.

And I will also make this point as strongly as I can... there is absolutely no justification that can see a community newspaper reporter making in some cases more than $10,000 less a year than a Telegram reporter. None. Community newspaper reporters work as hard as anyone in the Telegram newsroom.

This is not to disparage the reporters at the Telegram. They earn their salary. They should probably be paid more. But for community newspaper reporters to be paid $22,000 a year (at a guess, taking inflation into account) while someone doing essentially the same job in St. John's to be making about $32,000 is, frankly, bullshit. I'm pretty sure there are editors of community papers in Newfoundland who make less than junior reporters with the Telegram. Again, that's bullshit.

And don't even get me started on where the Telegram's union for reporters is. I never saw sight of them when I was with the Express. I still don't think they've made any attempt to unionize community reporters. I stand to be corrected on that, however.

Finally, lord knows I mocked reporters who crossed over to PR enough during my time as a reporter. They were sell-outs, looking for a cushy job.

What I'm doing now is a damn sight harder than I thought. I'm friends with some of the PR people I mocked back in the day and they laugh at me. As well they should.

But also, I now have a life. I'm not working ridiculous hours. I'm not going to say what I get paid now, but my wife and I were able to save enough to go on a Caribbean cruise over Christmas. I went to New York for a week over Easter. And next month we're going to Italy for three weeks.

When I was with the Express, I could get the money together to do a cheap all-inclusive to the Dominican for a week as long as I didn't make an RRSP payment that year. And the idea of going anywhere off the island when I was with the Packet was silly. I had to borrow money from friends and family to be able to fly to Ottawa to see my best friend become a Canadian citizen.

There are times I miss journalism. But I don't miss being a reporter, if you know what I mean.

Incidentally, Welsh was earning $28,000 per year when he left The Express which was $3,000 more than I was making at The Sunday Express when it folded in 1991, 14 years earlier.

I understand Welsh's believe it when I see it' pessimism about the prospects for a fair salary adjustment, pending the outcome of Transcontinental's review.

However, I am willing to give them the benefit of the doubt, for now (easy for me to say, I know, not working there). The company knows it has inherited some difficult issues, recognizes that a disparity exists and understands that quality content is more important now than ever.

The company's decision is clear: either it will have a loyal, professional workforce across the chain, or the community papers will remain a training ground for aspiring journalists, plagued by high turnover and low morale.

I hope they do the right thing.

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Recent comments

  • K.
    July 27, 2010 - 14:53

    My story has striking similarities to Craig's. I too was an RB reporter who left to join the dark side. And, like Craig, in doing so I gained a greater level of financial stability that I would never have achieved by staying.

    Communications/PR is perceived by reporters as cushy; that's a fact. I said it many times myself that I would give up journalism for a nice simple PR job. I eat those words. I'm no longer in that field, but I can say that while the work is different, it's no less stressful or worthy.

    Craig said something else that struck a chord with me - he misses journalism but not being a reporter. I feel exactly the same way. I don't miss the endless hours at council meetings, the weekends taking photos at yet another civic day, the blatent attempt by advertising folks to compromise your integrity, working nights and weekends (that's after working a 40-hour regular week)
    ...the list goes on.

    But when a story hits that's juicy, or on election night when I know the adreneline is high, or when I am outraged by an issue, that's when I miss journalism. I've often said to my husband when I'm moved by a story or event that I wish I were still writing because I'm sure I have an editorial in me on this.

    I don't miss the community newspaper life. I miss the wonderful people I worked with, but I don't miss the often thankless work or the constant struggle by editorial staff for equity and respect by those who hold the purse strings.