Brain Drain: A third of journos plan to leave within two years

Mak Yin-ting - The Journalist Editor-in-Chief

[中文][Jan 2011 - The Journalist] Low salaries and a high turnover rate is the norm in the media industry as far as journalists and the general public are concerned. Over the past three years the situation has simply worsened. Even senior media workers with more than 20 years' experience have recently moved out to public relations. Low morale and a sense of foreboding pervade the industry. According to a Hong Kong Journalists Association survey, there are still many senior journalists in the industry, but half of those interviewed said they would like or have tried to look for a new job. Some 30 percent of interviewees said they would leave journalism within a year or two. This high potential for departure has alarmed the industry. Media managements will have to face up to succession challenges and to maintain professional standards as experience gives way to newcomers.

HKJA conducted the survey between February 24 to March 14, investigating the remuneration package of different kinds of journalists and their views about job future. A total of 589 electronic and about 800 hard copies of questionnaire were sent to local mainstream journalists and freelancers. A total of 725 completed questionnaires were returned: 128 by fax, 116 by email and 481 hard copies. The survey response rate was about 55 percent.

The breakdown of the 725 respondents were reporters, 55 percent; editors 18 percent; team leaders or above 16 percent; photojournalists 9 percent; and translators 2 percent. Some 58 percent of the interviewees were degree holders, 16 percent were postgraduates and 15 percent were sub-degree holders. This shows the educational level of journalists is high. However, the male vs. female ratio of respondents was 51:47. This seems to contradict the general perception that women dominate the media industry and is likely due to the fact that senior management continues to be dominated by men. The return rate from male journalists and the ratio of management personnel interviewed were both high.

High education level, low remuneration

Journalists say the turnover rate of the industry is very high. Many frontline media workers leave after three years. Colleagues seem to come and go so fast that there's hardly time to get better acquainted. The survey shows that most of the interviewees were journalists with two years or less experience. They made up 22 percent of the total. Those with experience of two to four years' experience formed 38 percent. Those with four to 10 years' experience accounted for 23 percent. However, 29 percent of respondents have 10 to 20 years' experience while nine percent have notched up 20 years or more. This suggests that journalists tend to stay if they can get through the early stages of the career even if the salary is not high.

The poor remuneration is a common complaint of respondents. Some 12 percent of respondents earn $10,000 or less a month. About 41 percent earned $15,000 or less while 61 percent take home $20,000 or less each month. The percentage of respondents earning less than $20,000 is the same as the percentage of respondents with experience of 10 years or less. A 10-year veteran journalist with $20,000 monthly salary can hardly go forward enthusiastically or aspire to greater heights in his career.

The 9 percent of interviewees with experience of 20 years or more does not necessarily correlate with the group earning $40,000 or more. It still shows that salary levels do not necessarily relate to working experience.

A difficult choice for most

In the circumstances, it is no wonder that most journalists find it difficult to decide whether to stay or quit the industry altogether. Some 43 percent of respondents say they “don’t know/never thought of it/hard to tell” when asked if they considered journalism a lifelong career. The number of respondents who answered ‘Yes’ and “No’ were almost similar: 28 percent and 26 percent respectively.

But while many said they had not made up their minds, action speaks louder than words. Some 31 percent admitted they had looked at job advertisements in search of another job outside journalism while 19 percent had actually applied for jobs in other fields. Only 47 percent said they did not look at or apply for jobs outside journalism. In fact, 31 percent actually said they would leave the industry within a year or two. (See chart below). The high percentage of those intending to leave has had an adverse effect on the accumulation of experience for the industry. Alarm bells should be ringing over the development of the industry.

Expected time to stay in the IndustryNo. of Respondents Percentage
Less than a year669%
1.1-2 year16423%
2.1-4 years19928%
4.1-6 years8912%
6.1 years or above*16523%
Did not ans/Don’t Know426%
*including 50 respondents who did not answer the questions but have considered media industry as lifelong career

The reason why respondents want to leave the industry is obvious: Low salary. A total of 76 percent of 422 respondents said salaries in the media industry are lower than other industries. Some 51 percent say working hours are too long with deleterious effects on their daily lives (See the chart below).

Reason of Changing FieldNumber of Respondents*% of Total Respondents of this questions *% of Total Interviewees *
Salary of Media Industry offered is lower than other industries31976%44%
Too long working hour, 5.5/6-day work affect work-life balance21451%30%
Uncertainty of promotion opportunities18945%26%
Eager to develop other careers or study further12229%17%
Low Job Satisfaction 10224%14%
Poor atmosphere of the Industry and low social status9623%13%
Want to get married and have children6716%9%
*More than one answer could be chosen, so the number of respondents was more than the number of interviewees and the percentage would exceed 100%.

Succession difficulties

The low salaries have always been one of the main reasons for the high turnover rate in similar surveys in the past. But the ratio has now reached the highest in this survey. Every media management understands the situation. Some expect the aspirations of the journalist and the challenging nature of the job to compensate for the low salary. Others use their limited resources as the excuse not to increase wages. However, one has to ask how such wishful thinking of management can be realized if staff enthusiasm is lost with the passage of time and the pressure of livelihood increases as the staff get older? How will the industry retain experienced journalists?

Highly educated, enthusiastic journalists give up opportunities for making a decent living in order to fulfil their dreams, while managements prefer to take on inexperienced workers at low salaries rather than keep experienced journalists. It looks like decline in the quality of news is inevitable. One former deputy editor-in-chief who left the industry more than a year ago says that quite a number of TV news broadcasts now look like undergraduate projects. News stories that should be followed up or covered in greater depth are not. For newspapers, a senior journalist from the Mainland once asked me: “Hong Kong has a high degree of press freedom. I thought there should be many good stories. But why are the news stories so similar among the different newspapers? And I hardly see any investigative stories.” I really would like to ask him to put that question to the management of different newspaper organizations.

The most practical way to keep skilled personnel, of course, is through pay rises and reasonable working hours, or even implementation of the five-day week. Moreover, media organizations can use promotions to keep their staff. But these organizations invariably promote journalists to administrative work to ensure their positions are commensurate with their duty. But Assistant Professor of the Department of Journalism at Hong Kong Baptist University Dr. To Yiu-ming pointed out that although promoting journalists to management levels could make them to consider media industry as their lifelong career, not every star reporter is capable of becoming a news editor. Promotion does not mean their talent would be fully utilized. Reasonable working conditions and training is more essential.

He added that the opportunities in frontline reporting are more attractive to such promoted journalists. For example, the journalist of Washington Post Bob Woodward, who reported the Watergate Scandal, is on the management of the newspaper, but there is room for him to continue writing stories and not merely handle administrative work.

I believe that the management levels of the media industry are able to deal with the problem if they have the will to do so. The question is how many of the managerial personnel would consider the development and the future of the industry in order to fulfil public interest rather than just perform their routine duties?