$1.28 A Freakin' Hour
June 2008

by James Colburn

I was in Washington a few weeks ago at the annual awards dinner of the White House News Photographers Association. It's an annual chance to see old friends and catch up on news. It's also a time to meet new people and see how they're doing in the great, wide, wonderful world of photojournalism.

This year's word?


Everyone is running scared, hounded by feelings of dread. Hunter Thompson came up with the phrase "Fear and Loathing" and it fits very, very well. Layoffs are happening across the country and people are jumping at modest buyout packages just to have something, anything, to work with as they get shown the door and told to not let it hit them on the way out.

I had the distinct pleasure of sitting at a table with a number of photographers from a major metropolitan newspaper; let's call it The Daily Planet. One Planet shooter had won a major award and it wasn't this shooter's first. They'd been nominated by their own newspaper for Pulitzers a few times and had won numerous local, regional and national photojournalism awards. They'd been sent by the Planet to cover stories both nationwide and internationally. This is a very, very good photographer.

Pleasant talk ensued. Then the talk turned a bit darker. In this photographer's 6 and 1/2 years with this major metropolitan newspaper, owned by a national chain, he'd received an hourly increase that came to all of $1.28 an hour. That's only $200 a month and in a major city $200 doesn't go far. I was stunned.

I've heard from other photographers who have suffered similarly. The salary cap that's been in effect for almost two years. Four years at a paper with a $1.50 per hour increase starting from an hourly wage that wasn't great to begin with.

The fear is pervasive and the loathing spreads. People hate their companies, their bosses, the company directors that go on junkets and continue to rake in bonuses and stock options. They may have a point.

Why are newspapers and magazines getting rid of the photographers and reporters that provide the all-important CONTENT for the printed or Web-based publication? These are the people doing a good job. It's the people in advertising and circulation that ought to be suffering more since it's the lack of INCOME that's causing the problems.

Instead of cutting back on those gallant men and women in the newsroom that work their butts off on a daily basis, volunteer for late shifts and stay up until 3 p.m. covering some crappy minor league baseball game that goes on for 14 sloooow innings, how about telling the geniuses in the ad department to get off their lazy asses and sell something?

Instead of cutting meager editorial travel budgets for stories-of-extreme-interest-to-readers, how about cutting CEO travel budgets to those conferences that always seem to take place in golfing wonderlands in sunny places? How about making that CEO fly coach and pay for his own drinks?

This is not a time for cutbacks on the editorial side; it should be one of those times when management has the guts to expand and hire more people to create the CONTENT that is, and will be, the reason why YOUR newspaper is bought and read and why YOUR Web site is the one that everyone goes to for news. More photographers, more reporters, more editors and more multimedia journalists. Pay the people you have good money and treat them well and they will bust their asses to give you the best that they are capable of.

You can read the AP wire on a thousand different sites but yours should be the one that gives people more than that.

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© James Colburn
Contributing Writer