When I first entered the newspaper business, profit margins of 20 percent to 30 percent were not uncommon. Some papers were even reported to take 40 percent of their earnings down to the bottom line.
Not that much of that income went to the reporters or editors, who as a group ranked at the bottom of professional categories. Below school teachers and ministers, in fact. In addition, we worked nights and weekends and holidays – no wonder the divorce rate was high. The field could be depressing, as other surveys acknowledged. Or maybe it just attracted depressed individuals.
When right-wingers rub their “liberal media” smear across us, they mock the sacrifices we’ve made in trying to serve the public. For accuracy, the mass media are ultimately capitalist machines – or, as they used to say of newspapers when I began, they were machines for printing money. That’s anything but leftist. Can’t be more conservative than that money-grubbing side, can you?
Some of the more astute critics at the time argued that the industry wasn’t reinvesting enough in growth and development, that it was in fact “eating its seed corn” when it came to salaries and wages, especially. How could we attract talented minorities at this pay, for one thing, when there were far more lucrative alternatives such as law? How could we build new audiences and new products without them – much less support these as they grew?
In the past decade or so, the business model has essentially collapsed in the advent of the Internet. Why should anyone pay for something they can get for free? The need for detailed coverage of public affairs remains, more than ever, but there are fewer and fewer professionals on the job, and most of those who remain are approaching minimum wage. You can’t live on that, especially not if you have a family.
I keep thinking of a skilled colleague, one of the best, an editor who quit to become a bus driver. The shift had better hours and better pay, even for a college graduate.