Felix Salmon wrote a piece yesterday arguing that the economics of journalism are collapsing and nobody should become a journalist. But he framed it as "advice" to young journalists, which prompted various pieces of actual advice to journalists. But what about the issue Salmon raised? Is journalism a profession that denies people "a good chance at a well-paid middle-class lifestyle down the road?" A look at the numbers suggests that Salmon is wrong. Journalism today is very much a middle class occupation. And in many ways that's the problem — the middle class is struggling economically these days, and journalists are no exception.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average hourly wage for non-supervisory workers in the United States was $20.80 in January up slightly from $20.30 in 2013. For all workers, including managers it was $24.75 up form $24.10 in 2013.
In terms of pay, in other words, it looks like journalism is a basically average job.
Some of the perception among journalists that journalism is a poorly paying occupation probably comes from the fact that journalists generally have educational qualifications that are considerably above average. You rarely meet a journalist who doesn't have a bachelor's degree and you frequently meet journalists who have master's degrees. So journalists may feel underpaid compared to their peers even without being objectively impoverished. On the other hand, writing articles is a lot more entertaining than writing appellate briefs or whatever and this tends to drive down pay in the sector.
A related issue is that journalism jobs tend to be heavily concentrated in areas with expensive housing. That $21.33 an hour would go a lot further in St. Louis than in Brooklyn, but you're more likely to need to live in the New York area to work than you would if you were, say, a teacher. The good news is that there's not much evidence that things are especially getting worse for journalism. A Pew Center report, showing that the pay gap between PR professionals and journalists is widening, got a lot of attention in media circles last year. But the chart didn't show that journalists' compensation was falling, just that it was rising more slowly than PR pay.
But the bottom line here is that it doesn't seem remotely true that a journalist can't expect a middle class living. The problem is that journalists, like many middle class Americans who aren't journalists, are suffering from the out-of-control cost structure of college and urban housing in the United States. You could transcend these problems by becoming a multi-millionaire CEO or hedge fund manager, of course. But there, again, the problem isn't that journalism isn't a middle class job but that it is a middle class job at a time when the economy seems to only work for the top one percent.