When the topic of compensation comes up at the Washington Post, resentment can’t be far behind. In three-year cycles, for example, the paper’s newsroom union wrestles with management over the penny-ante raises that the company puts on the table. Reporters may picket in the street and eventually accept some meager compromise.
Post execs have set aside that model for their recently unveiled Voluntary Retirement Incentive Program (VRIP). This time, they’re opening the bank vault and inviting 55-and-older Posties to help themselves.
The result is more labor-management bonhomie than a Pulitzer party. “It’s extremely generous,” says Post columnist Bob Levey, 58, of the VRIP.
Levey claims that he’s taking a hard look at the package, which he and about 120 other Post newsroom staffers were offered last week. (It applies to a roughly equal number of commercial employees.) “It’s completely in the middle of the air,” he says.
The proposal carries terms that could get even the most deeply dug-in scribes to take a hard look at freelancing. Here are some of the perks on the table:
•A big payday. For eligible staffers with 30 years of service, the Post would dole out a lump-sum payment of two years’ salarya check that for many early-outers might hit the $200,000 range. Those with less hard time at 15th and L Streets would get smaller lumps; a 10-year vet, for instance, would carry one year’s pay out the door.
•More money faster. Your average 60-year-old Postie would be entitled to a pension equivalent to 80 percent of a convoluted “accrued benefit” if she’d retired last month. With the new plan, however, that same employee would get 100 percent, thanks to a “pension enhancement” clause.
•Good health. The package offers medical plans for retirees “with the same category of coverage in which they are currently enrolled as active employees.”
Early-retirement programs are usually an industry strategy for clearing away aging and expensive dead-weighterstired journos who don’t produce for the daily. The generous numbers in the Post offer suggest that the paper is willing to make a big investment to get a more productive staff. Yet that picture doesn’t quite fit the facts. Some of the Post’s most productive reporters, in fact, are now looking over offer sheets.
Take reporter Al Kamen. He’s 57 and writes the “In the Loop” column, a consistently superb feat of writing and reporting that’s become a mainstay among government-centric Washington readers. It’s a great gig that Kamen would never dream of abandoning, unless…
“I had no intention of leaving, but this offer came down. It would be foolish not to look at it,” says Kamen.
Other staffers looking at big clusters of zeros include: Jerry Knight, 61, a business reporter who does a weekly column in the paper, five weekly columns for Washingtonpost.com, and 10 weekly TV appearances; John Berry, 65, a financial reporter who has covered the Federal Reserve for almost 25 years; Henry Allen, 62, a Style editor, Pulitzer Prize winner, and one of the paper’s leading feature writers; and Levey, whose column has appeared five days a week for 23 years.
Not all the aging all-stars will head for the door. Knight, for one, says retirement looks like a grim alternative to his hectic Post world. “I am having a lot of fun,” he says. Yet management’s largess for graying staffers has sparked some fears of a mass exodus. “It’ll be like a 10 percent layoff, only everybody will he happy,” says one reporter. Other staffers speak of a complete “reinvention” of the Post product.
Post Publisher Bo Jones dismisses the notion of a 10 percent staff reduction. The plan would have to be mighty popular, he suggests, to make much of a dent in the 900-strong newsroom staff. Far from a cube-emptying offensive, says Jones, the program will enable the paper to shift resources to emerging newsroom priorities. “No matter what, we will spend more on the newsroom next year than this year,” says Jones. Total newsroom expenses, reports Jones, are over $100 million.
That number isn’t inflated by early-out expenses, either. Cash for the VRIP comes not from the paper’s operating budget, but rather from pension funds.
The sacrosanct newsroom kitty may help explain why Post Executive Editor Leonard Downie OK’d the VRIP. Downie reports that he had opposed previous newsroom early-out plans. “There’s never been one in the newsroom before, because I haven’t agreed to it,” says Downie. “In this case…I saw it as a way for some of the older people in the newsroom in any event to have a richer retirement.”
The richer retirees must clear out by Dec. 31. On Jan. 2, readers may pick up a brand-new Washington Postone with a few gaping holes in coverage. Editors may try to patch them by filling the slots with new hires.
The Post could also offer contracts to the dearly departed, a gravy train worthy of Condé Nast. Under this plan, takers would need an accountant just to keep track of all their income streams: the lump-sum payment for leaving, the pension for doing nothing, and contract payments to keep doing the work they did before. “If there were to be a contract, it would not be for the salary one is currently earning,” says Downie.
Through it all, a stealth factor may keep turnover to a minimum. “You’ve got all these spouses saying, ‘I don’t want your ass sitting around all day,’” says one Post reporter.
Take a Knee
Back in 1999, Sheri Annis injured her left knee in a skiing accident. The mishap occurred on the first run of the day. “I took a bad turn,” says Annis. So she recently underwent knee surgery at the Washington Hospital Center. There, she ran into a staffer from the Washington Times doing a feature story titled “Women and wounded knees.”
Annis consented to allowing the Times to photograph her surgerygauze, scopes, stitches, and all. The resulting photos showed up in a Nov. 4 spread on the front page of the Metro section. The accompanying caption read, in part:
“Final stitches signal the end of the surgery for this patient, who injured her leg while sky-diving.”
Skiing, sky-divinghey, it’s all the same, right? Both involve heights, high-impact landings, and a love for the great outdoors.
After the feature hit the streets, LeRoy Tillman, a media-relations executive at the hospital, alerted a Times editor to the mistake. “She apologized for it, but I don’t know whether or not they’re planning to run a correction,” said Tillman a couple of days after the piece ran.
Still, a mystery remained: How did the Times come up with this sky-diving thing? Neither Annis nor Tillman had mentioned anything about jumping out of airplanes. “I’m guessing that the Washington Times somehow made this up. It sounds more sensational than slipping on a banana peel,” said Annis.
Annis subsequently received a competing version of events from a Times editor: The photographer for the story apparently had written in her notes that the knee injury was sustained in a “skying” accidenta mistake attributed to a language barrier. Caption writers then interpreted this odd word as shorthand for “sky-diving.”
In her conversation with the Times official, Annis got the impression that the paper was trying to wiggle out of a correction. “He was trying to get me to say this is a nonissue. He said, ‘Do you think this is a big deal?’” says Annis, who works as a political media consultant.
Annis insisted that the error warranted a correction. The next day, the Times complied, attributing the confusion to “an editorial transcribing error.”
Breaking Down Barriers
Ask any big shot at the Post about the boundary between editorial and news divisions, and get ready for a sermon. The hallowed division inspires the loftiest of metaphors in the paper’s newsroom. A few years ago, Downie reported that employees “irreverently” refer to it as “the separation between church and state.” And Downie also cited the paper’s standards code, which states, “[T]he separation of news columns from the editorial and opposite-editorial pages is solemn and complete.”
Put an asterisk by the complete part.
An Oct. 28 front-page obit on the District’s first elected mayor, Walter Washington, was a joint project between the news and editorial departments. Deputy Managing Editor Milton Coleman, a co-author of the story, offered a draft to Deputy Editorial Page Editor Colbert I. King. “I asked Colby to look at itnot because he’s on the editorial page, but because he’s familiar with Walter Washington. If I were reporting on Walter Washington now, I’d interview [King],” says Coleman.
According to Metro editor Jo-Ann Armao, King eyeballed the story and offered edits that the news desk incorporated into the final version. “The problem was when changes were made at Colby’s suggestion without any oversight on our part,” says Armao.
Granted, the influence from editorial didn’t conform to popular conspiracy theories about a porous fire wallwhich generally involve liberal crusaders on the editorial board pushing their news colleagues to bash those Republicans at every turn.
Post brass, nonetheless, get superserious when the fire wall is breached, then broached: “I cannot justify what happened. It was wrong,” says Armao.
Downie: “It’s a mistake only in terms of our own particular rules at the Washington Post.”
King: “I’m not saying anything.”
Prod and Poke
Daily-newspaper editors have obsessed for ages over strategies to pry great work from their underlings. And for Ashley Halsey, the Post’s editor for Maryland news, the quest continues.
Last April, Halsey sent his reporters a message bemoaning a spell of low productivity: “With the noon [editorial] meeting 35 minutes away, I’m wondering what each of you might be doing that warrants your continued employment but will produce nothing for the daily paper.” Ouch.
Another drought hit the Maryland desk in late October, and Halsey again went caustic: “What great work are you in the midst of that will reassure me we aren’t a bunch of fuck ups?” asked the editor in another message.
Again, not necessarily inspiring words. Yet in any rough-and tumble newsroom, Halsey’s exhortation wouldn’t merit a second look.
But this is the exquisitely refined Washington Post, where a swear word all but triggers binding arbitration. According to Post sources, gripes over this mild incident reached the corporate human-resources office as well as a newsroom labor-union rep. Armao says she was “concerned” that “people were upset” about the message. That said, she was “surprised that people in the newsroom would be offended by an obscenity.”
Halsey initially suggested that the complaints stemmed from the angst of the disgruntled. “There’s an agenda out there and this fits into that agenda,” he said. But he later said that he should have thought a bit more about wording. “This was me being stupid,” he said.
The staff got this mea culpa several days after the “fuck-up” missive: “No, we’re not a bunch of screw ups! (to anyone who thought that was a serious suggestion and thus took understandable umbrage, my apology.).”
When the Post’s Sunday Source debuted in April, it had an identity problem. Was it a Weekend section for the week? An easier-to-read Home section? An unapologetic sop to advertisers?
Concerns about the section’s purpose peaked several weeks after its start, when its brain trust sent out a message to Post staffers soliciting story ideas. One staffer even wisecracked in a return message that the section was already “fresh out” of ideas.
How wrong that naysayer was. The Sunday Source, it’s now clear, hadn’t run out of ideas. Nor will it soon. That’s because it’s done a pioneering job of stretching the very idea of what constitutes an idea. This past Sunday’s edition tells it all.
First off, it provided advice on running with your dog, complete with tips on route planning and the often overlooked notion that dogs need water, too. Critical warning: “If [your dog is] hanging back, panting heavily, taking short, awkward strides or seems reluctant to get up after a break, stop.”
And then came the primer on “How To Treat Chapped Lips.” The keys here are to refrain from licking your lips and to apply lip balm. But that’s just a crude capsule of the 520-word Sunday Source piece, which addressed all manner of hydration and prevention issues.
“I had no idea that you were supposed to exfoliate your lips. Maybe I’m behind,” says Sunday Source editor Sandy Fernandez. Erik Wemple