Diamonds in the Rough

Can large journalistic salaries be justified in the current business climate?

The end of September brought two startling revelations that hefty salaries still exist in journalism despite the industry’s steep financial decline. CJR’s Michael Massing pointed out that Katie Couric’s $15 million CBS News salary “is more than the entire annual budgets of NPR’s Morning Edition and All Things Considered combined.” As shocking as that information was, however, exorbitant compensation is something of a broadcast news tradition.

More interesting, perhaps, was the scoop by Newsosaur Alan Mutter that Paul Steiger, the editor in chief of the non-profit news startup Pro Publica, earned a $570,00 salary in 2008. Mutter compared that situation to the Chi-Town Daily News, a startup that folded in September after it failed to raise $300,000 needed to meet its annual budget.

“This disparity dramatically illustrates the difference between the resources available to an earnest but under-funded grassroots news start-up and a non-profit journalism project that has entered the ranks of the major-league philanthropic organizations,” Mutter wrote.

Adding Steiger, a former managing editor at The Wall Street Journal (where he earned more than twice as much), to Pro Publica’s masthead surely provided the start-up some much-needed star power. On the other hand, half his salary would still leave him well off by industry standards, and free up enough money to hire half a dozen reporters. So this raises the question: Can very large news salaries be justified in the current business climate? And does it make a difference whether the outlet is a non-profit startup, a for-profit newspaper, or a television news network?

Has America ever needed a media watchdog more than now? Help us by joining CJR today.

The Editors are the staffers of Columbia Journalism Review.