DEVALUATION OF DREAMS
This week, the last
of 17 editorial employees at the Jersey Journal who had been selected
to receive buy-outs cleaned out their desks and left the newspaper.
For most of these staffers, it was a heart-wrenching experience that
marked the end of long careers at the paper. What makes it especially
poignant is the fact that they had just committed professional suicide
by sacrificing themselves so that the paper might live.
The 106-year-old newspaper--which at one point printed three editions
a day, serving Hudson County across the river from New York--covered
one of the most active news towns in the country. One editor called
it a political wonderland." In the past decade, however, as long-time
readers died or moved away, to be replaced by nouveau-rich singles or
families fleeing Manhattan, the paper's circulation and advertising
In 1996, The Newspaper Guild (the paper is the last Guild shop in New
Jersey) accepted demands from the owners, Advance Publications, that
it redefine its position on interns: hiring entry-level reporters at
low salaries with no benefits. The pay scale for those new recruits
was $362.32 a week, or about $217 less than they would receive as starting
reporters. The gap between the intern pay scale and the top-level newspeople
was over $400 per week. In addition, the interns faced a nine-month
"tryout" period before being considered for a staff position.
Then, facing another six-month probationary period until they were entitled
to a beginning reporter salary of $534.86.
The Guild agreed to buy-outs of the 17 senior editorial employees in
an effort to keep the paper publishing. It cut back to one edition a
day, and turned to the new employees to cover the area. In an effort
to placate leaders and advertisers, Newhouse expanded the coverage of
its sister newspaper, the Pulitzer Prize-winning Newark Star Ledger,
into Hudson County (see "You Don't Win a Pulitzer by Accident"
a feature article on the Star-Ledger in our Photo Features archive).
Editor and Publisher denounced the buy-outs as an attempt to twist "the
honorable institution of journalism internships to get reporters on
Unfortunately, the crisis at the Jersey Journal is not unique in American
journalism. Today's undergraduates know that opportunities in newsrooms
come at sub-standard living wages. In most cases, advancement is blocked,
and those lucky enough to hold a staff job for any length of time simply
aren't going anywhere.
As we have written in this column many times, the profession of freelance
photojournalism is under siege more than at any time since its beginnings.
Budget cuts at newspapers, magazines, television stations and networks
have dramatically shrunk the number and quality of assignments being
given out. At the same time, those few assignments come with draconian
rights grabs. The basic premise of freelance photojournalism being that
any assignment is only the first step in creating an archive of saleable
images that would go towards funding the journalist's own health benefits
and retirement plans.
While the cost of doing business has increased--a result of the need
to convert to high-priced digital equipment--things like "camera
allowances" that used to be common have disappeared. Recently,
the New York Times decided to do away with the small additional payment
to photographers for "transmission fees." Never mind that
the use of photographer's equipment--including power books and broadband
access fees--were far less than the amounts of money the paper used
to pay to wire services for the transmission of the same pictures.
This is about the devaluing of professionals. The inherent value of
the story or photograph has dropped in the minds of the editors who
are responsible for paying for them. As one editor at the Jersey Journal
said, "It used to be, get it first and get it right. Now it's maybe
The entire foundation of journalism is being undermined. The word is
now being passed in journalism schools that if you want to be a journalist,
you had better learn a different profession that will help support your
The dream of a noble profession is being lost.