Journalism in Trouble? You Can't Tell by the Super-Salaries

Journalism in Trouble? You Can't Tell by the Super-Salaries

You wouldn't know print was dead to look at the paychecks of Ron Fournier at The National Journal, Fareed Zakaria at Time, Richard Spencer at OK!

With all the million-dollar salaries being thrown around journalism circles these days, you'd hardly know we were in the depths of a media downturn.

While much of the journalism profession is idled, redundant, bought-out and collecting unemployment, a slim layer is suddenly pocketing supersalaries as the media landscape remakes itself around rags — and riches.

To name a few:

• On Monday, OK! magazine announced the hiring of Richard Spencer, who abruptly left his job as editor of In Touch in January — after a reported “monumental blow-up” over a demand to up his $750,000-a-year salary. (Read: Spencer-for-hire didn't come cheap.)

• Ron Fournier left the Associated Press’ Washington bureau in June to take the reins as editor-in-chief at the National Journal Group at a salary that is said to be close to $1 million a year. (When I asked Fournier recently if that figure was accurate, he laughed. "If that really is my salary, I'm going to have to speak to David Bradley about [getting paid].")

Read also: "Ron Fournier, Editor of the National Journal, Grilled"

• In May, Janice Min — who walked away from Us Weekly when Jann Wenner refused to renew her $2 million-a-year deal (“I was making more money sometimes in one paycheck than he would make the whole year,” she wrote in a New York Post op-ed earlier this year) — was lured out of early retirement by e5 Global Media’s co-owner Jimmy Finkelstein to take the reins at the Hollywood Reporter. Beckman has been doubling editorial salaries all over Hollywood, and no one thinks Min came for less than $1 million.

• In July, it was reported Finkelstein offered Richard Johnson a cool million — double his current salary — to leave the New York Post and move to L.A., but the Post told him to sit down, shut up and read his contract.  

• In August, Fareed Zakaria, Newsweek's international editor, jumped to rival Time in a deal thought to be close to seven figures. (Zakaria was on the shortlist of candidates to replace Jon Meacham as Newsweek's editor-in-chief.)

• And on Monday, Jay Penske announced that he lured Michael Ausiello (above) away from Entertainment Weekly to launch a new TV site at Mail.com Media Corp. Financial terms of Ausiello's deal was not disclosed, but Nikki Finke got as much as a reported eight figures to sell her site to MMC. (Ausiello said his "decision to leave the best job I've ever had was not arrived at lightly.")

By no means does this mean that print journalism has crawled out of its crater.

Just last  week, Newsweek slashed as many as 25 percent of its staff ahead of the magazine’s formal sale to 91-year-old Sidney Harman.

But that only makes the salary inflation all the more astounding.

These types of media mega-salaries were supposed to have been killed off by the general state of the industry.

In 2007, ESPN lured sports columnist Rick Reilly away from Sports Illustrated with a reported five-year, $10 million contract — a deal Time Inc. was apparently willing to counter at $1.5 million. A year later, the company laid off as many as 600.

Are we witnessing a return to excessive spending?

“Talent is always at a premium — a star’s a star,” Karen Danzinger, managing partner at the Howard-Sloan-Koller Group, a search firm specializing in the media and publishing industry. “If you are in the upper echelon of talent, especially now, there is a lot of opportunity.”

Now many of the high salaries are coming from well-funded companies with ambitious plans to take over territory during the new media maelstrom — like Penske's MMC and David Bradley at
Atlantic Media.

“It’s an auction,” Danzinger said of some of the recent high-profile signings. “Employers want to win. And if it takes an extra $100,000 to hire that person you feel puts your business over the top, you do it.”

Media companies may be more willing to do that now coming out of the recession than they were at its depths.

“When some employers think it’s optimistic, that the revenue will return, they might go out on a limb for a star,” Danzinger said, “whereas they might not have before. But in general, those people have always been valuable.”

According to Folio, the average salaries for consumer magazine editors in 2010 was $90,000 – a 10 percent decrease from 2009 – and most of those surveyed by the trade expected the recessionary salary cuts to reverse this year.

But Min and co. aren’t your average ink-stained editors.

“We’re talking about 1 percent of the talent pool,” Danziger said, adding: “Janice Min, she’s always gotten big salaries. She’s always been a star.”

“Employers will pay for it because they’re getting the added benefit — in their mind — in the short term, in terms of buzz, in terms of a name giving a boost to business,” Danzinger said. “And I would not discount that it does.”

Matt Kinsman, executive editor of Folio magazine, agreed.

"It makes sense for something like the Hollywood Reporter to invest in a big name," Kinsman told TheWrap, "because it adds some buzz at a time when they're fending off a swarm of competition from both traditional media and online startups, not to mention it's sort of a coming out party for e5 Global Media."

"It may make even more sense for a business magazine to invest in a big name because the audience is professionals who recognize that name," Kinsman added. "Your average Us Weekly reader probably has no idea who Janice Min is, but an entertainment industry exec certainly does, and will check out the magazine and digital channels just to see what she does."

But what about the companies, like THR or Newsweek, that are still laying off people at the same time they're hunting for a Min or a Johnson? Danzinger said it's not always just a matter of costs.

“It’s a different world, things have changed, you need to have a different skill set,” Danzinger said. “A company might hire two people as another 10 go out. The business has changed; the needs have changed.”

Some of those people, she said, especially those with social media skills, are in high demand and hired for competitive salaries – just not in the Min range.

As Danzinger said, “When a business is changing, to acquire the right kind of talent, at a premium, it’s a small price to pay.”