May 8, 2014

A lot of journalists got the Bob Cratchit treatment when bonus time came, (past tense intentional,) bringing home turkeys, a bag of cranberries and even bacon.

“One newspaper for which I worked gave employees bacon as a Christmas bonus. The first year or two it was really good bacon, but eventually you could tell The Old Man (as we called our owner/publisher) was just sending his poor wife to the store and telling her to get whatever was cheapest,” Steve James wrote on Facebook.

Yesterday, after The Washington Post reported that staff at Washington City Paper were getting $250 bonuses, I asked what other bonuses reporters have received.

Through email, I got a link to a 2005 story in The Hook, a now-closed weekly paper in Charlottesville, Virginia, that wrote about the bonus that year for employees of the daily paper, Daily Progress. If this was a contest, I think we’d have a winner.

The local daily’s parent company, Media General, expects sharply higher than anticipated profits from 2004, and that corporate bounty trickled down to Progress employees in the form of an $8 holiday fixings gift certificate at Kroger, not to be used for alcohol and tobacco.

The bonuses weren’t all bad, though, they weren’t all in the past and they weren’t all food.

Eve Byron emailed that “at the Aspen Daily News in the early 1990s, we had a good year and Publisher Dave Danforth gave everyone the equivalent of one month’s salary. At the same time, one of the advertisers hadn’t paid his bill, so everyone was given about a $300 credit at the store. I finally could afford ONE sweater there. Danforth rocks.”

Jennifer Keeney, assistant news director at WDRB News in Louisville, Kentucky, wrote that employees get year-end bonuses, “even part-time employees. Bonuses are based on salary so they differ for each person, but several go home with checks that have a comma in them. That’s almost unheard of in newsrooms today, and we are very grateful that our company chooses to give back to us.”

“I work for a media company in Texas that publishes 15 newspaper editions and distributes to more than 1 million homes and businesses each month,” Emilie Boenig Lutostanski wrote in an email. “Editors receive bonuses based on the profitability of their paper. The maximum is $500. I typically get $400 per month in addition to my salary.”

Mark Kellner remembered an annual bonus that took care of taxes, too. “The late Patrick J. McGovern, founder of International Data Group, a global assembly of computer trade and computer magazines, visited each office each holiday season, and personally handed a bonus check — $500 when I was at Federal Computer Week, if memory serves — to each employee,” he wrote in an email. “And, the $500 was after-tax — IDG paid the taxes on it, too.”

Jonathan Salant, now with Bloomberg News, got an annual bonus, he wrote. “When I worked for Newhouse News Service, we used to get an annual Christmas bonus of $100 per each year of service.”

Tom Wilk remembered being rewarded for not missing work.

“I was hired as a full-time reporter at The Gloucester County Times in Woodbury, N.J., in May 1977,” he wrote in an email. “In December, I received a bonus for not taking any unused sick days. That amounted to around $100 on a prorated basis since I worked full time for part of the year. The paper ended that policy the next year. The Courier-Post in Cherry Hill, N.J., had a similar policy for a few years around 2006. If a reporter or editor went a full year without using a sick day, you received two bonus vacation days the following year. The publisher pulled the plug on that bonus during the recession.”

And Katherine Rosenberg wrote that her first and last bonus in journalism came while working the part-time weekend police beat at The Pantagraph in Bloomington, Illinois. She got $250.

“…To me, though, that paper gave me a whole lot more than $250. They gave a job to a kid with no college degree and only three semesters of UMASS-Amherst J-School under my belt. I passed a writing test to secure the job and my life forever was changed. So long insurance and a healthy paycheck; I’ve been hooked on being underpaid and overworked ever since. They ignited a passion so powerful in me that a Christmas bonus, or a Christmas off, is something I’ve not missed in the decade since. That’s what I call a bonus.”

I pulled together a Storify of people’s bonus stories. Most of them were food, but we did hear on Twitter and Facebook about some cash, too. Still, turkeys won.

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Kristen Hare teaches local journalists the critical skills they need to serve and cover their communities as Poynter's local news faculty member. Before joining faculty…
Kristen Hare

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