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News Investment

News Investment

The trend away from locally produced news appears to be continuing.

We have moved from a time when every station in a town was separately owned – and maintained its own news department – to a point where each station in a particular area may be owned by one of the large corporate entities. Even if each of those companies has a central newsroom in the area, all the news in a single market might be coming from a small handful of newsrooms. Assume, for instance, there were 16 stations in a city and they were owned by three companies with three centralized news departments. If each newsroom had two news people, six people would be generating all the news decisions for 16 stations. It’s a situation that contributes to making radio increasingly less reliable as a source for local news.

In addition, when radio newsrooms are centralized operations, the numbers involving investment per newsroom might be misleading.

People working in radio news appear to be making more money, which would suggest an increasing investment in news by station ownership groups. But fewer people are actually working in the newsroom. The “news hub” system, combined with voice-tracking technology, allows radio groups to operate with smaller newsroom staffs. And while this means salary increases for those who remain, it also means greater workloads and increasing responsibility.

It’s a situation in which more money might actually mean less investment.

Salaries

Looking at the newest numbers from the RTNDA/Ball State University continuing news director surveys, there is good news and bad news when it comes to newsroom salaries.

The good news, according to the findings, is that “radio news salaries rose even more than television news salaries. News director and sports anchor saw the biggest jumps; news anchor was the only group to grow below inflation’s modest 1.9%.”1

Radio Salaries, Over Time
Survey of news directors, 1998 & 2003
Design Your Own Chart
Source: RTNDA/Ball State University Newsroom Surveys

The bad news, if we compare those salaries with the parallel salaries in television, is the significant disparity between the two news media. Median salary for a television news director: $68,000. Median salary for a radio news director: $35,500. Television news anchor: $59,500. Radio news anchor: $30,000. Television news reporter: $28,000. Radio news reporter: $25,000.

More perplexingly — harking back to the disconnection between salary increases and actual newsroom investment — it appears that radio salaries actually have a tendency to drop based on the number of stations news people serve. The numbers suggest that people are paid less money for what one could assume is a greater workload, or if not more work, at the very least providing greater benefit to the broadcast organization. A news director, anchor or reporter serving two stations actually makes more money than the individual doing the same job and serving three or more stations. Moreover, with the exception of sports anchors, people working for independent stations (who are presumably working for only a single station) tend to make higher salaries.

The numbers are hard to interpret from the data available. The salary gap could be some anomaly based on the way people interpreted the survey. Or it may suggest that companies of a certain size are beginning to merge operations and may be relying on younger, less experienced staffs, using the consolidation to shed more veteran professionals.

Median Radio Salaries, by Stations Served
Survey of news directors, 2003
Design Your Own Chart
Source: RTNDA/Ball State University Newsroom Surveys
Median Radio Salaries, by Ownership
2003 survey of news directors
Design Your Own Chart
Source: RTNDA/Ball State University Newsroom Surveys

Still others have noticed the data and heard an important alarm bell, evidence of the effect consolidation is having on hiring, turning news staffs into simply low-paid readers. These radio journalists are not just being stretched thin, in this view, they are also in a fundamentally different business. They are no longer news gatherers, but simply news presenters of second-hand material. They are, as the Project has noted in other work, no longer significantly involved in journalism of verification – gathering news first-hand and verifying it. They are involved in the journalism of assertion, passing along things without fundamental knowledge about accuracy or validity.

How are listeners being served by news people not in their town, ask observers like Dale Wilman, Executive Editor of Field Notes Productions and a former NPR editor and producer. Beyond the obvious problems of presentation, such as pronunciation and local knowledge, how can people provide a real news service to an area without even being there to cover it? Phone calls can do only so much. If a good portion of success in life is being there, showing up, that may be an even bigger part of the key to journalism.

Perhaps even more significantly, it appears that radio newsrooms will continue to shrink. Only 15% of the news directors surveyed by RTNDA/Ball State were planning staffing increases over the course of 2004. More than three-quarters (77%) were planning decreases.

The use of centralized newsrooms has so far masked much of the impact of these decreasing staff levels. Of those news directors surveyed by RTNDA/Ball State, 44% indicated an increase in the amount of news their stations were carrying. While this number might seem heartening, fully 53% said news had decreased on their stations over the past year.

Those patterns may be the predictable consequence of media consolidation, but we may also be entering a critical juncture. How much thinner can the staff of centralized newsrooms be spread before radio journalists begin to seek alternatives? And how much farther can news dollars be stretched before the public begins to notice and seek alternatives of their own?

Footnotes

1. Bob Papper, “Salaries soar,” RTNDA Communicator, June 2004, p. 28.