When I started my first journalism job, I took home the princely sum of £87 a week in my first pay packet.
Today’s reporters do a bit better than that.
Using the Bank of England’s inflation tool, I reckon that first week’s salary would be worth just under £260 today.
A trainee on one of the lowest pay grades in a regional newsroom might be on £326 a week now. That’s if they’re on £17,000 a year.
But that £326 still isn’t a lot to shout about.
The issue of journalists’ pay emerged this week in a weighty new report from the National Council for the Training of Journalists.
The headline figure is encouraging, with the average NCTJ diploma-holder said to be on £22,500 six months after graduating.
I’m pleased to see this progress.
But I can’t quite square this figure – particularly as it is said to be £500 higher than the average for all graduates at that early stage in their career – with what I know about industry pay rates.
These are likely to be reporters who haven’t yet passed their NQJ or equivalent in-house qualification, and so won’t have had their pay boosted by a senior rate.
In many newsrooms, that puts them on that £17,000 rung.
I know from the conversations I have with editors how difficult it can be for them to find staff within the tight budget constraints they are forced to operate under.
Some of our students have perhaps understandably turned their noses up at that £17k figure in recent months – although a couple of others have taken it on the financial chin.
It’s not just the initial starting salary. Even 18 months to two years of work – plus potentially topping up shorthand and filling in any exam gaps, passing the NQJ or in-house equivalent – may not even get you to the figure on which many graduates in other media sectors begin their careers.
And then there’s the workload.
I’ve made the point a few times that the reporters of today have a lot more on their plates than I did.
It’s not just the responsibilities of a ticklist that might include writing online, social and possibly even print headlines, of negotiating Facebook posting schedules, of shooting or sourcing video, and of getting involved in online discussions questioning your work, morals and parentage.
And it’s not just the personal accountability now inextricably baked into page view metrics.
— Paul Wiltshire (@Paulwiltshire) August 5, 2019
One thing that really struck me in my visits to newsrooms and my annual Work Experience for the Elderly stints this summer was the way in which the relentless impact of a 24/7 news cycle was now played out.
Some newsroom managers may be part of three different WhatsApp groups, some of which may have membership well into double figures.
But the newest reporters on that 17 grand will also be on at least one of these, with notifications pinging around the clock.
Of course, the best reporters have always had a never-off-duty mantra.
Before the days of mobile phones, I can remember trudging to a phone box to make evening check calls to the police – all without any extra pay or time back.
And that’s without the Christmas Eve, Boxing Day and New Year’s Day shifts.
But I don’t think journalists have ever been more ‘always on’ than they are today.
That’s why we should worry about pay levels.
It’s not just the sometimes-disappointing starting salaries.
It’s also the worry over the vulnerability of staff on more respectable money.
I know one very experienced and talented journalist who quit a job they loved because they feared they would be next in line when redundancies were demanded.
If you’re paid well, you’re always going to be a tempting target when savings need to be made.
There are many reasons to be cheerful in the NCTJ report, including an average salary of £27,500 for those who graduated in 2015.
But it reveals that a third of journalism graduates leave the industry after three years, with 38 per cent of them blaming wage levels.
I’ve been involved in countless conversations over the years on the need to develop, reward and protect reporters who simply want to be reporters.
But it’s a nut that’s never quite been cracked effectively.
So – as a Twitter debate I inadvertently sparked confirmed – we have an industry which has a reputation for being competitive (and is in certain areas), but which can also struggle to find the right people.
I have NO idea why it’s so hard to recruit for locals, it’s such a rewarding job. I am very clearly these days seeing examples of “journalism” in the nationals and elsewhere where it’s clear there is not much care, diligence or training / experience
— Rachel Sharp (@sharpyrachel) September 5, 2019
It doesn’t help that we have traditionally been less than forthcoming with information about pay rates.
My Twitter friend David Higgerson tweeted a string of vacancies in his company Reach’s newsrooms – all where the salary was described as ‘competitive.’
Reach can be ahead of the game when it comes to rewarding their staff, but my fear is that competitive can mean ‘no worse than anywhere else.’
Now I know that sometimes the money on offer may vary according to experience or the applicant’s current package.
But I also know that budgets are so highly controlled now that there can be little wriggle room. So why not be a bit more up-front?
Looking at ads on Hold the Front Page and Reach’s jobs site, I did see a few where the salary was specified: Archant offering up to £18,000 to trainees and up to £25,000 for senior reporters, and Reach £18,500 for a commercial writer.
Archant was also very specific about another job – for a trainee – where the salary was ‘up to £17,160’. Here, you need to have already completed the NCTJ diploma – and have a car.
That for some people, once they’ve factored in insurance, might be quite a stretch.
People don’t go into journalism for the money – and perhaps neither should they.
As a boss, I would always be suspicious of applicants who were fixated on financial details.
It’s a job where satisfaction, a feeling of making a difference, and of enriching community life by reporting and revealing key information are the main drivers.
But it’s also a job where the demands have never been as high.
Those job descriptions and lists of skills and requirements are growing all the time.
It’s essential that the pay keeps moving in the right direction, too.