If you’ve never heard of Liz Mair, you’re not alone. But Mair, a Republican communications strategist who has worked with the likes of Sens. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., and Rand Paul, R-Ky., became briefly infamous among journalists this week after suggesting that local news outlets struggle because reporters are lazy and overpaid.
Mair tweeted: “One problem contributing to the demise of local media is the very minimal output of some local reporters. When you file like one story a week, it’s hard to justify high five figure or low six figure salaries and you’re not doing much to attract readers. Too little content.”
First off, no reporter at a local newspaper is making “high five figure or low six figure salaries” unless they’ve been doing their job for 30 to 40 years and have somehow avoided downsizing or corporate gutting.
My first job out of college was as a reporter at a relatively small daily newspaper in Southern Ohio. It was 1999. I was paid $7.50 an hour. After five months there, I took a job as a reporter at a paper nearby. They generously bumped me up to $21,000 a year. That wasn’t great, but it was OK for the time being. I was doing a job I loved doing. I was in my early 20s, had a low cost of living and I was getting frequent raises.
Even 20 years ago, when many community newspapers had already downsized considerably, you could make a career out of working at a small- to mid-sized daily if you paid your dues and hung around.
A lot of factors changed that, quickly, for local papers around the country. In my case, a change in ownership to a corporate holding company resulted in job cuts and a reduction in resources. When reporters left for another job, they weren’t replaced. Pay increases stopped. At one point, they refused to update our computer software, and we were down to one workstation in the entire building that had internet access.
I once filed 16 stories in a week at that job. Instead of being encouraged, I was yelled at because, lacking sleep and spending almost all of my waking hours in the office, I showed up in jeans on a Thursday.
I eventually moved on to another publication nearby that was willing to pay me a livable wage based on my experience, and I’ve been pretty lucky to have the opportunities that have come my way since.
Entry pay for this profession is still pretty low, and I don’t know of many publications that are regularly increasing pay so those entry-level workers are dissuaded from looking to move on to larger markets. The people who hang around are here because they love their jobs and they want to be here, in the face of a lot of factors telling them to do something else, somewhere else.
To address the other part of Mair’s ridiculous tweet, the amount of stories a particular reporter files is, in my experience, a false indicator of productivity. Many in this business have tried to equate volume with quality — some companies even institute “byline counts” — but it rarely works to anyone’s benefit. Of those 16 stories I wrote in one week, I can’t remember what any of them were about today. At least half were probably trifling matters from some city council meeting or other, and of little value to the average reader.
That’s not to say local content isn’t lower in local papers, but it’s hardly ever the result of reporters refusing to work hard. Quality local content drops because generating revenue in this business in these times is a struggle — for myriad reasons. Lower revenue affects staffing and resources, which affects the amount of content.
The Gazette-Mail is lucky to have a local ownership group that bought this paper for the simple reason of saving it, but we’ve certainly had our fair share of financial challenges. A smaller newsroom is working harder than ever to cover local news through the COVID-19 pandemic, perhaps the biggest story and largest obstacle to normal operations, in a generation.
Those reporters certainly aren’t kicking back, feet propped up on desks, counting their money as they groan about having to file a single story a week. They’re here because they want to be here. They’re here because they want to provide a service to readers and the community. They’re here because they view local news as vital to the region.
No one here is in it for the money.