In the hierarchy of Washington Post reporters, Marc Fisher is royalty. Not only does he write a prominent column in the paper’s Metro section, but he also has his own blog, Raw Fisher. When he wants to post some material on washingtonpost.com, Fisher hits a button labeled “Published.” And for doing this, he gets paid extra.
The serfs in the Post newsroom don’t have it quite so good. They kick out journalism across multiple platforms and receive the same old paycheck.
Consider the following saga a reality check for the emerging media age. Earlier this winter, some Post Metro reporters learned that management was plotting to launch a blog on the D.C. political scene. The paper’s Web site already had blogs on Maryland and Virginia politics, so it only made sense to round out the region on the Post site. The D.C. blog, like those for its neighboring states, would be a group thing, compiled by beat reporters for free.
The new blog’s launch didn’t proceed as smoothly as management might have hoped. Around the time the first posts were to fly, D.C. political correspondent Lori Montgomery did some reporting about her own workplace. Among her findings was that some newsroom bloggers were receiving extra compensation.
The staffers asked to delay the blog’s debut, pending an explanation as to why some get paid and others don’t. The answer came straight out of an Office Space management summit: Solo bloggers get paid because their names give the blogs a sense of franchise; group blogs don’t share this dynamic, and there’s less work for each reporter. “What they told us was that a single marquee name like Fisher or [Joel] Achenbach, who has sole responsibility for doing this—they’re the ones who get compensated,” recalls D.C. government-and-politics reporter Eric Weiss.
So the reporters came up with a smart counteroffer: Pay us collectively the blogging salary of one marquee name, and we’ll split it among ourselves. No dice.
Could they simply refuse to blog? Not according to top Metro editor Robert McCartney. In a meeting with the staffers, McCartney explained that Post lawyers had determined that the paper could compel its employees to blog. However, he said, top managers preferred to refer to it as a voluntary duty, so as to buoy newsroom morale. Rick Ehrmann, a representative with Local 32035 of the Washington-Baltimore Newspaper Guild, says that the question of whether blogging is mandatory remains “unsettled.” “We don’t believe that they have the right to require that,” says Ehrmann.
The D.C. staffers never threatened to sit on their hands. D.C. Wire, a compendium of off-the-beat newslets involving key personalities in D.C. politics, launched on Feb. 6. A month into the experiment, it appears that washingtonpost.com is getting what it’s paying for. Because the contributors are constrained by the ethics guidelines of news reporters, they can’t fill the blog with attitude. And because they have to fill the daily paper, the news part of the Web site, and a weekly politics column in the District Extra, there’s not much left over for the blog. As it now stands, the hypothetical D.C. Wire devotee is lucky to get a post once every two days.
Though they’re struggling to contribute to D.C. Wire, these Metro staffers have at least contributed an important item to the meeting agenda of the paper’s top officials. “The question of compensation for online-only contributions to the Web site is something that is being discussed among editors,” says Rajiv Chandrasekaran, assistant managing editor for continuous news. (Jim Brady, executive editor of washingtonpost.com, was unavailable for comment.)
Longtime staffer Achenbach, writer of the Post’s Achenblog, says, “I get some compensation for the blog, and I certainly hope they have a system that’s fair to everyone.”
Fairness, though, is a commodity that may be beyond the Post’s financial reach. On March 10, the paper announced an early-retirement program and other measures designed to cut the 800-plus newsroom staff by about 10 percent. In addition to aiming targeted buyouts at news veterans, management will be declaring open season on byline slackers. Section editors have been asked to identify their least-productive staffers, with an eye toward blasting them in performance reviews. Expect an uptick in unhappy departures from 15th and L over the next year or so.
With an ever-shrinking staff, the Post is undertaking an ever-increasing workload. Later this month, it launches Washington Post Radio, another outlet that will call on Post staffers for contributions. In a recent circular, the Post’s guild unit chronicled the escalation of newsroom demands: “It started with reporters being ‘asked’ to provide Web versions of stories with early and frequent updates. More recently, foreign reporters and others have been ‘asked’ to take time-consuming video clips as well as photos. The call for online ‘chats’ grows louder all the time. And hey, can you do a blog?…Now comes Radio Free Washington Post. ‘Free’ because that is the cost to the Washington Post for much of the labor—our labor—that will fuel this latest venture.” In fairness, Washington Post Radio will compensate certain staff contributions to the station, according to Tina Gulland, the Post’s director of television and radio projects.
All this media diversification has left some staffers wondering where the emphasis falls—on the print product? The Web? Radio? One Post employee put this very question last week to Executive Editor Leonard Downie Jr. in a staff meeting. The paper’s top gun responded that the Post needed to become “platform-agnostic.”
When your 63-year-old editor starts sounding like Esther Dyson, you know your newsroom is changing. The agnosticism of Downie’s dreams is a Post in which reporters feed the company’s various platforms and don’t make too much noise about compensation. (Full disclosure: The Washington City Paper is pulling the same shit with its staff reporters, minus the radio station.)
Overburdened and savvy Post reporters will learn to use the various platforms to their advantage, playing them off against one another. One hint on this front: Talking is easier than writing.
In late January, Reliable Source writers Amy Argetsinger and Roxanne Roberts were doing dry runs for a celebrity blog on washingtonpost.com. The dot-com big shots wanted a freewheeling pop-culture essay up on the site each morning, in large part to broaden the site’s already substantial national audience. The Reliable Sourcers dutifully banged away at prototypes but found the work counterproductive. The national imperative chafed against the columnists’ daily search for gossip on local personalities.
It felt almost as if they were going to pick up another boss. And, indeed, that’s about right: Washingtonpost.com is published by Washingtonpost.Newsweek Interactive, the online subsidiary of the Washington Post Co. To the average Post reader, it all looks like a single monolith, but, in fact, the dot-commers work in Arlington, across the river from the paper’s newsroom. That they would push bloggers in an editorial direction at odds with their day jobs is hardly surprising. “The fact is that they’ve set up this separate company, and we are now being asked to be the staff for that company and [our] own,” says a Post staffer.
Argetsinger and Roberts couldn’t shoulder the additional labor, and the gossip blog never took flight. “I wasn’t sure that what was envisioned would enhance and expand our primary mission, which is to make the printed edition of the Reliable Source great for Washington Post readers,” says Roberts.
Those who don’t get their fill of Argetsinger and Roberts in the paper and in online chats will be able to catch them on Washington Post Radio. Roberts will do a brief gossip rundown for morning drive time, and Argetsinger will pick up the conversation in late afternoon.
Any payola involved? A “nominal fee,” reports Roberts. “I’m thinking an extra venti latte every week. The kitchen renovation is still on hold.”—Erik Wemple