Post Buyouts Come With an Emotional Cost

By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
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 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 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.

As for those leaving, Downie says, "We hate to see them go," but they are being provided with "a really good financial situation" in terms of severance, pension and health benefits.

Downie says the reductions are part of a newsroom restructuring that will reduce the layers of editors on each story -- particularly copy editors -- and that the paper will still do a little hiring. Some operations will be merged, such as the Health section and daily health coverage, he says. And selected reporting beats will be eliminated as The Post concentrates on what it does best, including politics and investigative work.

"Some people occupy jobs that are just no longer needed, or will be done a different way in a restructured newsroom," Downie says. The question for each beat, he says: "Is it journalistically important, and is it attracting sufficient readership?"

In a note to the staff, Weymouth, a granddaughter of Katharine Graham, said: "The ways in which we break news and tell stories will continue to evolve and change as technology and readers' habits evolve and change. The challenge is at once daunting and thrilling: reinventing the newspaper -- in some senses, the news itself -- for a new century."

The mission facing The Post is much like that at other papers: give people a compelling reason to buy the product. Newspapers were painfully slow to comprehend that the old regimen of dull, insider stories and mediocre features had to change and be packaged more creatively.

In one sense, the Web is a blessing. Daily circulation for the newsprint Post, now 673,000, may be down from 813,000 in 2000, but we are drawing an eye-opening 9.4 million unique visitors online each month, 85 percent of them from outside the D.C. circulation area. Those readers don't bring in the cash that print subscribers do -- given the gotta-be-free mentality of the Web -- but they do expand our reach.

The ticking time bomb here is the wholesale abandonment of newspapers by younger people who grew up with a point-and-click mentality. When I was speaking at Harvard recently, a smug graduate student said, "I get everything I need from YouTube. What are you going to do about it?"

"What are you going to do about it?" I shot back. If people want to tune out the news, no one can compel them to change their habits. We can be smarter, faster and jazzier in providing information, but we can't force-feed the stuff. If newspapers wither and die, it will be in part because the next generation blew us off in favor of Xbox and Wii and full-length movies on their iPods. Network news faces the same erosion. Maybe, in the end, we get the media we deserve.

The Post has proven to be an awfully resilient place over the years. And if we have to do more with less, well, welcome to the global economy. After pondering the offer, I decided: I'll badly miss the people who are leaving, but I'm staying put.

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