Not to Get All "Eat the Rich," but ...

Pay cuts and layoffs are sweeping the media industry. But they're not starting at the top.

As you are likely aware, Covid-19 has quickly accelerated the shrinking of newsrooms across the globe. As I wrote last week, despite news sites reporting dramatic increases in web traffic, the news media casualties are piling up.

In a sobering catalogue of these fatalities, The New York Times created a list of every furlough, pay reduction and lay-off that has hit the industry since the pandemic began. According to author Marc Tracy,

“All told, an estimated 28,000 employees of news media companies in the United States have been laid off, furloughed or had their pay reduced since the arrival of the coronavirus.”

Not good news!

However, one possible silver lining of this culling is that it has shone a light on the severe pay inequities that divide the journalists, whose work is the backbone of any news enterprise, and the corporate leadership that bat around abacuses until 4:30 p.m.

Two striking examples. First, here in my own backyard, I and the city of Chicago have had the great displeasure of watching The Chicago Tribune slowly eat itself alive. Its very active reporters guild has vocally criticized The Tribune’s new leadership, which is a story for another newsletter. But in short, some disquieting numbers have emerged of late, as the newspaper attempts to reduce overhead in light of the challenges posed by Covid.

Josh Noel, a Tribune reporter and member of the newsroom’s guild, tweeted this on April 9:

Pay cuts are quickly becoming the new norm, and issue does not lie there. Instead, it concerns the pay cuts (or lack thereof) of The Tribune’s executive leadership.

In a revelation that will unfortunately shock nearly no one, while reporters await yet another pay reduction, the top brass at the newsroom, who few would accuse of capable leadership, continue to take home enormous paychecks. I wonder, when The Tribune eventually begins to lay off its employees, will Terry Jimenez contribute to their GoFundMe’s?

And just to keep things fair, not all of the pay-disparity conversation should focus on newspapers; magazines, after all, have been falling from the sky faster than a leaden September issue of Vogue. Speaking of, The New York Times (quickly becoming the town crier of media layoffs) published a similar under-the-hood story about Condé Nast’s latest financial issues this morning.

To be even-handed, I should note that the executive suite at Condé had an expensive, indulgent, scandalously mismanaged ship to turn around. And, surprisingly, they have had some success in doing so. According to The Times’ Edmund Lee and Vanessa Friedman, “As a result, and after several years of losses, [Condé Nast] had been on pace to turn a healthy profit this year.” So hat’s off to Condé’s leadership for pulling off what seemed like the impossible.

However, buried in the article were a few gems. For one — and maybe this is just a “cost of living in New York” thing that is going over my head — I wouldn’t have guessed that nearly half of Condé’s employees make six figures.

From the article, “Those earning $100,000 or more — approximately just under half the company — will have their salaries reduced by 10 to 20 percent for five months, starting in May. Executives in the senior management team, which includes Anna Wintour, the artistic director of the company and its best-known figurehead, will have their pay cut by 20 percent.”

Again, kudos to the leadership team for trimming the fat first from the heftiest hogs, but Vogue, and Condé in general, will continue to elicit very little sympathy from their media brethren so long as they continue to live lavishly in belt-tightening times.

When the authors of the article explain that Condé attempted to seek government bailout money in its European branches, they don’t mince their words:

“It’s an unusual move for a business that pays high salaries for editors who historically enjoyed perks such as town cars and clothing allowances, and sales executives who sell luxury advertising. It also risks alienating readers, for whom the idea of a gilded publisher requesting funds that could go to suffering workers may be anathema.”

Everyone in the industry knows that tough times are ahead; old, bloated news agencies are being shorn down at breakneck speeds. We should mourn the loss of jobs and the ends of eras. But instead of more journalists converting to four-day workweeks or taking pay cuts, how about we start the bloodletting at the top?