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March 21, 2024updated 22 Mar 2024 8:53am

FT US journalists in dispute with management over call for extra $4k

The FT US Guild argues current pay rates make the business paper uncompetitive.

By Bron Maher

Journalists on the FT in the US are in dispute with management after seeking salary rises averaging just over $4,000 to cover the higher cost of living than UK counterparts.

FT US Guild argues cost of living differences between the UK and US mean their overall remuneration is both lower than their London counterparts and uncompetitive compared with other US newsrooms. It has asked for a one-time additional salary increase for its members, many of whom work at the New York office. Currently-advertised reporter salaries for FT journalists in the US start in the $71,000 to $75,000 range.

The dispute highlights a broader challenge for UK media titles seeking to expand in the US where pay levels for journalism jobs are far higher than the UK.

‘It wasn’t just that we weren’t in the same ballpark, we weren’t playing the same game’

Among UK journalists the Financial Times has a reputation as a comparatively well-paying employer, with its National Union of Journalists chapel regularly securing annual, inflation-linked pay rises for the paper’s global editorial workforce.

In addition to annual pay rises, in September 2022 the FT gave all staff a £1,800 payment to assist with cost of living pressures, and the December before that it issued editorial staff with a £5,600 bonus – a figure equivalent to 8% of the then-mean editorial worker salary of £70,000.

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A leader of the FT branch of the US Newsguild union told Press Gazette that, although the American staff ostensibly earn higher pay, “we don’t get the same retirement benefits as our UK colleagues, and then we also pay more for healthcare.

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“London management is kind of laser-focused on what our salaries are without thinking at all about what the money actually buys. When you look at the total compensation package, we aren’t getting as much as our UK colleagues.” The Guild leader declined to disclose the median salary at the US newsroom.

FT US Guild received voluntary recognition from the company in May 2022 a few months after going public with its unionisation bid. A sister guild representing staff at FT Specialist titles unionised earlier, securing its first contract with the business last summer.

The FT US Guild leader said the union has been in contract negotiations with FT management since February 2023. Bargaining had been expected to conclude this month, but despite making progress on severance provisions and just cause termination, the talks faltered on pay.

The leader said wages had “always been the number one issue for our membership”.

“We asked for a $260,000 [£204,500] pot. We wanted to agree on the pot and then, as a secondary step, we’d agree on how it was parcelled out [to raise staff salaries].

“We say $260,000, and they counter with $52,000.”

Across the 60 or so employees within the bargaining unit, the union leader said that offer “would have given them another $72 a month in their paychecks before taxes”.

They added: “It wasn’t just that we weren’t in the same ballpark, we weren’t playing the same game.”

This month after the FT launched FT Ventures, a £30m fund aiming to invest in high-growth media industry start-ups, the Guild went public with their demand for a pay rise – saying they wanted FT Group to “invest just 1% of that [fund] in the US newsroom, where revenues have increased by more than 40% since 2019”.

In another tweet it said: “John Ridding, Financial Times CEO, made $2.2m in 2022. But the FT refuses to raise US staff salaries to $80,000. Capitalism, it’s time for a reset.”

‘Couch cushion change’: Union argues current FT US pay is uncompetitive

FT Group chief executive John Ridding told Nieman Lab this month the US is a major area of expansion for the title and the region is already generating nearly a third of its global revenues.

But the union leader said: “We’re worried that London management doesn’t understand what it takes to succeed in the US market.”

They said it “just costs more to do business in the United States than it does in the UK”, particularly in New York, because of higher salaries and the higher cost of living.

The leader noted that after a contract renewal at The New York Times last year, the median salary at that newsbrand is $161,000.

“The FT likes to compare themselves to The New York Times, but they’re not comparable when it comes to pay,” they said.

The Guild leader said the pay rates offered had adversely impacted both talent attraction and retention at the FT’s US teams. One colleague who had recently attempted to hire for their team, they said, found the pool of candidates “just wasn’t ideal – and it was because the kind of candidate they wanted to hire is making $30,000 more than the top of the range they were advertising”.

The leader said that one person in the FT US Guild bargaining unit had been unable to qualify for an apartment on the salary the FT was paying them.

The FT is one of numerous UK publishers seeking to expand their US operations. When Daily Mirror and Daily Express publisher Reach began its push into the US, the company provided the staff it sent overseas with free accommodation and a stipend in addition to their salaries, insulating them from the high costs, Press Gazette understands.

Referring to Ridding’s comment to Nieman Lab that FT owner “Nikkei is not about profit maximisation, they’re about mission maximisation”, the Guild official said: “I'm sorry to be the skunk at the picnic, but it's just more expensive to do business on this side of the Atlantic.

“You can't maximise your mission if you're baulking at spending $260,000. That is couch cushion change.”

The union said that among a sample of six journalists who left the FT in the US in the past two years to join US newsrooms, their new salaries range from 4% lower (“the person was so unhappy they took a pay cut to leave”, the official said) to 114% higher, with an average salary increase in the group of 58%.

“It would be one thing if we thought they didn't have the money, [but] we know they have the money,” the union leader said.

“The company will swear these are different pockets of money - but they’re pockets on the same, very well-tailored suit.”

A spokesperson for the FT said: “We've been negotiating with the US Guild in good faith and have reached agreement on many matters. We look forward to more constructive dialogue in coming weeks.”

Why New York salaries are generally higher than at comparable London jobs

For many British journalists, $80,000 (£63,000) is beyond what they can ever expect to earn for a non-management job. 

The BBC stipulates that reporters with the Local Democracy Reporting Service, which it funds, be paid at least £24,000, or £26,200 in London. Two London-based, junior editorial jobs are being advertised on Linkedin by The Independent - one of the few national publishers to list salaries in ads - with pay at £27,000 or £28,000. Roles at a comparable level at the BBC itself are generally in pay bands C or D, paying between £25,000 and £63,000 as of 2021.

But one British reporter who now works in New York explained to Press Gazette that American journalism is not as lucrative as it may seem.

“I think the trouble is those kinds of numbers just sound preposterous to people in the UK because of the exchange rate,” they said.

“If you want to live a normal life in NYC, work in Midtown and commute less than 45 minutes, have a social life, maybe have a kid with a partner who also earns money, you kind of have to be on $100,000, but ideally $150,000… The reality is $60,000 is a real struggle to get by on here.”

They did, however, note that they live a life in New York they probably would not be able to afford in London at the same level of seniority.

“There's more opportunity to earn a real living as opposed to getting by” in the US, they said.

“I think if you compare like for like between the NY Times and Times of London, the NYT would pay better. But that's by no means the case across the board - junior reporters here are basically paid under the minimum wage, freelance rates are still appalling, local journalists give up so they can afford decent healthcare.”

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Select and enter your email address Weekly insight into the big strategic issues affecting the future of the news industry. Essential reading for media leaders every Thursday. Your morning brew of news about the world of news from Press Gazette and elsewhere in the media. Sent at around 10am UK time. Our weekly does of strategic insight about the future of news media aimed at US readers. A fortnightly update from the front-line of news and advertising. Aimed at marketers and those involved in the advertising industry.
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