It Pays To Research Salaries

By: Randy Dotinga

In a job interview, there may be no greater showstopper than three simple words: “Let’s talk money.”

All those questions about where you want to be in five years can’t quite match up to this doozy of a topic. To make things worse, many applicants have no experience in salary negotiations and may never even have tangled with a car salesman.

Regardless of what kind of newspaper job you want, give yourself a head start by doing some basic research into how much you’re worth.

First, figure out how much you think you need to earn in your target location. A perfectly adequate salary in Iowa City may send you deep into debt in San Francisco or Boston, where $300,000 homes are a bargain. “I don’t know that many people sit down and figure out much they need to live the way they want to live,” said Liz Brown, administrative officer of the Pacific Northwest Newspaper Guild in Seattle. “There just seems to be a lot of emotion that clouds the entire subject of finances.”

Many Web sites offer cost-of-living calculators (use a search engine to find them), but they miss the subtleties of life choices. A father of three might be willing to tackle a long, expensive commute to live in the tranquil suburbs. And a young single woman who works in the suburbs might prefer the excitement of downtown life, despite the longer drive.

After you’ve settled on an approximate target salary, continue your research by figuring out what people actually make.

Perhaps the handiest resource is the Inland Press Association’s annual salary survey. But it’s only available to the 478 daily newspapers that contribute salary data. This is when your contacts in the H.R. department will really come in handy. If your paper is a contributor, call in some favors and try to get a peek at the extensive results, which are listed by circulation size.

The next best thing is the Newspaper Guild, a union that represents 34,000 newspaper employees. The guild’s Web site,, lists the minimum salaries for advertising, classified, reporting, and photographer positions at dozens of newspapers.

Use the Editor & Publisher International Year Book (available on your boss’s desk or at the library) to find guild newspapers of comparable size to your target. But remember that the listed salaries are minimums; while bosses may not be eager to admit it, many employees make more. Also, union newspapers may work differently than non-union shops. Later in your career, the latter may have more freedom to bump up your salary based on merit instead of seniority.

If you’re in management, another good resource is the salary survey offered for free by Youngs, Walker & Co., a newspaper recruitment firm (

Finally, don’t forget that newspaper employees are some of the biggest blabbermouths on earth. “I’ve known people who have called a staffer out of the blue and asked what people are making at the newspaper,” said Brown of the Newspaper Guild. You can do it too.

Once you’ve done the research, you’re ready to bargain, but watch the timing. “When I am speaking to someone and the first question out of their mouth is ‘How much do you pay,’ it suggests the priorities are not in the right place,” said newsroom recruiter George Rede of The Oregonian in Portland. “It’s a cliche, but nobody goes into journalism to get rich.”

Rich Papike, president of the San Diego recruiting firm TriStaff, tells his newspaper hopefuls not to demand a minimum salary figure, because they might get no more than that. “It’s best to deflect the question,” he said, forcing the potential employer to make the first move.

According to former Arizona Republic editor Pam Johnson, another approach is to say: “I’ve studied some neighborhoods here and know what the housing will cost me. For it to be reasonable for me to consider an offer, I’d have to make around this number.”

Johnson, who’s now a leadership and management instructor with the Poynter Institute in St. Petersburg, Fla., advises applicants not to mention a salary range. “Go in high and be prepared to come down and take non-salary benefits,” she said.

For example, ask for an extra week of vacation, a signing bonus or a higher relocation allowance. You could even ask the newspaper to help you break your lease. And if the newspaper doesn’t offer a certain kind of benefit you want — say, domestic partner coverage — ask for the equivalent value in cash or vacation time.

And if the newspaper won’t budge? Make the call, knowing that at least you have lots of facts to back up your decision.

COMING NEXT WEEK: Ah, the sweet mysteries of life. Who are we? Why are we here? What should you put in a cover letter? Get an answer to at least one of those questions in our next newsletter.

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