Follow the money

The life and salaries of Romanian journalists. A look inside a profession that doesn’t shine beyond the TV screen

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A car is leaving the garage of former PSD leader Liviu Dragnea, after he was convicted to 3 years and 6 months of jailtime, on 27th of May 2019 / Inquam Photos / Octav Ganea

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Newsroom note: This piece starts a necessary conversation about the state of the press, a vital domain in any democracy. For a more objective analysis, the work on this article was done by an independent team of reporter and editor. Besides the title, Panorama did not intervene in any way on the content, in the reporting or selecting information.

  1. The career in journalism became fragile in Romania because the newsrooms offer low salaries for journalists that do not allow them to have some degree of financial comfort. Over time, this damages the journalistic process and threatens democracy.
  2. In Bucharest, beginner journalists earn between 3.000-4.000 RON or lei (1 EUR=5 RON) monthly after tax, in the big newsrooms. In the small newsrooms, the salaries can start from 900 lei after tax. Outside the capital, a journalist earns about 3.000 lei in big local newsrooms.
  3. Compared to 10-15 years ago, today’s situation starts decently for beginners, but salaries seem to stagnate later into their careers – journalists with professional experience of more than 10 years don’t usually get more than 5.000-6.000 lei after tax.
  4. Contracting forms that are, sometimes, at the border of work laws add to the instability of the industry. Many newsrooms use copyright transfer contracts (abbreviated CDA in Romanian) or mixed forms (work contract with the minimum wage, and the rest throught copyright transfer contracts or even off the books). This means that journalists lose their pension and healthcare contributions and have an uncertain future ahead.
  5. There are a few reasons why many journalists leave the industry and head to better paying fields or take freelance work to make ends meet. A piece written as a freelancer is paid with 300-500 lei and for the complex features or investigations journalists can even get 1.000-1.500 lei after tax from the big publications.

When she took the admission exam to the Faculty of Journalism and Communication Sciences (FJSC) at the University of Bucharest, Elena thought that journalists are well paid and the opportunities to meet new people are everywhere. “I imagined we will come to the faculty, and they will teach us, we will talk like news presenters on a prompter, we will go and see TV sets, meet the people there”, she says. “It was nothing like that”.

Her first paid job was, in fact, an internship that Elena (we will use only the first name because she does not want to generate conflicts with former employers) started in the Fall of 2020, the same time with the school courses, at a freshly opened news website. The team was young, not everyone was a journalism graduate, and the editor-in-chief did not explain anything and treated them poorly, says Elena. “I went to him with a news story – of course I didn’t know how to write it – and he looked at me and said: «you come to me with this wretched thing, do you think I am stupid?!». And he started to insult me in all sorts of ways”.

Elena stayed for just one week at the internship that was paid with 1.000 lei monthly (1 EUR=5 lei/RON), on work contract, and about which she remembers it was part-time. A law from 2018 says that internships are paid in Romania with at least 50% of the before tax minimum country wage (in 2020, that was 2.230 lei).

When she wanted to resign, her boss was indifferent about it, although the girl was crying. “He looked me in the eyes and said «take your things and leave». I was crying, but he didn’t care. And I left”.

Elena stopped searching for a job for while. She got the first “official” job in August 2022, as a video editor for a media company that owns various magazines. After a month of internship, they hired her with a working contract that included the monthly minimum wage on it, even though Elena took home 2.000 lei net after tax (the minimum wage was 1.524 lei in 2022).

“They gave me (the money) either in my bank account, or off the books. They did not pay me the same way every month”, she says. “Now they started to pay me mostly off the books, I rarely get it in my bank account”.

When she tried asking for a raise, the employer postponed her repeatedly for a few months, after which he offered 500 lei more, without adding it to the work contract. Recently, Elena took a better paid job at a TV station. She does not have any long-term plans, but she wants to have a firmer attitude in the future: “I would like to be more daring, to say when somthing bothers me, to ask for my rights”.

A precarious field that lost its credibility

In the last years, Romanian journalism industry became more and more unstable because of the low salaries, abuses by media moguls, and the low trust from the public.

Recently, a piece in HotNews showed that the journalists from Aleph News did not get their salaries on time, sometimes they didn’t get them unless they gave justifications, while also facing the abusive behaviour of the media mogul Adrian Sârbu. This is just the most recent example.

At the same time, the Digital News Report 2023 by the Reuters Institute shows that the public’s trust in the news they get in the Romanian press is at its lowest level in the last six years – from 39% in 2017, to 32% in 2023. The European Commission also warned, in the recommendations included in the last report, issued before lifting the Cooperation and Verification Mechanism (MCV) for Romania, that our country needs to improve and intensify the efforts regarding the editorial independence.

0 %
Romanians who trust the media

Source: Digital News Report 2023

Moreover, we have a history of low, nontransparent salaries, paid with contracts that sometimes are bordering the limits of law, that stagnate for years at the same level, and also lead to leaving the industry.

Many journalists are still paid through copyright transfer contracts (CDA or DDA in Romanian language) – which are normally used for one-time collaborations – or mixed contracts in which they have only the minimum wage on their work contract, and they get the rest of the money either through copyright transfer contracts or off the books.

This, says Cristian Delcea, one of the co-founders of Recorder, raises ethical problems. „Imagine you’re 40 years old, you are paid like this for 20 years, either like this (copyright transfer) or with a mixed contract. This means you will have a very uncertain old age, and this makes you, as a journalist, think: «OK, if, at one moment, this job will give me the possibility to make some extra money, I should do it because I only have a few chances. This type of pay that I had all my life leads me a pension of 10 million (note: 1.000 lei, in fact; the sum is a reference from the Romania’s old monetary division system)»”. Delcea says that this creates a mentality of “a journalist that pinches” (a reference to lack of ethics).

Low wages for journalists are a global problem

The low salaries in the journalism industry are not a problem only in Romania. Matthew Powers, the co-director of Center for Journalism, Media and Democracy at the University of Washington and one of the authors of the book The Journalist’s Predicament which analysis how the journalists percieve their job in the United States and France, says that journalists often have to face obstacles.

“Journalism still attracts a wide range of people, it’s not universal, not for everyone, but it still attracts people. But it also frustrates a lot of people”, says Powers in an interview via Google Meet. „It makes it really difficult for people to maintain their belief that it’s worth their efforts”. The difficulty, Powers thinks, also comes from the feeling of disappointment for the journalists, caused by the low salaries and by other systemic problems.

This is a global problem: from the UK to Uganda (where 35% of the journalists think that bribes received from the influent sources are economically justifiable), the low salaries are a problem in the life of journalists. A study by Press Gazette shows that 13% of the journalism graduates from the UK exit the industry within three years and they head to better paid domains.

Corina Matei worked in journalism for eight years. At the end, she was paid 2.500 lei on a working contract, as a journalist for the local National Geographic magazine and other magazines in the Burda media group. She says she could not have made ends meet if she didn’t still lived with her parents and she would have had to pay rent. To make things easier, in September 2019 she got a part part-time job at a travel agency.

The decision to leave the industry came in January 2020, when Matei got hired full-time at the travel agency, but she kept the collaboration with the magazine. The pandemic put the travel industry on pause, but after the restrictions started to relax, she resumed traveling and writing stories for the magazine, in parallel with the job at the travel agency. The collaboration was based on copyright transfer contracts, and they paid her per story written, with the price being made with a combination of pages filled in the magazine and the images from the story, which Matei gave to the publication. The collaboration continued until the magazine closed, at the beginning of 2022. She says she would go back to journalism only if the local National Geographic magazine would reopen – but even then, not as a main job.

Andrei (he asked us to use only his first name), a radio journalist with 17 years of experience, also exited the industry. When he left, he was paid 3.400 lei monthly after tax, but he had months when he reached 4.000 lei if he had projects in which he wrote content for brands. He decided to leave because he didn’t manage to cover the expenses at home and to also help his mother who has health problems. He chose communication at an environmental NGO where he has a fixed term contract and a salary of over 5.000 lei after tax. He misses feeling “useful to the society”, but he does not exclude returning to journalism if the salaries situation will change.

How Romanian journalism got here

Ioana Avădani, the president of the Center for Independent Journalism in Bucharest, says that the big change in the media industry in Romania happened between 2005 and 2008, with a financial flow correlated with the country joining the EU in 2007.

“That was a very distinct moment in the history of the press”, she remembers. “Back then, we talked about salaries of over 5.000 euros for a leading editorial role”. It wasn’t rare to be able to enter the field with salaries reaching 1.000 euros, the equivalent of about 3.400 lei back then. After that, the financial crisis that started in 2008 also hit Romania.

“When the salaries stopped being paid or started being cut, survival strategies were used – personal and institutional”, says Avădani, who studied this history also in an academical paper. “The institutional survival strategies meant massive job cuts, more and more irregular payments of salaries, flexibility in contracting that were an advantage for journalists only at a surface level, meaning the weight of the taxes fell on them and that left them uncovered”.

In short, the media moguls preferred to “mask-hire” with payments on copyright transfer contracts and to let the weight of the taxes to be managed by journalists that, in this way, got bigger salaries, but lost the contributions on pension and healthcare, either because they could not afford to pay them or they did not know they had to – only starting 2018 did Romania begin withholding tax for the copyright transfer contracts.

“This liberalization of the relationship between the provider of the services and the beneficiary did not come with a liberalization of the work relationships”, says Avădani. “So, you were paid with copyright transfer contracts, but they continued to ask you to come to work eight hours a day and do the same things. You didn’t have the benefits of a freelancer, you were only a freelancer in terms of taxes”.

Cristian Delcea and Mihai Voinea, the editors-in-chief and co-founders of Recorder, chose an alternative to mainstream media, after many years in which they were they had low pays or no pays at all and the lack of professionalism in newsrooms disappointed them.

For both, their first experience in “the big media” came in 2008 when they got hired at Evenimentul Zilei. They both came from the sports press, where sometimes they did not get paid and the change was major. EVZ was, back then, owned by the Swiss media company Ringier and, even if they did not offer big salaries, they paid on time and had well-established procedures.

The situation changed when they arrived at Adevărul, owned back then by Dinu Patriciu. During the financial crisis and after, journalists hat to bear precarious conditions.

„We ended up, at Adevărul, not getting paid for months”, says Delcea, “but to be held there, they would give us some pieces of paper with which we went to a restaurant near the newsroom, and we got a warm meal”.

After eight years in Adevărul’s newsroom, in which they also created a video department, but had the same salary of 3.200 lei, Cristian Delcea and Mihai Voinea decided to open Recorder. At first, they did not earn much more than at Adevărul, but they believed in the project and continued to develop it with healthy principles (all Recorder’s employees have work contracts).

“We think that journalists have to feel respected in this field, to be able to behave like independent journalists and have the courage to hold their heads high in front of people and say «I cannot be bribed, I am independent, I believe in these principles»”, says Voinea. “A journalist who humiliated by the employer I think will also be submissive in front of the one he should interview”.

How much do journalists make

At Recorder, the salary for a beginner journalist starts at 3.000-3.500 lei after tax. After 12-18 months, the employees reach higher salary thresholds, or the collaboration ends. Without giving any other numbers about the salaries of experienced journalists at Recorder, Delcea says that “they have salaries comparable to the university professors, to doctors or prosecutors from the important general offices”.

A study by the Friedrich Ebert Foundation Romania and Syndex Romania from September 2022 shows that the value of the minimum consumption basket for a decent living in Romania is 3.275 lei monthly for a single person, 5.322 lei monthly for a family of two adults without children, and 7.112 lei monthly for a family with two children.

The salaries in the newsrooms are not aligned with these economic realities. For example, in the news agency Agerpres (state institution), a journalist with one-two years of experience earns 2.692 lei after tax, a journalist with a work experience of no more than five years earns 4.301 lei, a journalist with five-seven years of experience earns 4.336 lei, and the editor-in-chiefs earn 6.854 lei after tax. All the journalists at Agerpres have work contracts.

Other journalists from various newsrooms also say that is hard to live with the industry’s salaries – especially if besides the spendings they have bank loans or a family to support.

Most beginners make between 3.000-4.000 lei after tax in the big newsrooms in Bucharest, but the salaries in journalism can start even from 900 lei after tax in the small newsrooms, say the many journalists in the central newsrooms that we discussed with for this piece.

0 lei net
salary of a beginner journalist in Bucharest or a journalist with 4-5 years of experience in the local press
0 lei net
the starting fee for a contributor’s article paid by piece

Source: data obtained by discussing with tens of journalists

Afterwards, the salaries seem to reach a plateau. Even journalists with over ten years of experience in the industry have salaries that do not exceed 5.000-6.000 lei after tax. Many of them do freelancing work or take other jobs to complete their earnings.

In the local newsrooms, the salaries are low, but almost always on work contracts, say the journalists asked. After four-five years of experience, a local journalist earnes about 3.000 lei after tax, in newsrooms like Alba24, Cluj24 or Ziarul de Constanța.

The numbers above are obtained informally from tens of journalists. We tried to also have the perspective of the media companies and we contacted numerous local and central newsrooms in the written press, radio, and TV for data about the collaboration types and salaries. Out of the 38 newsrooms, only Agerpres (state agency that uses public funds) gave information about the salary rates.

For freelancing, the price per piece is 300-500 lei for websites like HotNews or Mindcraft Stories. This is the starting price for PressOne also, but for complex stories they even paid over 1.000-1.500 lei after tax. For features and ample investigative work this is how publications like Libertatea or VICE also pay.

In Panorama’s newsroom, the salaries start from 4.000 lei after tax. The salary rates increase considering the responsibilities and the experience level of the journalists. For the contributors’ articles, paid per piece, the prices are different and depend on the experience of the journalist and the complexity of the piece and editing, but also on the time and resources needed for completion. The pay scales for contributors are between 500 and 1.000 lei after tax per article.

At an administrative level, Panorama’s journalists have various forms of contracts, depending on the type of collaboration: work contracts, copyright transfer contracts, and contributors that can send an invoice.

Study: Most salaries in the Romanian press, between 2.000-5.000 lei

We find out about the salaries in media also from the preliminary data of the Worlds of Journalism 2023 study, conducted in over 120 countries, including Romania. Locally, it is coordinated by Natalia Vasilendiuc, professor at FJSC.

The data processed until August 20, 2023, cover both central media and local media, are based on 346 questionnaires, and show that the biggest salaries – over 10.000 lei after tax – were declared by managing editors, editorial directors, and directors.

“However”, Vasilendiuc writes, “most respondents, especially reporters, staff writers, show producers in the national media, as well as editor-in-chiefs and editors from the local and regional media, declared salaries between 2.000 and 5.000 lei”.

Reporters from the central media did not declare earnings that exceed 4.000 lei after tax, except for a reporter at Pro TV that said he has a wage of 7.000 lei after tax. In fact, television work is perceived as the one that promises good salaries.

Vitalie Cojocari, journalist at Euronews Romania, says that there is no comfortable level of salary. During his career, Cojocari became known for his TV reports and interviews, but things did not become easier afterwards – following celebrity, the temptation to leave the industry increased.

“You always have these thoughts, I would be a hypocrite if I’d say I don’t”, he confesses. “There are offers when you are a journalist and start to have certain acquaintances, to have certain relationships, you meet many people, you create sources everywhere. There are various types of offers. It’s just that, in my case, I can say I was never close to leaving. These thoughts are in your mind often, but they are there at 5-10%, and this happens because, and now I speak for myself, I like very much what I do, I mean I do not see myself doing something else.”

The future of journalism depends on the audience trust

The “exodus” of journalists from newsrooms to other domains is a problem that also concerns Cătălin Tolontan, editorial coordinator for the Ringier publications, Libertatea and GSP. Libertatea answered Panorama’s call for data and did not offer salary rates, but informed us that in their newsroom there are about 50 journalists with work contracts and about 30 contributors with copyright transfer contracts (CDA)**.

Tolontan says that for decades in a row newsroom managers feared the leaving of good people. “I still have this reflex”, he says. “Even if there are less that leave because, unfortunately, they do not quite have have where to go, I still fear leavings”.

Today’s risk is less that a media employee leaving for other newsrooms, than living the industry altogether.

“We are aware that everywhere in the world the newsrooms shrink”, says Tolontan. “We think that, at one point, society will have to make a decision. Democracy cannot exist without the press. Since the media business model is dying faster than a new one is born, society can react, to still have information. Or it can not react, we shall see”.

Vitalie Cojocari also thinks that the future of journalism in Romania depends on the public. “In the end, we will have to realize that it is a social service important for democracy, for defending the democratic values, and the society will have to support journalism. Because when you transform journalism in just a business and there is this rush for clicks and for advertising, you end up with just a part of the press existing, and you are very limited there”.

Mihai Voinea from Recorder thinks that the obsession for traffic and the greed of media moguls eroded the industry. “There are many news publications that finance themselves heavily from Google advertising and there you don’t have to do anything else than traffic, there is no other criteria. And when there is no other requirement, clickbait appears because you want to make money to pay the salaries. And that is not press anymore.”

Today, Recorder is supported in overwhelming proportions from funds obtained from readers. The publication managed to reinvent the business model based on donations from the readers and is now a viable example for local media.

A report published in August 2023, six years after the opening of the publication, shows that the income in the previous year was 1.105602 euro and the spendings reached 651.901 euro. Even if the numbers are optimistic for an independent publication, Voinea and Delcea say that the objective is not to increase the salaries, but to reinvest the money and create long-term financial safety.

About the future of journalism in Romania Ioana Avădani thinks that “the moment at which the credibility of the big newsrooms could have been reinstalled passed”. What keeps the audience now close to certain media channels is their capability to deliver entertainment – “the televisions function more as an entertainer than an opinion maker, meaning that I watch you because I like you, but this does not mean I have to trust you. (…) What is missing, and this is the paradox, is the credibility of the journalist as a professional”.

* Newsroom note: The article was edited to reflect with more precision the sums which PressOne pays contributors per piece; the publication only pays 300-500 lei as a starting point.

** Newsroom note: After publishing the piece, Libertatea reached back with a correction on the figures sent and with the clarification that they were talking only about the journalists in the newsroom, not all the employees.

Story edited by Cristian Lupșa

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Andreea Bădoiu

Andreea lucrează în advertising, dar rămâne iremediabil îndrăgostită de jurnalism, de oameni și de poveștile lor. Absolventă de Jurnalism la Universitatea din București, în 2013, a lucrat câțiva ani ca editor tech și apoi ca redactor pentru o publicație online, după care s-a orientat către industriile creative. Continuă să creadă că jurnalismul e cea mai frumoasă meserie din lume și că poveștile ne aduc împreună și ne ajută să fim. Speră să-și păstreze curajul să scrie mai departe și să documenteze subiecte care să-i ajute pe ceilalți să descopere perspective noi.

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