What are we trying to save here?

So what is it that we’re trying to save here, anyway? Journalism? Certain journalism publications?

Or certain journalism publications’ executives?

Even as newspapers lay off and furlough employees, or put up payrolls to squeeze money from readers, some of the nation’s top newspaper companies can still afford to cut multi-million-dollar checks to their executives.

The New York Times this week wrote about the leadership at Gannett, which paid $3 million in bonuses to its top two executives last year, as well as stock, options and deferred compensation worth as much as $17.6 million more.

This is while the nation’s largest newspaper chain has been forcing its employees to take mandatory furloughs, costing workers weeks of pay so that the company can save… $33 million over the past two years.

Gee, that’s almost enough to pay for Gannett’s top two executives for that time, at their current rate.

Of course, the New York Times isn’t much different itself. As we noted two weeks ago, the Times needs to sign up 51,000 annual customers for its new paywall just to cover the expense of the $9.2 million it paid its top two executives last year.

I don’t care if I offend the suit-wearing readers among us, but I’ve got to take a hard line here. It’s offensive to ask an employee, earning a salary that makes it difficult to live beyond paycheck-to-paycheck, to give up one of those checks so that you can pocket a huge chunk of that sacrifice.

To be fair, Gannett’s executives did take a pay cut this year. But cutting insanely overpriced salaries to make them lower insanely overprices salaries isn’t a personal sacrifice. Nor is it fiscal discipline by the corporation.

It’s hard not to suspect that the last thing cut as newspaper industry crumbles will not be original, investigative reporting… but fat executive salaries. Reporting will go long before that. Heck, it already has. Gannett has cut about 20,000 positions in the five years its current CEO’s been on the job, about nearly 40 percent of its workforce, according to the Times article.

News like this makes me thankful that I don’t work for a newspaper anymore. I don’t think I could stand the thought that I’d be forgoing pay increases, or taking cuts or furloughs, so that my bosses’ bosses could get even richer.

I don’t begrudge those who truly create value from sharing in the wealth that they create, but only in the fiscal fantasy land of Wall Street does cutting 40 percent of your work force “create value.” No leadership in the newspaper industry today is worth the multi-million dollar pay deals that the leaders of Gannett and the NYT are pulling down. The customer revenue simply isn’t there to support that.

This madness isn’t limited to the news industry, of course. Corporate managers throughout the economy have managed to change the standard for their compensation. Whether a company is growing its revenue by connecting with customers doesn’t seem to be as important in determining executive compensation as keeping up with the salaries of other executives at other companies. Couple that change with the lowest overall tax rates in 60 years, and it shouldn’t surprise anyone that America’s income gap is growing to levels not seen since before the Great Depression.

So much of what’s hurting the job security and earning power of reporters in newsrooms across the country today isn’t fiscal discipline in the name of saving journalism. It’s cost-shifting to help save executives’ country club memberships and social registry standing.

Forget that. Want to help save journalism? Do you really want to help save original reporting, by getting more money in the hands of reporters who need it?

Start reading more independent news sites – publications run by journalist/entrepreneurs, where the ad revenue (or foundation grant) goes to the reporters running the shop. Spend less time with traditional, corporate-owned media, where the money increasingly goes to wealthy executives.

Look out for yourself, too. Keep building your connections with your own community, including friends, neighbors, sources and business people. Build your reputation as an authoritative voice so that when the day comes you’re no longer able, or willing, to work in the corporate world, you will have the personal network that can help support your reporting – whether you end up launching your own publication, or writing for another, smaller publication where you can retain more of the value of your work.

If the last folks standing in the journalism industry are to be the bosses, we’d best find a way to become our own boss.

About Robert Niles

Robert Niles is the former editor of OJR, and no longer associated with the site. You may find him now at http://www.sensibletalk.com.


  1. A quick note that this might be one of the best things I’ve read in a long time. I worked at a once-proud news organization in a depressed market that still finds a way to make a sizable, albeit shrinking profit through special sections and gimmicks. But since the Alabama-based company that owns the group demands a higher margin each year, the jobs in the newsroom have been cut dramatically. I finally left to form a startup after the third straight year of furloughs