The news that the Washington Post is offering another round of buyouts only narrowly qualifies as news. Just last month, after all, departing newsroom web boss Raju Narisetti told a group of journos that the Post would have to lose 100 newsroom slots in the next two years. Also: numbers have been tough on the Post.
While some may say this is the fifth buyout in a decade, it’s actually the fifth memorandum-ized, official buyout in a decade. A quiet, un-memorandumized buyout hit the newsroom last fall.
It’s all lamentable, including the language with which Post management chooses to package the announcement. Again.
Back in 2009, Executive Editor Marcus Brauchli memo’d a buyout with these words, in part:
While the pressures upon us will continue we are confident that with such efforts from all of us, we will emerge as a stronger organization prepared to meet the challenges ahead.
In today’s memo, Brauchli circles back to the similar language:
Our objective is a limited staff reduction that won’t affect the quality, ambition or authority of our journalism. We believe this is possible, given the changes in how we work and the great successes we have had building our digital readership lately.
For a manager whose success relies on keeping his newsroom motivated, those lines send a destructive message: Some of you sitting in our vast cubey expanse are dead weight. We can do better without you.
When that intepretation was put to Brauchli today, moments before he stepped into a town-hall meeting with newsroom staff to discuss the buyout, the executive editor responded, “I wouldn’t put it that way exactly, but clearly we did feel there were coverage areas where we could afford to absorb reductions. In general we want to maintain a strong newsroom across all of our core areas.” Those areas, says Brauchli, correlate to “what you’d expect a Washington Post reader to care most about.” He repeated a point of much institutional pride of recent weeks — the surging performance of the paper’s Web site, an achievement that he has celebrated through use of the Post’s all-staff electronic mail function.
And here’s where the disconnect surfaces. As a leader, it’s tough to credit the great work of the entire organization one day, only to state the next that it’d thrive more as a smaller organization. It’s the sort of claim that distracts a newsroom from its SEO responsibilities.
What the memo contemplates is a grim dynamic: “We plan to distribute [buyout] packages to eligible employees in a few weeks.” Great! Brauchli notes that, unlike previous packages, these will be offered to Post employees of all age groups, meaning that a large swath of the newsroom can spend at least three weeks freaking out.
There’s no particular reduction in the newsroom head count, currently around 600, that management aspires to reach via this exercise, says Brauchli. “We don’t have a target. Everything is subject to negotiation with the [Washington-Baltimore Newspaper] Guild in terms of who’s eligible,” says Brauchli. But what about that 100-in-two-years thing that Narisetti threw out there in January? “That’s nothing,” says Brauchli. “First of all, I was never was able to figure out where that came from. And this wouldn’t . . . make a dent in something like that.”
The upside of this announcement is that it’s an announcement, as contrasted with the stealthier reduction-in-force that went down late last year. That initiative, according to a circular from the Guild, the union that represents Post newsroom employees, nudged out “at least thirteen people through layoffs, coerced buyouts or outright dismissal on dubious charges.” Wonder if they told those people, too, that it was all a plan to get stronger.
Update: Here’s a statement from Fredrick Kunkle, a representative from the Post’s newsroom guild.
We’re in shock, like everybody else, particularly in light of Marcus’ recent reassurances that Raju was inaccurate in predicting large reductions over the next two years. We don’t know the target numbers yet, but from Marcus’ note, this would seem to be a fairly big cut. It’s also disconcerting in light of the phenomenal papers we’ve produced this week, with the investigative stories on Congress, DeBonis’ front page tale of corruption in DC, and Sheinin’s beautiful piece about the sailor in Sports. The best thing you can say about this is that they have backed away from their previous strategy of back alley buyouts, which involved trumping up performance issues against some folks to try to squeeze them out, and asked for volunteers. But it also raises more alarms about an issue the Guild has been hammering for three years, including during contract talks. And that’s that you cannot continue to cut your way to profitability alone, or offer readers less - and not just in quantity of the report, but its quality and sophistication in all sections - and expect the public to pay more. Yet we seem to be heading toward a model like Huffpo or Patch that relies on interns, freelancers, free content from citizen bloggers, and aggregation at the expense of original journalism created by experienced journalists. And that’s a sad path for a place that has long enjoyed a reputation for excellence.