September 1, 2021

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You’ve probably heard from a professor, parent or friend who’s a business major: “You won’t get rich as a journalist.”

That may well be true — entry-level jobs don’t often pay well, and wages throughout the industry haven’t kept up with the cost of living. But what does that mean for your daily life, and how can you make smart financial decisions as you enter the workforce?

I brought these questions to Julia Carpenter, who writes about personal finance for The Wall Street Journal. Her reporting examines the traditional financial milestones that feel increasingly out of reach: owning a home, living debt-free, retiring on your own terms. My favorite piece of hers is The Nest Egg Game, a Game of Life-esque interactive where you can see how different financial choices affect a cartoon egg’s hypothetical future.

Carpenter offered advice for young journalists on negotiating, budgeting, benefits and more based on her expertise and her personal experience. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Looking back on the start of your journalism career, is there anything you wish you’d done differently financially? What do you wish you’d known?

My first job in journalism was as a contract employee at The Washington Post. As a contract employee, you have to save money for taxes. I had a guesstimate of how much I’d need, so I saved it, but then when tax season came around, it was more than I’d saved, so I had to stretch the last bit to make sure I could pay it. I wish I’d known the tax implications of working freelance or contract.

I also wish I’d known that journalism is an industry in which you can negotiate your salary. I didn’t negotiate for my first five years! I didn’t know I could and there was that wiggle room. I didn’t think to question what the offer was, what my peers make, what job I’m doing compared to them, what other outlets are paying.

Early in my career, I was working at a place that offered a 401k match — a small match, but it was significant for my small retirement account. I didn’t know to take advantage of that and didn’t do that for the first two years. It’s free money!

Negotiating can be stressful when you haven’t had a previous full-time job. How can students figure out what’s a reasonable amount to ask for, and how should they approach negotiating?

It’s an important calculation, and it’s super specific to where your publication is and what it’s historically offered people. The No. 1 thing I tell people to do is talk to their peers and ask what they make. It can be uncomfortable, but people won’t be shocked if you reach out and tell them you’re interviewing for a job at their publication; can they gut check you on the salary offer or what you’re asking for?

Sites like Glassdoor and Indeed will post positions and crowdsourced reports of what people make. That helped me realize that the salary jump between writers and editors is really big at this place, but not as big at this other place.

Finally, script out what you’re going to say and practice it with a friend. It sounds hokey, but I still do it to prepare myself. You won’t regret negotiating. If anything, I regret the times I didn’t go one more round and ask for more.

What should journalists look for in their first job offer, including benefits? What are red flags?

For any full-time position, I’d have a friend look over the contract as well and see if they notice anything. Maybe the company isn’t offering a 401k match, or the vacation time is low, or there’s no flexibility to work from home. If they won’t give you particulars on health care or elaborate on what they’ll pay for, just ask. Always ask for more information on benefits than less. It’s not a big deal for HR to send to you and talk it out with you; they’re used to people asking those questions.

Any newsroom in this day and age that doesn’t offer time off for bereavement or mental health needs to provide that. That’s a major red flag for me. If you don’t get comp time or PTO, that’s something to pay attention to, because it’s probably a place that’s not prioritizing that.

Ask about career advancement, too: “I’m coming into this role, I’m excited, and I want to know what you do in your organization to advance young journalists like me. Can you point to somebody who’s excelled and modeled the track for someone like me?” Are there opportunities for growth? Or do the young people burn out, or stagnate at one level? Those are big red flags.

If students are considering going to graduate school vs. looking for a job, what financial factors should they consider?

Be really careful of taking on more debt as a default because you couldn’t find a job right away, or couldn’t find the right job right away. In our industry, having a background in a newsroom before you go into the classroom again is something people respect and admire.

A lot of people say the most valuable part of grad school is the connection to jobs and on-the-job training. That’s something you don’t have to pay for. If you’re considering applying to school or taking an internship after graduating, an internship can be a great solution for making connections and getting established.

Don’t just pretend the industry will be in better shape in a few years when you’re out of school, and be wary of the amount of debt you have.

How should journalists approach building a budget if they’re not earning a lot in their first jobs — especially if they have student loan debt?

I’m a big believer in there’s no “size fits all” budget. Some people download apps, others prefer pen and paper; some operate with an “abundance” mindset, others with a scarcity mindset. But I think the No. 1 most important thing to do is consider style of budget as you first approach the process.

You don’t have to copy out the same spreadsheet your friend uses or follow the steps that haven’t worked for you in the past. You can experiment with different styles — do you break everything up into spending categories? allot money by months or weeks or seasons? — and settle on what works for you.

Are there any financial tools or resources you recommend for student journalists or those early in their careers?

The most important resource: your friends and peers! People in your age group, at your career level, making similar money and managing with similar financial obligations. Also, sign up for our WSJ Six-Week Money Challenge (it’s free!). I know I co-wrote it, but I really recommend the recipe-inspired, easy-to-follow challenges as a good way to familiarize yourself with financial concepts and different goals, like paying down debt or upping your personal savings rate.

Things I wish I’d learned in journalism school

This newsletter issue is the third in The Lead’s “Things I wish I’d learned in journalism school” series, intended to fill in schools’ gaps and provide practical advice. Previous issues from the past few weeks:

One story worth reading

Black and Latinx students are underrepresented in college newsroom leadership positions, a group of students reported for AAJA Voices. Student leaders say the lack of diversity makes it harder to report on underrepresented communities and recruit staffers of color.

“Everyone in the news media is working towards diversity, equity, and inclusion. We still have a long road ahead of us,” one editor-in-chief said. “But I think it really starts in our student newsrooms because we’re training the next generation of journalists.”

Opportunities and trainings

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Taylor Blatchford is a journalist at The Seattle Times who independently writes The Lead, a newsletter for student journalists. She can be reached at blatchfordtaylor@gmail.com…
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