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Salary and Benefits Negotiation for News Nerds

A dispatch from SRCCON:WORK


(Peggy Lachmann-Anke and Marco Lachmann-Anke)

Salaries and benefits are one of the top three reasons why news nerds leave their jobs. So at SRCCON:WORK in December, Erika Owens and I facilitated a workshop exploring everything you can ask for during negotiations, understanding your organization and its gatekeepers, and strategies for responding in the moment. We wanted session participants to share their frustrations about not knowing salaries and brainstorm some ways to get around blockers they had in negotiating their salaries or raises. We also hoped people would share tips on what worked for them—they did share, and we’ve documented some of those tips here.

Making Negotiation Less Unnerving

While there are people out there who love a good negotiation, the rest of us might feel reluctant or anxious when we’re offered a salary or asked for a range. Our session participants looked at some of the reasons why salary negotiations can be so fraught, and they came up with two major themes:

  1. An overall lack of knowledge surrounding salaries and negotiations; and

  2. A reluctance to negotiate based on discouragement, disinterest, or lack of confidence.

Let’s break it down.

Overcoming Lack of Knowledge

When it comes to knowing your rate, where do you even start? Many guides recommend researching on Glassdoor, Indeed, or other similar sites, and while that might work for an engineer or project manager in a media organization’s product department, which must compete with other technology companies, the journalist who codes, designs, or analyzes data in the newsroom has a much more difficult time researching the appropriate salary ranges. (We’ll talk more about setting your range in the next section.)

Overcoming Reluctance to Negotiate

Many people, especially earlier in their careers, simply do not know that you can negotiate a job offer. Should you try? The journalists in our session were adamant that the answer was “yes.” The majority of the time, companies expect you to negotiate. There are exceptions, but even with those exceptions, it’s usually not considered bad form to ask.

But it’s hard to feel confident about negotiating when you’ve been job searching for months or when you’re afraid of how people will view you. Your new manager is the one with all the power: they’re the ones offering you both the job and the salary, so maybe you should just accept it. After all, the position sounds great, and the interviews were fantastic! It’s not just “about the money”—if you wanted to make money, you wouldn’t have chosen to become a journalist. Even your own parents are saying that you should just be grateful to be employed.

These were common thoughts among session participants reluctant to negotiate. Let’s dispel some of this thinking by considering how hiring actually works:

  • Finding a good candidate takes a long time. It means sifting through resumes, doing phone and in-person interviews, and winnowing those few candidates down to one person. You may think your hiring manager is the one with all the power, but if they make you an offer, they really want you to accept.

  • Here’s something you might not know: Most hiring managers expect you to negotiate your salary. It’s a common management tactic to hold back a little bit on the salary offer so that there’s room to negotiate. There’s very little downside to this for a manager: if a new hire doesn’t negotiate, then they can save money, and if a new hire does negotiate, then they can come back and say, “Yes, I got you more money!”

  • Another management tactic for giving a raise to a current employee is to offer a little less than they expected or were intending to ask for. This could be a situation in which you’ve already asked for a raise (with or without a number) or were intending to ask for a raise. In either case, the above still holds true: if you accept the raise, they can save money, and if you negotiate the raise, they can give you more money. (And sometimes they really don’t have the budget. We’ll talk more about that later.)

  • We often think of news organizations as beleaguered institutions, constantly under the looming threat of layoffs (or loss of funding in the case of nonprofits). So how could you push for a higher salary in this kind of setting? In many cases, these threats are real. And yet, managers at these organizations can still rely on the same tactics of holding back a little extra for a new hire.

Negotiations are kind of a weird tango. The drawback to the management strategies described above is that a certain group of workers is more reluctant to negotiate than others: namely, women. That said, corporate “no negotiation” strategies might not be the answer. Read a case study and a thought experiment here.

In the best-case scenario for a negotiation, you get what you want and your manager is happy to see you’re proactive about getting what you want. In the very worst case scenario with a negotiation, you and the company find out that you will not be a good fit for the role or that the company is not a good fit for you.

What constitutes the wrong fit?

  • Your range is, for example, double the budget for the position. (You’re probably too experienced for this role.) Or the reverse!

  • Late in the interviewing process, you start trying to negotiate for a different role than the one you applied for (I’m not sure why anyone would do this, and I know everyone who is reading right now wouldn’t!)

  • You ask for a benefit not given to someone with your level of experience or benefits that even a more senior employee wouldn’t get. (Like a sabbatical or book leave early in your career.)

  • You repeatedly push for a benefit when there’s a companywide standard that your manager can’t negotiate.

Some session participants felt that salaries weren’t their top negotiating priority or that they didn’t want to seem like they were “about the money.” But even if it isn’t your top priority, your salary does set the bar for the job—any raises and bonuses will be based on that number—as well as your willingness to advocate for yourself in future salary negotiations. Keep in mind, too, that some news organizations haven’t given out raises in years, so you need to make sure you get to a number you’ll be satisfied with for a little while.

Prepare Your Salary Range and Benefits

If you’re anxious about negotiating, the keys to calming your nerves are preparing your salary range and practicing what you’re going to say.

Figuring out competitive salary ranges for various news nerd jobs can be a mystery. Even the news nerd salary data from the OpenNews survey has its limitations. There weren’t enough responses to show salary ranges by position, years of experience, race, or locations beyond New York and Washington, DC. So how do you figure out what’s appropriate?

  • Lam Thuy Vo collected and uploaded union contracts, salary studies, and tax filings to show baselines, averages, and top-range salaries at major newsrooms.

  • Our session participants noted that some companies have pay bands buried in various documents.

  • If your newsroom is unionized, union leadership may be able to help you.

  • Publicly funded news organizations may make their salaries available online.

  • Nonprofit news organizations have requirements about reporting compensation of high-paid employees on their IRS Form 990.

  • If you have a friend at the company you’re applying with, ask them if there are any benefits documents that you can take a look at.

Once you look through these resources, you might think to yourself that the ranges can be so large that they seem nearly arbitrary. Usually it comes down to your skill set and how much experience you have. Although it can feel taboo, it doesn’t hurt to ask your friends how much they’re making. Margaret Neale, an expert on negotiations at Stanford University, told me that she suggests forming a posse with like-minded friends and colleagues. Make a pact, she advises, to share salary information with each other whenever needed. This pact might go on for years as long you’re all working in the same field.

Whether you’re about to take on a new job or you’re lobbying to make your current job better, your salary isn’t the only thing you can negotiate, and it’s not the only thing a company can offer. Think about the overall minimum package you need from your job before negotiating. You might decide you want more vacation days than offered, funds to attend an annual conference, or the permission to work from home a couple of times a week.

Here’s a list of benefits besides salaries that our session participants came up with:

Aspects of the Job

  • Title

  • Job description

  • Which team you want to work in or lead

  • Budget and resources to hire people in the next year

  • No task force” clause: not being forced onto the diversity committee because of your gender, race, etc.

Other Financial Benefits

  • Stock options

  • Moving and/or relocation expenses

  • Pre-arranged future pay increase

  • 401(k) or other retirement plans

  • 401(k) match

  • Signing bonus

  • Goals-based monthly bonuses

  • Family leave benefits

  • Paternity/maternity benefits

  • Employee assistance plan

Transportation

  • Parking spot

  • Commuter benefits

Health

  • Gym memberships

  • Health care / wellness care

Education

  • Continuing education (reimbursements for online courses, classes at a local community college, or a bootcamp)

  • Professional development (leadership training)

  • Conferences (tickets, travel, lodging, meals)

Time

  • Number of vacation days

  • Remote work / work from home

  • Time between jobs / start date

  • Flex hours

  • Sabbatical or book leave

Companies may have some of these benefits available to all their employees, so it helps to do your research before trying to negotiate something you would already get anyway. If an organization has great benefits, you’ll often find out in the job listing or during the interview process, but you can also ask about specific benefits before accepting an offer. Or you can ask for a copy of the standard benefits package from HR.

Be prepared for one of those benefits to go down if another benefit goes up. For example, if your current company offers a 401(k) match and the company you’re interviewing with does not, then you may want to consider a higher range to offset the loss of that benefit. Or, if you want to attend a training conference every year, find out whether the company will reimburse the expenses, or whether you’ll have to take vacation days. And if a new job requires you to move, you should also research the change in the cost of living and adjust your expectations accordingly.

Take into account that many benefits can have hidden costs: some moving expenses and other fringe benefits are often taxable, and health insurance premiums differ across companies.

One session participant stressed that if you give a company a range, then you should be happy with the the lowest number in the range. Another participant suggested that the lowest number in the range should be a little higher than the number you’d be happy with. It’s up to you to decide on your strategy.

If you gave a salary range during your interview, and they offer you the lowest number in that range, then you should consider it to be a reasonable offer. It’s hard and counter-productive to negotiate up from a number you’ve already said was acceptable.

Practice Negotiating

Like most professional social interactions, it helps to be respectful, friendly, and matter-of-fact. It also helps to stop talking at some point. If you’re a journalist who regularly does a lot of people-reporting, you know how effective silence, or a momentary pause, can be. Say what you want to say, then stop and wait for them to give you more information.

You can try this idea from Sallie Krawcheck about practicing for your negotiation:

Say it out loud first. To yourself. To the mirror. Say it again, and again. Just creating that pathway from brain to mouth will help you say the words at the moment of truth. And no need to create a big windup—research tells us that people won’t hear all your kind paragraphs about appreciating the offer because they are waiting for your “but.” So don’t say “but.” Just speak in a “just the facts ma’am” manner: “Thank you for the offer. Based on my research and my experience, I was expecting the position to pay _________.”

Then stop talking.

But there are other questions that can trip you up during a job interview or performance review. We asked our session participants to come up with ways to respond to tricky situations, like when someone asks for your salary history or gives you an offer that was smaller than expected.

Here are some more scenarios you can practice (in front of a mirror or with a friend).

During a Job Interview

How much are you making now?”

I’d be happy to talk about compensation once I’ve learned more about [the responsibilities of the position / your company’s benefits / etc. ].” STOP

What range are you working within?” STOP

If we find that this is a good fit, my salary is negotiable.” STOP

(A quick note: a growing number of cities and states are banning the salary history question because of the way it tends to perpetuate salary inequities. If you’re a hiring manager, stop asking this!)

What is your range?”

Based on [my research and experience / what you’ve told me about the position / what you’ve told me about benefits / etc. ], I’m expecting somewhere between ______ and ______.” STOP

The Job Offer

We’re pleased to offer you a position at our company with a salary of [lower amount than expected].”

If you’re speaking in real-time, wait a few seconds for them to say something else before responding. But you don’t need to drag it out like some kind of power game. If a few seconds pass with no response, try this:

Did you give them a range before and this amount is lower than your range? “Thank you for the offer. Based on what you’ve told me about the job and what we discussed earlier, I was expecting a number closer to ______. ” STOP

If you didn’t give them a range, see what Krawcheck suggests above. “Thank you for the offer. Based on my research and my experience, I was expecting the position to pay at least ______.” STOP

You don’t need to make a decision the minute you get an offer. Here’s something else you can practice saying or writing: “I’d like a few days to think about it. [Deflect to family concerns / appreciation of your current job / etc.]”

Performance Review or Meeting with Your Current Manager

We’ve been really thrilled with your performance and are giving you a raise of [lower amount than expected or asked for].”

After thanking them and saying you appreciate the raise, try saying or asking:

  • I was hoping for a number closer to ______.” STOP

  • What’s the required criteria to qualify for a raise of ______?” STOP

  • What can I do to get me closer to ______?” STOP

The Big Picture

Besides salaries and benefits, the top reasons why news nerds leave their jobs are the lack of career opportunities and the lack of leadership in the newsroom. So if you hold a position of power at your company, then be an advocate for change. Push for training so that hiring managers don’t ask about salary histories, an illegal practice in many cities and states. Ask for promotions and higher compensation for your team and new hires.

It’s clear from the notes in our workshop that some news nerds don’t have a great deal of trust in their managers’ abilities to advocate for their teams. (Relatedly, a recurring motif in the session was the push for unions—which, ultimately, are a way to negotiate better working conditions as a group.) That said, session participants also understood some of the reasons that could be hampering management from offering a higher salary, from the lack of budget to executive buy-in.

Don’t get discouraged if your negotiation tactics don’t work the first time you try. There are many scenarios in which your manager really cannot give you more than they are offering. This is why it’s so important to be respectful, reasonable, and thoughtful throughout this entire process.

Negotiations are a calculated risk, but it usually doesn’t hurt to ask politely. And if it does have negative consequences, then there’s a very good chance you may have outgrown your current job or your new job wasn’t going to be the right fit anyway.

Resources

People

Credits

  • Soo Oh

    Soo Oh is a John S. Knight Fellow at Stanford University, researching how newsrooms can better manage and support journalists with technical skills.

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