December 2018: What effect does paying student journalists have on the composition of a newsroom?

The Cavalier Daily staff in their newsroom / Photo Provided by Tim Dodson
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By Madison Dudley

Madison Dudley: For many, working as a collegiate student journalist means going unpaid or underpaid. The work experience is considered payment enough and the experience is often a pre-requisite to landing an internship or full-time job in journalism. But the financial reality for student journalists has changed over the last 20 years, especially in the wake of the 2008 recession.

In 2017, CNBC reported that in the last three decades, the cost of tuition at four-year universities has skyrocketed 213 percent. At private schools, it’s been a 129 percent increase. That’s after factoring in for inflation. Americans collectively owe $1.4 trillion in student loans.

It’s no wonder that some students cannot afford to work without compensation.

Hi, my name is Madison Dudley and I am a reporter with the Student Press Law Center. This month we’re going to take a closer look at how student journalists are compensated and the effects that paying or not paying students have on the quality and diversity of a publication.  

MD: The Cavalier Daily at the University of Virginia has about 300 contributors, and none of them are paid. Here’s Editor-in-Chief Tim Dodson:

TD: If you’re a student that doesn’t have to worry about financial aid, that doesn’t have to worry about having a part time job to get money to pay for textbooks or pay for food, then yeah, that’s a pretty privileged position to be in.

MD: In 2013, Citigroup and Seventeen Magazine released survey findings that showed four out of five college students were working part time jobs, averaging 19 hours per week.

TD: I’m on financial aid and so it has been kind of difficult for me to balance between being a student, being on the paper, leading the paper and also having a part time job.

MD: Across the country in northern Colorado, Haley Candelario serves as editor-in-chief of the Rocky Mountain Collegian. The paper prints four times a week and all editors are paid hourly. New reporters and photographers have to complete 10 assignments before they start getting paid per assignment. Candelario is worried about the paper’s finances and has had to cut staff hours.

Haley Candelario: I ended up having to cut five extra people and that becomes difficult because I’m hearing from my editors ‘I can’t work here unless I have x amount of hours’ and then you kind of have to scramble. So it’s a balancing act in essence.

HC: I feel really lucky and I feel really privileged that I’m able to pay myself and pay my staff…Not enough to match the work that I know that they’re doing. I’m just not able to match that passion or match that work but still recognizing it could be a worse situation for us.

MD: Paying staff isn’t a realistic option for many student news organizations across the country that are fighting for their financial survival. In May of 2017, the Student Media Company Inc, an organization that printed and kept the Southern Methodist University’s The Daily Campus independent, shut down for financial reasons, leaving the paper in the hands the school of communications. In November 2018,  Clemson’s The Tiger went all digital because it could not afford printing fees.

The Daily Orange at Syracuse University stopped publishing on Fridays and the Columbia Daily Spectator at Columbia University in New York went from a daily to a weekly. All within the last five years. The overwhelming reason in all of these examples is economic, not just how millenials take in news.

MD: Even though Candelario has the ability to pay her staff, she said in previous years, members of the editorial board left the paper because they needed a higher paying job.

HC: That’s always really unfortunate because we do have so many editors and people who come in and want to do journalism as a professional career, and this is like the stepping stone to do it. So when they have to leave their editorial position that ends up hurting their career prospects in the future.

HC: We’ve had a lot of discussions about what our demographic looks like in the newsroom. There are definitely some people where this is their only job and this is all that they have to do in order to make ends meet. I’m not one of them. Like most people, I still work a second job in addition to being editor-in-chief.

For me getting paid is kind of on the back burner. The experience is much more important for me. But that’s kind of a privileged [statement]. We’ve had reporters who had to like take a semester off or take a year off, like go away for the rest of their time in college because they have to get another job outside of us.

MD: Student loans and job insecurity after college are making it more challenging than ever for students to take unpaid work at college papers. Just like student publications, professional newsrooms are experiencing severe economic difficulties, making full-time post grad prospects scarce.

The Pew Research Center reported a third of large newspapers in the United States had layoffs in 2017 and overall newsroom employment has dropped by  almost a quarter since 2008. According to Pew, print circulation, ad revenue and newsroom employment have all steadily and steeply declined in recent years.

The United States Bureau of Labor Statistics estimated the median pay for journalists, correspondents and broadcast news analysts was $40,910 per year. For reporters, it’s only $34,000. At the same time, the average student loan debt per graduate was over $30,000 in 2016 and that figure is expected to increase.  

MD: In 2018, the Asian American Journalists Association’s Voices program did a comprehensive analysis of seven academic studies on newsroom pay and interviewed journalists from across the country in large newsrooms. Student journalists found white men were paid more than any other demographic and held more editorial and leadership positions. In some newsrooms, the pay gap between men and women of similar standing was over $11,000. The gap between white women and women of color was over $18,000.

Does this make journalism a career available only to those who can afford it?

MD: Tomás Mier is a junior at the University of Southern California and just finished his tenure as managing editor of the Daily Trojan. Mier is also the collegiate representative for the National Association of Hispanic Journalists. Mier said the Daily Trojan pays everyone on staff, but the amount is not comparable to other jobs on campus. He said there are probably students who want to work for the paper but can’t because the journalism experience is less important than putting food on the table and paying their rent.

Tomás Mier: Especially for me, because I come from a very low income background. My parents are undocumented. My dad is a construction worker and my mom’s a nanny. I sacrifice a little bit with the Daily Trojan because I care so much about the publication and I care so much about telling the news, like so many people are taking these low paying jobs for something that they are so passionate about and I mean I have to admit that’s also why I’m okay with making so little at the Daily Trojan because more than anything I’m getting the experience that I want and I’m also building friendships, building relationships, building community and I get to put together USC’s only paper if that makes sense so. That’s a little bit of a give and take but I understand that for some kids who have to have a job, being on the Daily Trojan staff is pretty impossible.

MD: In 2018, the American Society of News Editors released its annual census of the newsrooms and found people of color made up 22.6 percent of the journalism workforce of responding newsrooms. ASNE said the response from newspapers in 2018 was at a historic low, with only 17 percent reporting. In 2017, white people make up 76 percent of the U.S.  population, according to the Census Bureau.

Kyra Azore is a senior at Howard University and is the student representative for the National Association of Black Journalists. Azore says low pay in professional newsrooms is limiting who can become a journalist.

Kyra Azore: It’s no secret that newsrooms across the country aren’t diverse, but I think that if we take it a step further and look. They might not be diverse based on who can afford to do it. If you have student loans and kids you may not be able to continue to be a reporter in a small market maybe only making $30,000 a year. That might not be something you are able to do to afford your lifestyle to afford the things you need for your family so that’s when journalism becomes this whole, you need to pay people more to live the lifestyle they desire.

I think to make that institutional change we have to first recognize the importance that journalism and journalist have to our society. And we have to continue to pay people like their job matters and it’s a critical part of society. We have to pay people not only for what they’re worth but for the amount of trouble that they are doing to make sure the public is informed.

MD: Azore thinks paying student journalists and treating student newsrooms “like a business” is not the solution, because it limits the number of people who work for those publications.

Kyra Azore: A lot of people you know that when you talk to hiring managers and things they say do you work for your school paper and if your school paper is one of those things that only the best of the best of the journalism department can write for the paper then they dont let new people in because it’s a business then you lose out on that aspect, you lose out on that learning opportunity and you can only learn then at this point in the classroom where the deadline driven newsroom feel isn’t the same.

MD: Azore said when you start hiring students, it becomes more about money and quality and less about education. She argues a newsroom should be a place students can learn and grow.

MD: Bernard Lunzer is the president of the NewsGuild, a national labor union that represents media professionals.

Bernard Lunzer: I know that the monetary pressures on students from my era were so much less in terms of your ability to pay for school, loans. It shouldn’t be that the only people that can work at the paper can afford to because their parents have the money. In fact, some of the very best folks in journalism, at newspapers, would not be able to work.

MD: Lunzer said if students are putting in full-time work they should be paid accordingly at $15 and hour, and not doing so both makes for a less diverse newsroom and less than optimal  content.

BL: That seems to me like it will force a lot of people out of the program, at least out of the ability to be a part of the actual journalism. To me, that’s not acceptable. That’s not going to give you the kind of diversity, the social diversity that you want.  

There generally has to be pressure for people to get the kind of money they deserve. I think there has to be a way to resolve this. In journalism, in general, we’re fighting for the idea that quality journalism comes from quality jobs and you have to have a level of pay.

MD: Dodson would love to pay his staff, but says it’s not an option, and has never been been during his time at the Cavalier Daily. All revenue goes toward printing and upkeep.

TD: In lieu of money when financial resources are so strained that student newspapers can’t pay their staff, you need to make sure that you are providing other ways that people feel that their time is valued, whether that’s staff bonding opportunities, really building a sense of community with the organization so that people like that’s their second home.

MD: The Cavalier Daily takes a staff census at the start and end of each semester to learn more about their staff and how the demographics of their small community compare to campus.

TD: We did find that about 30 percent of our staff does receive financial aid, and that does reflect broadly the larger demographic of UVA. About a third of the student body receives financial aid I believe, but that said, we definitely should not stop ourselves there.

We also collect information on you know race and ethnicity and what you would find there is that as a staff, we are a predominantly white staff and we are slightly over representative of white students compared to the university population and so that does underscore that we need to be making sure that we need to be reaching out to diverse communities as UVA

I think that if people open the paper and they start seeing stories that reflect them and sort of what their experiences have been like then that’s another draw that brings people into the organization because they can write about those kinds of issues.

MD: Mier says The Daily Trojan’s staff and leadership are actually more diverse than USC as a whole, despite the relatively low pay.

TM: People have wondered what the Daily Trojan’s makeup is, and it’s so weird because on our editorial staff, which I would say is around 20 people, I’d say white men there’s only two and the rest are Asian women, gay Latino men aka me, like our editor in chief is an Asian gay man.  Like our staff is so diverse in terms of our editorial staff that it’s really interesting to see how that dynamic works.

MD: Mier said part of the reason his newsroom has a high level of diversity is because people of color attract other people of color, has an inclusive environment and sense of community.  

TM: I think it’s possible to make a change but I think it’s going to take a little bit of time especially because the media landscape is changing as well, so those priorities are shifting.

MD: Thanks for listening to the Student Press Law Center podcast, produced here in Washington D.C. You can also check out the written version of this story on our website. It goes into more detail, including explaining why legally student news organizations don’t have to comply with minimum wage standards. Link is in the show notes.

The music played was called “On My Way” by Kevin MacLeod. You can learn more about the topics discussed in this podcast on our website, You can also find news stories about student press rights, advice, legal resources and quizzes. For legal help, visit Follow us on Twitter @SPLC, Instagram @studentpresslawcenter and be sure to like our Facebook page. You can follow me on Twitter @MadisonDudley18.

SPLC reporter Madison Dudley can be reached at or at 202-974-6318. Follow her on Twitter at @MadisonDudley18

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