By Steven Pearlstein
Friday, June 2, 2006
We're having plenty of our own Katie Couric moments around the newsroom these days, as 70 or so of our colleagues decide to take up The Post's enticing early retirement offer.
The departures reflect the financial reality of a shrinking base of daily newspaper readers and major advertisers, or, more precisely, the shift of those readers and advertisers to other media. With The Post's pension program overfunded, the company is able to pay for the buyouts without much impact on reported earnings. And in the scheme of things, it's probably a better way to right-size than laying off the young and recently hired.
That said, this one's gonna hurt. The Post hasn't seen a sudden exodus of so much journalistic talent since Ben Bradlee departed from the fifth-floor newsroom in 1991.
Some of those leaving are prize-winning authors, intrepid foreign correspondents, dreamy writers or thoughtful columnists who are well known to readers in Washington and around the country. Others are photographers, researchers and editors who are the unsung heroes of this marvelous daily news machine. Some are leaving this week; others, you will notice, will continue with us for some time.
But here in the Financial section, the buyout will have an especially big impact. Nine of my colleagues in the Business and Real Estate sections will leave, collectively representing 226 years of experience at this newspaper. Over the past 34 years, they have turned out 16,863 stories for the newspaper or the Post Web site. Although seven of them will be replaced, their departures still leave a void.
Sandy Fleishman spent many years on the Style copy desk before hitting her stride as a real estate writer. Her first story, in March 1999, heralded the revival of the "Murphy bed." And it tells you something about Sandy's down-the-middle reporting that she managed to cover the political dogfight over predatory lending laws while earning the respect of both bankers and housing advocates.
Leslie Walker was one of the first Posties to see the potential of online journalism when she jumped from the Maryland desk to edit washingtonpost.com back in 1997. But by her own admission, her last job here in Financial was the most fun, and her weekly columns became the indispensable Baedeker to the World Wide Web, especially for those of us without the instinct to explore it for ourselves.
If you were a Washington politician, Chuck Babcock was one Post reporter you dearly didn't want to hear from. Chuck was the master of uncovering the dirty money in politics, a search that began with Koreagate and Abscam and led eventually to Tony Coelho's junk bonds, John Sununu's plane trips, and the book deals of House speakers Jim Wright and Newt Gingrich. Later, as an editor in Financial, Chuck sometimes saw scandal where the rest of us merely saw old-fashioned honest profit. But in the process, he managed to impart many of his skills as an investigative reporter to a generation of young business reporters.
As she worked her way through Food, Home and Real Estate, editor Nancy McKeon managed to inject sophisticated consumer journalism, jazzy design and whimsy into a newspaper better known for -- well, for other things. So Nancy was the natural choice when The Post decided to gear its Sunday Business section toward consumers, small investors and workers. Some business executives and policymakers grumbled about the change, but when my female friends started mentioning how much they enjoyed it, I knew we had a winner.
Long before Michelle Singletary raised parsimony to a high art, Al Crenshaw was both preaching and practicing it. Nearly every day for 34 years, Al has showed up in the newsroom with the same black lunch pail he's used since grade school. His shrewd instincts about money, taxes, pensions and investing have generated sound advice not only for Post readers, but also for hundreds of Post employees who would consult him on every major financial decision they faced.
No less than a dozen times a year, some hapless editor would wander back to Al's desk, which was surrounded with a three-foot wall of papers, with an urgent request for a story about some arcane topic that had suddenly become the subject of scandal or political debate. You could always see the perverse pleasure on Al's face when he would instantly produce a copy of just that story -- which he had written months or even years before.
You may have noticed last weekend that a couple of other big papers "scooped" The Post with the story that Bush pal Don Evans would be the next Treasury Secretary. We have Paul Blustein to thank for not making that mistake, and lots of others that could easily have been made over the past 19 years. There isn't an economic policy reporter in Washington as knowledgeable, serious and respected as Paul, which I discovered every time I filled in while he was on vacation or book leave.
The high-water mark of Paul's reporting was his coverage of the international financial crisis that began in 1996 in Thailand and then Korea, brought down the Indonesian government, and later threw Russia and much of Latin America into recession. Paul managed to explain this complex story, humanize it and capture its drama in almost two years of daily reporting from financial capitals and small hamlets around the world. His subsequent books, meticulously reported and never refuted, laid much of the blame on the International Monetary Fund and Wall Street investment houses.
Back in the mid-1980s, Frank Lorenzo was the tough-as-nails Texas airline executive who took over Continental and Eastern and took on their powerful unions. But he met his match in The Post's Martha Hamilton, another Texan with a strong populist streak who always knew exactly what Lorenzo was up to, and made sure readers did as well.
As a reporter, Martha will always be remembered for her superb coverage of the bankruptcy and demise of Eastern Airlines. But in the newsroom, she'll be remembered for an extraordinary act of personal kindness and friendship: donating one of her kidneys to save the life of auto writer Warren Brown.
One of the hazards of business reporting is that you sometimes have to write about Post advertisers. And at one point, none was bigger than the venerable Woodward & Lothrop department store. That didn't faze Caroline Mayer, our first full-time retail reporter. Her editor, Frank Swoboda, recalls that during a protracted takeover battle for Woodies in the 1980s, he could set his watch by the 9:30 daily phone call from chief executive Ed Hoffman to complain about "Miss Smarty Pants" and to suggest she would be better suited to the Style section.
As it turned out, Caroline later did spend a few years as a food writer before returning to Financial as a consumer reporter, to the chagrin of shady financial advisers, toy manufacturers and food companies. And let me add that you haven't lived until you've heard Caroline dress down some corporate flack or regulatory official for refusing to answer a simple question.
Nobody in the Business section knows and remembers more about more things than Jerry Knight. Jerry has been a reporter, columnist, deputy business editor and TV personality, covering everything from the S&L crisis and the SEC to local business and real estate development.
But of all his 3,429 bylines, the one I remember best came during the takeover craze of the late 1980s, when Jerry compared his debt-financed purchase of a BMW to the leveraged buyout of RJR Nabisco.
"Car salesmen are just investment bankers with white shoes," Jerry wrote. "Undercoating, underwriting, it's all the same. The invisible hand of the free market gets into your pocket one way or another." It was vintage Jerry -- well informed, nicely turned and more than a bit cynical.
I'd be kidding you if I said nobody will notice once all this experience walks out the door. In fact, the departures of Sandy, Chuck, Leslie, Nancy, Al, Paul, Martha, Caroline and Jerry will leave a gaping hole in our institutional memory, with entire areas of coverage that must now be learned.
But at the same time, these departures open the way for a new generation of writers and editors to redefine business journalism at the Post -- one that not only will accommodate the dramatic changes in technology, but will also accommodate the very real changes in what readers want and need. They haven't quite figured it out yet. But they're definitely on the case.
Steven Pearlstein can be reached email@example.com.