Newsday staffers are up in arms over what many view as a grave threat to their constitutional right to gossip -- the elimination of the computer message system for virtually all reporters.
For years, staff members sitting at their computer terminals have simply pressed a button to send queries, bulletins and insults back and forth, even between the Manhattan and Long Island offices. Newsday executives say they pulled the plug on these messages, except for editors, because 150 staffers have complained of repetitive motion injuries, a severe wrist strain caused by excessive keyboard strokes.
"It's idiotic," says Newsday columnist Jim Dwyer. "This is such a stupid and earnest decision it can only have been done by a committee dedicated to good deeds. How am I supposed to gossip with people on the other side of the room? This is a big building. It's a travesty.
"We're not used to speaking to each other in person. We're used to speaking by computer. All I get now are messages telling us to get our copy in on time. Who wants to read that?"
James Toedtman, managing editor of New York Newsday, says employee health was the only consideration, although he could not say whether messages made up more than a tiny fraction of the typing workload. "If instead of sending a message to someone you get up and talk to them, that provides a break from the routine," Toedtman says. "This was not a punitive thing or an attempt at time efficiency."
Others noted that the incident that led to columnist Jimmy Breslin's suspension last spring for shouting racial slurs at an Asian American reporter began when the reporter sent him a critical computer message. Sources say there are two instances where staffers have been fired over wayward messages, one involving an editor whose critical remarks about his boss somehow got printed out, photocopied and distributed around the newsroom.
"It's like being in East Germany when they took the Xerox machines away," one staffer says of the ban. But Toedtman cheerfully insists that "subversive communications are as old as the newspaper business."
The Wall Street Journal, which often chronicles corporate "downsizing," is itself trying to slim down. Sources say the paper, which has already imposed a salary freeze, has offered early-retirement packages to a half-dozen senior staff members, and that at least three -- two Page 1 editors and a veteran writer -- have accepted.
The Journal is also moving its European and Asian copy desks to New York, which will affect 21 employees in Brussels and Hong Kong. "We're going to be offering jobs to most of them," says spokesman Roger May, adding that the paper wants to put more resources into foreign reporting. Nevertheless, the New Delhi bureau chief for the paper's Asian edition will be replaced by a stringer, and one of two reporters will be dropped from the Seoul bureau.
"There's a mood of incredible apprehension," says one Journal insider, citing the persistent rumors about layoffs. "It just destroys the whole sense of camaraderie."
Meanwhile, Business Week, the nation's largest business magazine, has laid off 10 reporters and editors and closed two bureaus, in Denver and Sao Paolo, Brazil.
The McGraw-Hill publication, which has a circulation of nearly 1 million, says pink slips were prompted by a nearly 10 percent drop in advertising pages.
"There's a very serious recession going on in the media business," says Editor in Chief Stephen Shepard. He says he told his staff that "if you were writing a story about a company called Business Week ... you'd conclude this is a company that needs to cut costs."
The magazine still has 260 staff members and 24 bureaus. "Without minimizing the problem, we're still very large and very strong," Shepard says.
The color photo of Honda's Acura NSX practically races off the front page of USA Today, boosted by high-octane prose that launches the "road rocket" into the rhetorical stratosphere.
"The race-tuned engine unleashes a primal howl. ... The interior is a leather womb ... so easy to drive ... naughty looks, athletic handling, Boy Scout behavior ... cat-quick reflexes and sports-car acceleration," reports automotive writer James R. Healey. In fact, he says, the $60,000 car is so good it's "scary."
While other newspapers, including The Washington Post, have praised the NSX, it is rare for such a spread to appear on the front page. Healey says there has been a lot of "hysteria" about the car and that he was simply "taking note of a phenomenon that's out there."
"People talked about whether it was too promotional," says USA Today Editor Peter Prichard. But, he says, "It's just one of those gee-whiz reader features we do from time to time."
Prichard says the story was inspired by an Arlington executive who parks his NSX in the garage of the paper's building. While Prichard would not personally buy an NSX, calling it "clearly overpriced," he says the story's gushing tone was justified because it is "basically a review."
Honda is one of the paper's advertisers, but "so are all the car companies," Prichard says. Besides, "we've found that when we put cars on the front page, we sell more newspapers."