August 11, 2014

The growing pay gap between journalism and public relations

After years of grim news for the news industry marked by seemingly endless rounds of staff cutbacks, it’s not unusual for those thinking about a career in journalism or veterans trying to find a new job to look at options in related fields. One field outpacing journalism both in sheer numbers and in salary growth is public relations.

The growing income gap between PR specialists and reporters.The salary gap between public relations specialists and news reporters has widened over the past decade – to almost $20,000 a year, according to 2013 U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics data analyzed by the Pew Research Center. At the same time, the public relations field has expanded to a degree that these specialists now outnumber reporters by nearly 5 to 1 (BLS data include part-time and full-time employees, but not self-employed.)

In 2013, according to BLS data, public relations specialists earned a median annual income of $54,940 compared with $35,600 for reporters. In other words, journalists on average earn just 65% of what those in public relations earn. That is a greater income gap than in 2004 when journalists were paid 71 cents of every dollar earned by those in public relations ($43,830 versus $31,320).

Most of that widening has come from salary growth in the public relations industry during a time when salary increases in the journalism field did not even keep up with inflation.

The number of journalism jobs compared to the number of public relations jobs.As the salary gap has grown, so too has the gap between the number of employees working in each field. There were 4.6 public relations specialists for every reporter in 2013, according to the BLS data. That is down slightly from the 5.3 to 1 ratio in 2009 but is considerably higher than the 3.2 to 1 margin that existed a decade ago, in 2004.

Over this 10-year stretch, the number of reporters decreased from 52,550 to 43,630, a 17% loss according to the BLS data. In contrast, the number of public relations specialists during this timeframe grew by 22%, from 166,210 to 202,530.

The data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ Occupational Employment Statistics department are based on surveys of employers. The analyzed data includes the categories of “Reporters and Correspondents” and “Public Relations Specialists.” It does not include editors or public relations managers.

The disparity is also reflected in a new survey from the University of Georgia that found that new graduates starting a career in public relations earn, on average, $35,000 a year – about $5,000 more than those starting out at daily newspapers and $6,000 more than those working in television

One factor behind the increase in public relations jobs has been digital technology. Agencies and companies are now able to reach out directly to the public in any number of ways and are hiring public relations specialists to help them do so. There are ways this can be helpful to the public, such as being able to offer updates in real time about virus outbreaks and background reports on the risks associated with it. One concern it raises when looked at alongside the shrinking newsrooms is the greater difficulty reporters have vetting information from outside sources.

In their 2010 book, “The Death and Life of American Journalism,” Robert McChesney and John Nichols wrote, “As editorial staffs shrink, there is less ability for news media to interrogate and counter the claims in press releases.”

A Pew Research Center report on 2012 presidential election coverage documented how journalists in that campaign often functioned as megaphones for political partisans, relaying assertions rather than contextualizing them. Noting a “sharp rise in the influence of partisan voices, spin doctors and surrogates in shaping what the public is told about the biography and the character of the candidates,” the report connected that phenomenon to the “diminishing reportorial resources in newsrooms.”

And a 2014 study of health-related coverage by JAMA Internal Medicine found that half of the stories examined relied on a single source or failed to disclose conflicts of interest from sources. The report concluded that “for certain information, reliance on a news release is appropriate. However, journalists are expected to independently vet claims.”

Topics: News Media Sectors, Newspapers, Newsroom Investment and Resources

  1. is a Google Journalism Fellow at the Pew Research Center.

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21 Comments

  1. Lethe Erisdottir2 months ago

    I think you need to define your terms. When you say ‘journalist’ are you talking about all those ‘penny per view’ writers that have swamped the internet with their schlock? Stuff comes out on major network and press websites that is clearly the unsubstantiated work of some ‘aggregator’ who cobbles together a ‘story’ from other internet sources while sitting in Starbucks somewhere and hogging up space. What amazes me is that the stories hit the internet without apparently ever passing an editor. All these ‘journalists’ do is swipe copy from each other across various websites, and somehow it gets published under the auspices of respected (hah) media moguls (I’m looking at YOU nbcnews.com) {By the way, Pew Research, why do you need access to my facebook friends list for me to comment? Just curious.]

    Reply
    1. Bruce Kendall2 months ago

      Not all of us. I have spent weeks researching and converting Scaled Scores into their classroom equivalents. All for a hand full of reads, and a few pennies. Just for the satisfaction of knowing I busted the camouflage, the Georgia Department of Education has put over Standardized Tests for the last fifteen years.

      Reply
  2. John Senall2 months ago

    While your research data is sound, the comparison, with respect for your time put in, is not a worthwhile juxtaposition. Journalism is not Public Relations and vice versa. “Writing stories” or pitching stories is about 20 percent of an experienced PR professional’s time, unless the person is in a solely media relations position. It is a largely misunderstood profession, often seen as just a “publicist” job, the part of the job people most see and globalize as the PR profession entirely. Much of the misunderstanding is self-generated by entry level PR employees who do in fact write stories a greater percentage of time than mid-level and senior professionals. But the PR job overall also includes multichannel message management, perception analyses, strategic planning, brand or issue reputation management, digital communication integration, regular measurement/outcome data review and counsel, sponsorships, event management, and both proactive crisis communication planning and crisis response and strategy when necessary. That’s the short list. This is not at all to say one job is “better” or more deserving of more money than the other job. They are just different jobs.

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    1. Lewis2 months ago

      I agree, different jobs with different expectations and responsibilities, and believe you me, there are a lot of misconceptions about what journalist do all day. But the writer isn’t just comparing apples to oranges, though, as PR is the job that the skills, experience, and education journalist have can most easily transition into (and have profession connections with as they interact with PR frequently). Its also an explanation as to the decreasing qualities of reporting and reporters. The joke in the newsroom is that the smart and experienced ones get out (and frequently go into PR of some form), which leaves the inexperienced and new ones to fend for themselves with few mentors.

      Reply
  3. Tshilumba Blaise2 months ago

    Nous,les journalistes de la RD Congo,nous travaillons comme les volontaires .Nous ne savons pas nos salaires.

    Reply
  4. Russ Zimmer2 months ago

    One reason to explore would be the availability of free/cheap labor in journalism, especially online.
    You hear about a lot of popular sites that rely on free labor under the guise of “you’ll be reaching a large audience and maybe parlay that into a paying gig somewhere else” or just flat out underpayment: Vice was reportedly paying editors ~$30,000 in NEW YORK CITY and Gawker was sued for not paying “interns” at all.
    Meanwhile, I don’t know of one instance of anybody doing PR for free or at reduced compensation under the assumption that it would pay off down the road.
    The cumulative effect of all those people willing to write for free, and the employers who are all too happy to accept, is that it depresses the market pay for the skills of a “journalist.”

    Reply
  5. Joseph Barnett2 months ago

    I was just talking to department of health. They were asking about lasers. I had to tell them after hours of reading I couldn’t give them much advice. It is really hard to find the truth in medicine since marketing and PR have overwhelmed science papers and training. New england journal of medicine used to not publish company articles but had to do so several years ago since not enough independent research now.

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  6. Rick Spence2 months ago

    Ten years ago, so many students wanted to be journalists.
    Today, more and more, they tell me they want to go into PR.
    Why? One this week said, “I like telling stories.”

    Fine. But whose stories are you telling?

    Reply
  7. Sean Porbin2 months ago

    Translation:
    The manufacturing and creation of an image has more value than the objective description of an image.

    This is our world.

    Reply
    1. Eeyore2 months ago

      I’m considering both journalism and P.R. I watch commercials and read newspapers out of an interest in both fields. Both seek to persuade people to behave in specific ways. But commercials never claim to be objective.

      Reply
  8. Jon von+Gunten2 months ago

    This report does not seem to break out technology and other field-specialized reporters, who often make excellent money.

    If these specialist reporters are included in the numbers above, the news is worse for news reporters.

    Extracting from the sample even the comparatively few specialized reporters making six figures or close to that further lowers the remaining news reporters median.

    Reply
  9. Bisi Oladele2 months ago

    It is true that public relations jobs are increasing while journalism jobs are shrinking. It is also true that PR jobs attract higher wages than journalism on the average. But I’ve also discovered that not all newsroom experts can do well in PR. In my opinion, every communication expert will always find an aspect that will always earn them a good living and, fulfilment. Hence, while many journalists are crossing over to PR due to the financial pull, many more, who are committed to telling the story in better ways, will keep keep journalism flying. We must find what we are wired for and, just do it!

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  10. Tim Penning2 months ago

    The comparison between PR pros and journalists, and their salaries, is meaningless.

    As others have commented, PR professionals do far more than media relations. This has been the case since the 1920s, when Ivy Lee (inventor of the press release), Arthur Page, and others stressed their job was counseling management on relationships with publics and not just media relations.

    Another key bias in this report is the assertion that there is too much of “partisan voices and spin doctors” sharing public opinion. Much of this is not done by people with PR degrees or training. The political arena has always been a hotbed of assertions and attempt at public influence, by politicians and journalistic pundits PRIMARILY, not just PR pros. In fact, the book “All the Presidents’ Spokesmen”, a history of presidential press secretaries, shows that the vast majority of White House spokespersons are former journalists.

    So let’s perhaps practice journalistic ethics and be objective and thorough when attributing blame for spin.

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  11. Lou Medina2 months ago

    I enjoyed working as a full-time reporter for a local newspaper in Central California for three years. Journalism is a great field to work in, but for all you do, you are not paid enough. Journalism taught me skills such as accountability, time management, working on deadline, checking facts thoroughly, networking, etc., that continue to help me in my career as an analyst/grant writer. I know that a lot of journalists who have to leave the field for a better paid career naturally look to get into PR, but there are other opportunities out there for journalists. Not encouraging anyone to leave journalism — God no! — but if you must, broaden your thinking and job search beyond PR.

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  12. Laura Williams2 months ago

    I question the usefulness of this comparison by job title or responsibilities. For example, many PR specialists don’t work exclusively with reporters, they also may communicate to and hold relationships with numerous audiences — e.g., employees, donors, customers. When I was a TV publicist many years ago, I also was responsible for relationships with TV station programming managers, PR peers whose clients appeared on our shows, communications peers within the PBS network, and our avid fan bases on usenet (!). Also, corporate communications jobs will pay more, while PR agency, nonprofit and gov’t jobs generally pay less. Both sides feel outnumbered. There’s no way to balance the equation. An agency PR specialist, for example, may have seven clients in four different (but hopefully, related) industries and ever-changing media lists. On the “other side,” a tech or lifestyle reporter always feels outnumbered by publicists with new companies and products to promote. The most notable change I’ve seen that makes these jobs overlap more than they used to is that journalists now have to publicize their own work and manage the conversations around it. That’s what PR people have been doing for decades.

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  13. Ted McEnroe2 months ago

    Two things I’m curious about – how does the growth of digital content fit in here? Are the growing number of influential bloggers considered reporters? And what does including editors and managers (and let’s face it, it seems like everyone at most digital sites is an editor in title, if not role), do to the skew?

    Reply
  14. California2 months ago

    Similar story told in California: darwinbondgraham.wordpress.com/2…

    Reply
  15. Stefan Kaitschick2 months ago

    “At the same time, the public relations field has expanded to a degree that these specialists now outnumber reporters by nearly 5 to 1″

    Add to this, that Fox News employees are counted as reporters, not as the PR talking heads they are.

    Reply
    1. AzaleaAnnie2 months ago

      But if Fox News employees are counted as reporters, surely MSNBC employees are counted as reporters as well??

      Reply
  16. Jake Lanum2 months ago

    We are now in an age of accountability. Increased visibility to the news and from the news has provoked the average consumer to demand that corporations and governments be answerable to their constituencies. Certainly, this observation is anecdotal and not quantitative, but doesn’t it make sense that PR representatives would be paid and employed more so than journalists? In many cases, the welfare of one relies on the failure of the other. Failing is indubitably an apt description of American journalism; but to say that it is the fault of the ascendance of social media is to make a correlative judgment based on incomplete data. Journalistic outlets are simply responding to a demand for short, soft, and generally regurgitated information en masse, leaving less room for talented journalistic endeavors. This, by extension, skews the supply and demand of skilled workers competing for a few jobs.

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