What you are worth, a closer look at the RTNDA salary survey.

Last week, I was sent a copy of the RTNDA/Hofstra University 2012 TV and Radio News Staffing and Profitability Survey.  I tweeted it out and placed it on Facebook so journalists could see what the median salaries are, and how salaries compare to the rate of inflation. (If your bills go up, you need more cash!)  Knowledge is power.   You may not realize it, but this survey is a gold mine of a resource for journalists.

Several journalists sent me DM’s on Twitter and Facebook saying the survey seemed off.  They said the median was too high in many market sizes.  And some of you said the low range under television news salaries was too high.  These comments came from several market ranges in everything from management jobs, to producers, reporters and anchors.  So I contacted the person behind the survey, Bob Papper, to ask how the survey works and what the takeaway is for journalists.

First, he stands by his numbers.  The biggest reason:  the surveys are sent directly to news directors.  He says he contacts every news director in the country.  Papper says, “I have a complete list.”  The news director is almost always the person who fills the survey out.  There is one market where it’s the AND who fills it out. In a few cases the station’s business manager fills it out.  Papper says “I get more than 75 percent participation,” because he contacts news directors several times to make sure the surveys are completed.  He also checks every television station in the country to make sure they have not added news departments, without him knowing.

Second, he looks at trends over the short and long term.  You may remember me mentioning on Facebook, that you should take a look at the 5 and 10 year comparisons, based on inflation.  Papper has been doing this survey for 19 years.  That’s how he can confidently lay out comparisons like this one.  He is seeing consistency in the numbers.  That is a way to gauge if the survey is on target.  There should not be huge swings, except in extreme cases like the recent housing collapse.  Papper says since then the numbers have “normed out” a bit.

Now let’s explain what the median number means.  After all, we journalists are not exactly known for our higher math skills.  A “median” salary means half make below that number, half earn above it.  A median salary is considered a typical salary.  For example, when I asked him about producer pay in a top 5 market he said, “If you are a show producer in a top five market and you are not making at least 50 to 60 thousand minimum, you are being screwed.”

But here is where that median salary can get interesting, and why some of you are saying your pay is nowhere near the median.  There are three other factors to consider, that no survey can completely counter: Growth markets, individual market differences, and lastly how replaceable you are.

Let’s consider growth markets, and individual market differences.  Papper explained that Dallas has just entered into the top 5 markets.  It historically is known for paying less anyway, and now it’s a growing market.   Papper says, “If your market is a growth market the pay may not match up (to markets of similar size). It will tend to lag.  A market that’s growing really fast, it may lag a good bit.”  There are other markets that pay more than their typical size as well.  Papper says an example is Baton Rouge, LA.  “It typically pays above its market size.” That’s why understanding the term median is so important.  Median is typical, but not absolute.  Half of the salaries can be, and often are, lower.  The other half are higher.  Working for a station with a major affiliate also comes into play. (FYI, FOX stations are now keeping up with the major affiliates.  Except in some tiny markets where Papper says, “people probably qualify for food stamps.”)

Now the big X factor:  Your viewed importance in the newsroom.  How replaceable are you?  Remember the economy comes into play:  Simple supply and demand.  There are a lot of unemployed newsies looking for work, no matter the pay.  Papper says if your pay is way below the median, you have to ask yourself if you are considered a valuable resource at that station.  “You can always test the theory by applying for other jobs.” Papper says, “Talk to the boss or shop around.” And, he says, the numbers for anchors can be a little off, “because everyone is considered an anchor nowadays.”  This can make it harder to gauge, especially when it comes to salaries for main anchors.

There is one more large factor to consider when looking at this survey.  Take into account how many employees work in your newsroom.  When considering your own salary, Papper explains you must look at market size, and staff size.  (He breaks salaries down by newsroom staff size as well.)  And, remember, network affiliates generally pay higher than independents.

So once you look at these factors, does your salary still seem too low?  If so, here’s the big takeaway:  Ask your ND about it.  Again, news directors fill out these surveys. They have a good idea you will be wondering about it.  After all, as Papper says, “A news director has no impetus to inflate the salaries they are paying, if anything the news director has an impetus to low ball what they are paying because employees are going to see this stuff.”  Some stations post the surveys.  News directors who want to show the pay at the station is fair hang them up on the wall.  Employees who think the numbers are way off, also hang them up as a message to management.  So go get your answers.  I hope you can use this new knowledge, as power.


Thank you to Bob Papper, for taking the time to explain all of this.  He is a professor, and chairs the Department of Journalism, Media Studies, and Public Relations at Hofstra University.  He also is a former producer and news manager.   Again, he has done this salary survey for 19 years.