Post Buyouts Come With an Emotional Cost
Monday, May 26, 2008
Let's not bury the lead: This is a rough time for the newspaper business, a rough time for The Washington Post and a rough time for me.
No one need shed any tears for the people leaving this building. The more than 100 journalists who have just taken early-retirement packages are voluntarily accepting a generous offer as the company trims its payroll -- a situation far better than at newspapers that have resorted to layoffs.
But it is painful to watch from the inside. The talented reporters, editors and photographers walking out the door are part of the heart and soul of a living, breathing organism. How do you replace a Tom Ricks, one of the best Pentagon reporters ever? Or a Sue Schmidt, the investigative reporter who revealed Jack Abramoff's dirty dealings? Or Robin Wright, who's covered the Middle East for a quarter-century? What about battle-scarred editors with deep knowledge and a light touch?
I know, I know. The future is digital. The Web is a cornucopia of fast-moving video and blogs and bulletins and gossip, while newspapers are old, slow and less than hip. That's why The Post (and every other paper on the planet) is beefing up its online presence and why I write a daily blog for the Web site.
But -- and stop me if you've heard this one -- newspapers matter. There isn't a Web site around that can produce the probing work, such as the exposé of shoddy conditions at the Army's Walter Reed Medical Center, that won The Post six Pulitzer Prizes this year. The economics of the Web, for now, won't support a staff that can hold public officials accountable across the region and still cover every Nationals game. So I cling to an old-fashioned, almost mystical belief in the power of ink on paper.
With advertising revenue sinking and classified competition from the likes of Craigslist, newspaper market values are taking a hit. Avista Capital Partners, which bought the Minneapolis Star Tribune 14 months ago, recently had to write down 75 percent of its investment. The purchase price had been $530 million; the previous owner, McClatchy Newspapers, paid $1.2 billion for the paper in 1998.
Maybe newspapers got overstaffed during the fat years, and the departure of some age-50-and-over staffers (those eligible for the Post buyout) will clear the way for the hiring of younger (and cheaper) employees. But we are working harder than ever, in part because of the round-the-clock demands of the Web; Post campaign reporters are constantly writing online items for The Trail column in addition to their daily stories. So to suggest that a shrinkage of the Post newsroom from the equivalent of 780 full-time employees to 680 -- offset by perhaps 20 new hires -- won't affect the range and quality of what we do is simply unrealistic. (Another 100 work in the washingtonpost.com newsroom.) And, following a peak of 900 employees, this is the third round of buyouts in five years.
Some colleagues are in transition. David Broder, who at 78 still pursues politics with great vigor, will keep writing his column under contract. Tony Kornheiser, who will contribute to the Web site, had reduced his sportswriting role in recent years as he became an ESPN and radio star and co-host of "Monday Night Football."
Others would have left regardless for new jobs or book contracts. John Harris and Jim VandeHei decamped last year to create the instantly successful Politico.com. And you could staff an all-star team with working journalists who once graced The Post's pages: David Remnick, Malcolm Gladwell, Steve Coll, Gwen Ifill, Mike Isikoff, Kate Boo, Mark Leibovich, Elisabeth Bumiller, Glenn Frankel, David Von Drehle. But talented hires keep replenishing the staff.
What makes this a particularly unsettling time are the high-level vacancies. Deb Heard, the veteran editor who runs Style, is taking the buyout, leaving at year's end. The job of running the national staff has been open since Susan Glasser was ousted last month amid complaints about her management style (prompting the resignation of her husband, the superb White House correspondent Peter Baker, who joined the New York Times Magazine). My dogged editor, Peter Kaufman, will be leaving, too. And barely an hour goes by without an unsubstantiated blog post that Len Downie, the executive editor for the past 17 years, is about to retire any second. But this much is true: The new publisher, Katharine Weymouth, 41, has begun to search for a successor.
"I've expected ever since she got this job that eventually a new publisher should have a new editor," says Downie, 66. "I wouldn't be surprised if she wanted an editor of her own generation."
Among those reported to be under consideration are Newsweek Editor Jon Meacham; Marcus Brauchli, the recently deposed editor of the Wall Street Journal; Post Managing Editor Phil Bennett; and columnist David Ignatius, a former financial and foreign editor at the paper.