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American Journalism Review
Should Journalists Get Over-Time Pay?  | American Journalism Review
 AJR  Columns :    THE NEWSPAPER BUSINESS    
From AJR,   April 1994

Should Journalists Get Over-Time Pay?   

A federal judge says in most cases, yes.

By John Morton
John Morton (mortoninc@msn.com), a former newspaper reporter, is president of a consulting firm that analyzes newspapers and other media properties.     


Whether journalists are professionals or mere craftsmen has long been a subject of conflicting feelings and sometimes rancorous debate.

Journalists tend to think of themselves as professional and creative souls not bound by the rote tasks and nine-to-five mentality of the typical white-collar employee. Newspapers and other kinds of media companies tend to agree with their journalist employees' assessment, because employees classified as professionals do not have to be paid for overtime work.

Thus there is an inherent conflict between journalists' desire to be thought of and treated as professionals and the desire to be paid for the often extraordinary hours of work their jobs require. The issue recently wound up in court in New Hampshire, and the judge's decision produced what likely is a bittersweet victory for journalists.

In a case brought by employees of the Concord Monitor, U.S. District Court Judge Shane Devine ruled that reporters and photographers are not professionals as defined by federal labor laws and must be paid overtime when they work it.

Federal laws exempt from overtime pay "learned" professionals who require prolonged special education (for example lawyers and doctors) and "artistic" professionals who require "original and creative" work in a "recognized field of artistic endeavor." Devine acknowledged that some of the work done by the Monitor's staff "demonstrated creativity, invention, imagination and talent," but that the bulk of it did not. Moreover, the judge ruled, journalism does not require the kind of special education necessary for a learned profession.

The judge made clear he did not intend for his decision to be precedent-setting for all overtime cases, since there might be individual instances in which a journalist might have special training or analytical or creative duties that fall under the definition of a professional. Still, media companies are worried that they will be facing higher labor costs because of the New Hampshire decision, judging by comments in the trade press. (An earlier lawsuit by NBC News employees in New York had a similar result.)

Writing as a former journalist who spent years working for factory-hand wages, I will observe that there are reasons why we never hear about lawyers, doctors, accountants and other easily recognized professionals suing for overtime pay. They are accorded respect as professionals and, most important, they are paid professional salaries.

Neither of these things is true throughout most of the news industry. With the exception of the largest media organizations, journalists are woefully underpaid for the nature of the work they do.

Moreover, unprofessional pay tends to influence how journalists are treated by management. Unless a newsroom is organized by the Newspaper Guild, journalists are subject to arbitrary, even capricious, decisions that can have a grievous effect on their careers, even their jobs.

I am breaking old ground here. These are the same factors that motivated Heywood Broun to found the Guild in 1933. The Guild pointedly did not include the word "union" in its name, since it was Broun's purpose to establish journalists as higher in stature than other organized labor.

The Guild never had great success in organizing newsrooms at small- and medium-sized newspapers, and by the late 1930s it sought to enlarge its membership by taking in advertising, circulation and other white-collar employees. This pretty much was the end of the Guild's attempt to elevate journalists' stature above that of other union members, and to this day many journalists are uncomfortable with the professional implications of belonging to an organization that is essentially no different than a traditional union.

It is not likely that journalists will ever qualify for professional standing as members of a learned profession, since with few exceptions (for example a medical reporter with an M.D.), the broader and more general a journalist's education the better.

A better case can be made for professional standing under the artistic banner. What journalists essentially do is to assimilate and synthesize information, to make the complicated and difficult-to-follow simple and easy to understand, and while they are at it make the final product interesting, colorful, maybe even funny, and do it all in a hurry. Any judge who cannot recognize that this work requires a heavy load of original and creative effort has spent too much time reading legal briefs.

The conflict between whether journalists are professionals or craftsmen has been around for a long time because there has always been a split between the nature of their work and how they are rewarded for it. Until that changes, the conflict will live on. l

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