Journalism’s Lost Decade

When the Federal Reserve released a report last month about the plummeting net worth of Americans over the last decade, the thought occurred to us that if anyone were worse off than the nation as a whole it might be journalists. After all, inflation-adjusted wages have been stagnant in the U.S. for years and you’d be hard pressed to find an American industry that suffered as sharp a contraction in the last decade (or in any decade) as the news business, right? Wrong. It turns out that reporters’ salaries actually grew faster than the overall U.S. workforce right up until the financial crisis, when they plunged—it’s the journalistic equivalent of Wall Street investors’ “lost decade” of gains.

Journalism's Lost Decade

We looked at Bureau of Labor Statistic data on “reporters and correspondents” (their nomenclature) going back to 1999. Then we compared that to median income for all occupations. Surprise! Reporters did better than the typical American worker in terms of salary growth until 2008. This despite the popping of the Internet bubble—a bubble that, via advertising dollars, had supported phone book-sized glossies, thick newspaper business sections and lavish travel budgets (or so we’ve heard from our elders) in the mid- to late-nineties. So while news media were already hurting from a decline in ad dollars and audience in the aughts, the pain wasn’t showing up in newsroom salaries.

In fact, reporters made almost exactly what the typical American made in 1999 (a smidge over $26,000 a year) but made 4% more than the average by 2007. By last year reporters were making 8%, or almost $3,000, less than the typical American, not chump change. This rapid, recent undoing of a decade’s worth of gains looks a lot like the portfolio returns of many U.S. stock market investors who saw all of their profits from the long, slow tech-bubble rebound wiped out from 2007 to 2009 in what market pundits have dubbed a lost decade.

The BLS data may actually understate this particular reversal of fortune because the reporters and correspondents category is heavily populated by newspaper reporters at the expense of broadcast, magazines, freelancers and others who typically make more money but were also probably more leveraged to the sudden shifts of recent years. The nationwide numbers also gloss over nuances such as location (see our recent state-by-state analysis of journalist wages). Only one caveat to this analysis: we had trouble finding overall median incomes for 1999 and 2000 so we extrapolated backward from 2001 using year-over-year changes from readily available household income figures.