America now has nearly 5 PR people for every reporter, double the rate from a decade ago

America now has nearly 5 PR people for every reporter, double the rate from a decade ago

As I’ve spent the last several months looking for a full-time journalism job, I keep noticing something depressing. 

When you search job sites for “journalism,” “reporter” or other similar keywords, what you’ll find is a whole bunch of roles that have nothing to do directly with producing the news.

For every one job result for a reporter, photojournalist or TV producer, you’ll get 10 results for jobs available to people with journalism backgrounds or degrees to switch careers toward marketing, advertising and - most of all - public relations.

I decided to dig into the numbers and what I found was a media landscape that has seen a huge rise in pitchmen and a big drop in news reporters, at a rate that surprised even a jaded newspaper reporter such as myself.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, here is how the total American job numbers looked 15 years ago, and today:

2000: 65,900 news reporters, and 128,600 public relations people

2015: 45,800 news reporters, and 218,000 public relations people

So 15 years ago, there were two PR people for every reporter in the country. Now there are 4.8 PR people for every reporter.

This is a huge change, as companies and organizations are seeking to bypass a shrinking media industry and tell their own stories. What this means is that people are getting less objective news and more biased content.

When I tweeted those stats recently, a lot of reporters chimed in, including former Baltimore Sun staffer and creator of the HBO series “The Wire,” David Simon.

“This is how a republic dies. Not with a bang, but a reprinted press release,” Simon tweeted with a link to the stats.

Many other reporters lamented the stats as an explanation for why their inbox is full of endless pitches for things that aren’t newsworthy. Or they bemoaned that a good number of the new PR people are ex-reporters. And those in public relations were quick to point out how much of the “media relations” portion of their job has shrunk recently.

As you would imagine, newspapers have been hit especially hardest.

The American Society of News Editors found that the number of U.S. newspapers staffers has dropped 40 percent in just eight years, from 55,000 journalists in 2007 to 32,900 in 2015. Since newspapers are typically the starting point for original coverage that gets stolen aggregated picked up by other media outlets, the drop in newspaper reporters means the amount of real news out there has been hit especially hard.

But it’s not just the availability of jobs - the PR industry has won the battle for compensating people, too.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, in 2000 the average journalist made $37,510 and PR people made $43,700.

Now, journalists make $50,970 and PR people earn $65,830.

When you exclude broadcast news analysts from that total, pay for just news reporters (a job that typically requires a college degree) now falls slightly below the average for all American workers.

Overall, the gap in pay between flacks and hacks has nearly tripled from about $6,200 to nearly $15,000 in just 15 years. That means over a career of 20 years, the average PR person will make about $300,000 more than the typical reporter, and as anyone in either industry knows, the benefits will be much more lucrative at a public relations firm.

To recap: On one side, you have an industry shrinking rapidly, with little job security and pay going down relative to inflation. On the other is a booming field valued by companies big and small, with pay rising.

So my experience looking for a full-time reporter job and seeing only PR gigs is fairly typical today. One of the scariest responses I’ve received to these stats is from two separate professors, who tweeted to me that not one student in either of their most recent journalism classes was actually looking to get into journalism.

It’s tough to blame them.

Mike Rosenberg is a former San Jose Mercury News reporter now working as a freelance reporter in Seattle. Follow him on Twitter at @RosenbergMerc.

Photo: Laptop via Shutterstock

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