A step toward fairness at the LA Times

Downtown LA. Photo: Kevin Stanchfield/flickr.

Journalism has never been known for its lucrative salaries, but there are a couple ways reporters can hope to improve pay. Deliver the sort of groundbreaking work that earns a major prize—say, a Pulitzer—and you can typically expect a bump (and some well-deserved job security). Produce a record of quality work so solidly enviable that a major competitor comes calling with a job offer, and those notoriously tight newsroom purse strings may loosen to retain talent.

Los Angeles Times reporter Sarah Parvini has fit the bill on both fronts. After reporting on the Pulitzer Prize–winning team that covered the San Bernardino terror attack of 2015, which left 14 dead, she was hired to the newspaper full-time from the prestigious MetPro training program and offered a bit of a pay bump. Her continued performance led to a tempting job offer from a major competitor, which she declined to accept a generous salary bump to stay at the Times.

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Still, the Iranian-American reporter came to learn this week, after the newly formed NewsGuild-Communication Workers of America shop released wage information for Times employees, that her salary lags behind white and/or male reporters at her experience level. Which raises the question: If the most sought-after award in her field and competing employers couldn’t bring her salary up to parity, what could?

Parvini is among many female reporters and reporters of color at the Times who learned this week that even though they demonstrated excellence time and again, they earn less. It’s tough news to take, but shining a light on the newsroom’s problems—which mirror other newsrooms and society at large—is a step toward fairness, and for some, a boost in morale.

“I’m actually really glad that this came out, no one can deny that this disparity exists anymore,” Parvini tells CJR. She and her colleagues are now empowered to “use this information to effect change, and that’s the goal. The goal is not to sit here and feel sorry for ourselves. The point is that we did this so we can move forward now.”

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If the most sought-after award in her field and competing employers couldn’t bring her salary up to parity, what could?

 

In a new union workplace study, Times staffers saw widespread proof of inequality, with salary numbers broken down by job category, gender, race, and age. Their new union was voted in by an overwhelming majority (248–44) this January, and has already issued the workplace study, which makes a reality of long-standing hunches and fears: White workers, on average, earn $94,000 a year, compared to $75,000 for people of color at the 650,000-circulation daily newspaper. Men earn an average of $92,000, compared to $78,000 for women. The 60.7 percent white newsroom composition doesn’t reflect the diversity of Los Angeles, which is 26.7 percent white. Women disappear from the newsroom ranks after age 40. (The analysis includes data from 330 journalists for whom tronc provided details, and leaves out 70 workers, such as line editors, for whom tronc did not provide information, arguing they are management and ineligible for union membership.)

That last stat troubles art and culture staff writer and union Co-Chair Carolina Miranda, who likened the pay study to “pulling back the Band-Aid on a wound that had been ignored for some time: unpleasant, a bit of a mess, the sort of thing that rouses a fair share of anger and pain. But an important thing to do.”

As someone who worked a stint at the Times back in the ’90s—“the vacuum tubes were still functioning,” she jokes—she is concerned the newsroom has lost too many experienced workers already.

“We could use greater representation across the board: women (especially in management positions), Latinos, Asians, African Americans—but it’s important to remember issues such as age diversity, too. Over the last couple buyouts we have lost longtime writers and editors who not only brought a lot of experience to the table, but who had a profound knowledge of Los Angeles,” Miranda writes to CJR.

At the very bottom of the salary scale revealed by the study—below the MetPro trainees and administrative workers—are the Times Community News reporters, whose reporting appears in five smaller newspapers devoted to suburbs of Los Angeles, including Orange County. On average, they earn $38,765, compared to the average reporter’s pay of $95,232, though their stories sometimes appear side by side in the newspaper. Times Community News reporter Andy Truc Nguyen works from the same Art Deco building downtown as reporters who earn double his salary, and has been covering public safety in Glendale and Burbank since November 2016.

“We’re basically at the bottom of the barrel,” the 27-year-old union officer tells CJR. Noting that MetPro employees at the newspaper, where Parvini got her start, are already underpaid considering they do the same work as reporters, he admits, “seeing our salaries compared to theirs, it did kind of hurt.”

The numbers are proof of a systemic problem at tronc, Nguyen says: undervaluing reporters and journalism. The Chicago-based company still holds ownership as the newspaper’s sale to billionaire Patrick Soon-Shiong finalizes. (Tronc did not respond to a request for comment.) Reporters CJR spoke with don’t have a read on how new leadership feels about the union yet, but they are cautiously optimistic about Soon-Shiong’s early, civic-minded comments about his intentions to serve the city, and a return to local ownership. On Thursday, staffers were invited to submit questions for a Friday town hall meeting with Soon-Shiong that is expected to be “standing room only.” The email, obtained by CJR, thanks staffers for their patience during the transition to new ownership and says, in part, that Soon-Shiong has “been looking forward to speaking with you directly about the future of the organization.”

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For Nguyen, who is Vietnamese, being a person of color in any workplace setting means following an unwritten rule, to just be grateful for any opportunity and take what’s offered. “It kind of comes with the territory of growing up as not-white,” Nguyen says.

At the Times, unionization has meant a sharp push toward equity—though it’s unclear how long it might take for the union to implement a pay scale, since ownership remains in limbo.

While the pay report validates existing frustrations, and reveals the significant challenge the union will have to surmount, for now, many at the Times report an overdue uptick in morale, a sense of empowerment, and a feeling that they are a part of a national push for fairness in newsrooms—especially with news this week that the tronc-owned Chicago Tribune wants to unionize.

There is a change sweeping through newspapers in the United States” with staffers pushing back against models that empty newsrooms while filling the pockets of corporate leadership, national reporter Matt Pearce tells CJR.

The thing that’s great about this data is it gives leverage to individual workers,” Pearce says. “They can say, I’ve been doing great work and I’m paid below average, can you fix this?” By introducing transparency to the conversation, “we’ve put power in the hands of people [who] weren’t well-armed before.”

That fresh call to arms was echoed in other conversations with Times staffers, who seem to share a bond of survival after tronc’s fractious leadership. “There are plenty of people who are making less than I do. There are people who have worked at the paper longer than I have who should be making a lot more than me,” Parvini says. “Even though a lot of people are frustrated right now, it really is an empowering moment, because what is more powerful than the truth?”

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This article has been updated to clarify that the Guild report did not include all employees.

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Shaya Tayefe Mohajer teaches journalism at the University of Southern California and works as a freelance journalist in Los Angeles. Previously, she was the news editor for TakePart.com and a reporter for The Associated Press. She is a graduate of New York University's masters program in journalism. Follow her on Twitter @Shaya_in_LA.