On being retentive

October 13, 2003
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Nicole links to this Poynter article that wonders what newspapers must do to keep their best people. They ask us time and gain and we tell them time and again — pay us better and we’ll stick around — but each time they refuse to hear what we say, and people keep leaving as they always have.

I’ll concede money is not the prime motivator for most of us, but when we’re struggling to keep the creditors away and our friends and relatives in other lines of work are taking vacations in Europe and living in houses with three-stall garages, it’s hard not to be tempted. Even if you don’t believe journalism is a profession like law are medicine, it’s no stretch to call it a skilled trade. I wonder how many plumbers, electricians or finish carpenters make less than 100K a year?

It’s not like we’re innocent lambs — they do it to us because we let ‘em. But what they do is an economic slap in the face to a lot of us, particularly on the copy desk, where the demand for copy editors has gone through the roof in the past decade but wages have been unchanged (near as I can tell anyway). You don’t need a doctorate in economics to do the math: the supply remains low because the wages remain low.

The real key to keeping your best people is paying them enough that they can’t afford to leave. I’ve left at least one job purely on the basis of low pay — a few years out of school, when I was scraping by on about 22k a year, a vast world of other low-paying opportunities was out there. I liked the work enough that I quit that job in favor of better pay and benefits in Guild newspaper. I didn’t get out of the business but I knew quite a few who did.

Since then I’ve stayed in Guild jobs that pay me enough to live modestly well on … it’s enough (barely) to keep me in the biz because starting over at square one in some other line of work would probably cost me 20k a year that I can’t afford. So, the biz has me but it’s not going to keep all those people they’re paying rock-bottom salaries in smaller makets.


It could be that better pay won’t retain our best people, but how will we know if we never try?

4 Responses to On being retentive

  1. Phillip Blanchard on October 14, 2003 at 3:34 am

    “As we will note later in this presentation, pay and work hours are not motivators ….”
    Yes, they are.
    I still have a hard time understanding why people complain about lousy hours (most of us publish at night), but more money can retain good people.

  2. tom on October 14, 2003 at 7:50 am

    This is what infuriates me … people like us who are respected by our bosses, who turn to us in times of trouble to bail them out of jams day after day, and who do it mostly without complaint and devote as much energy as we can muster to making the paper good every day, are told time and again that we simply cannot expect to see any extra cash for said extra effort. I like my job and my bosses … they are good people … but to tell me this is downright un-American. How is it that my attempts at excellence go unrewarded? Should I have to go begging in the boss’s office, citing poverty and high rents, to extract a raise out these folks? Mind you I’m not singling out my current employer, because this one is exactly like all the others. I have co-workers on the desk who have gone decades without a single merit raise. I’ve gotten two in 16 years, and each amounted to 20 bucks a week before taxes. What is with this business? It just makes no sense to me.

  3. newsdesigner on October 14, 2003 at 4:37 pm

    I love how he says that pay is not a motivator TWO PARAGRAPHS after saying that the NO. 1 THING that would keep people at newspapers is better pay. Only to a comfortably retired Gannett exec with a cushy Harvard job would that make any sense.

  4. tom on October 14, 2003 at 4:44 pm

    Money might not be all that matters, but it’s very corrosive to morale think your company is not paying you what you’re worth. At least it was to me in years past.