Washington Post execs who venture into the newsroom these days get a quick reminder of their summer battle with Local 32035 of the Washington-Baltimore Newspaper Guild: At least six signs and a smattering of pro-union balloons line the entrance. “Fair Pay—Not Peanuts,” says a prominently placed placard.

The desks around the entry happen to be the work space for the paper’s obituary writers, who stand as a collectivist bulwark against the bargaining-table demands of Post management.

“The obit staffers are among the livelier activists in the newsroom,” says Rick Weiss, a staff writer and co-chair of the guild’s bargaining unit.

No surprise, then, that the obituary pod played a central role in a recent clash between rank-and-file employees and the ham-fisted Post bosses. For several weeks this spring, some security guards confiscated union signs and other propaganda straight off the desks of guild members. Obit writer Graeme Zielinski says the paper’s cops twice nabbed his signs.

“Someone had instructed the security guards to do this. I had them taken off my desk….It’s low-rent behavior on their part,” says Zielinski, who says that other staffers had tugs-of-war with guards over union materials. The confiscation binge jibes with a broader thought-control policy at the Post, which initially balked at the distribution of union circulars in the newsroom and has objected to the use of company e-mail for updates to guild membership.

Post spokesperson Eric Grant bristles at suggestions that management ordered the sign-trashing. “The security guards acted on their own,” he says. “By mistake, some were taken by security staff, but when management became apprised, they immediately directed the security staff not to do it….There was a miscommunication.” Zielinski confirms that the guards have stopped their depredations.

So these days the obit crowd works away in the company of the First Amendment. The obituary section is perhaps the only part of the paper with 100 percent union adherence. Elsewhere, obit departments are traditionally dumping grounds for a paper’s dead weight, a place for underachieving writers who need every job protection on their union’s wish list.

Obit staffer Claudia Levy insists that such notions don’t apply at the Post. “The majority of people working here are happy to be here,” says Levy of the six-person shop. “This is a really good assignment; it’s endlessly fascinating.” Colleague Bart Barnes similarly notes that he’s “never…been treated unfairly.”

Managing Editor Steve Coll says of the pod: “If you look at the space or resources that we commit to the obit section itself, you’d have to conclude that this is an essential part of the daily newspaper. It’s a really good group on the whole.”

Yet obit writers do appear to inhabit the lower rung of the Post’s two-caste system, which divides those who receive the paper’s merit pay increases from those who must limp along on measly cost-of-living adjustments. According to guild figures, nearly 70 percent of the paper’s newsroom and commercial staff received no merit pay bump in the recently expired three-year guild contract.

Levy reports one merit raise in her 12 years at the obit desk but doesn’t recall when it was. “It was just a couple of bucks a week,” she says. Zielinski hasn’t gotten a merit boost. “I don’t expect any for the duration of my career,” he says. Barnes, an 18-year obituary veteran, says he did receive a merit pay increase over the past three years. “I haven’t had many [merit raises],” says Barnes, “but I have had some.” (The three other obit staffers were unavailable for comment.)

For its nonmeritorious majority of staffers, the Post is offering 1 percent to 3 percent pay raises—a sticking point that explains in part why the two sides continue butting heads two months after the expiration of the last contract. Post management won’t address the nitty-gritty of the bargaining process: “We have made some progress, and we remain committed to reaching an agreement as quickly as possible,” says Grant.

Word from the guild isn’t quite as rosy. In a meeting last week, union members endorsed a new round of agitation against management. In addition to pocketbook issues, members were peeved that the Post wants to amend the contract to facilitate the process by which staffers leave the union. Among the likely protest measures is a byline strike of greater duration than the two-day version in early June.

Obituary writers won’t need much coaxing to climb aboard. Says Barnes: “Claudia is probably 120 percent union. Graeme Zielinski, he’s probably 120 percent. I’m about 90 percent or 85 percent. If you add it up, it’s probably 100 percent.”

Playing Catch

Last month, the New Yorker reported on turmoil at the Washington bureau of the New York Times under Executive Editor Howell Raines. Among Raines’ controversial moves was blocking the planned ascension of veteran reporter Todd Purdum to the prestigious post of chief Washington correspondent. Purdum, who has worked at the Times for nearly 20 years, was appointed instead to cover the State Department.

So the talent-hungry Post management chartered a poaching expedition. According to well-placed sources, Purdum is discussing a job change with the Post. One knowledgeable Post source said that if Purdum decides to switch, he’ll be allowed to cover what he pleases at the Post.

An open-ended offer would be savvy managing for the Post, which needs more voices with range for its often flat front page. Purdum, the former Los Angeles bureau chief for the Times, is a utility player who has covered everything from municipal politics to the White House to pop culture.

When asked about the reported recruitment, Coll responded, “I’ve got nothing to say about that.”

Purdum said: “I don’t feel comfortable commenting on private discussions with journalistic friends and colleagues, wherever they work.”

Smokin’ Ain’t Allowed in School

During President Bush’s vacation last August in Crawford, Texas, the White House press corps set up camp in the gym of the Crawford Elementary School. At some point during the press’s monthlong stay, according to three school officials, a pair of reporters fired up cigarettes on school grounds. The smoke wafted into classrooms, prompting complaints from teachers.

That’s the provenance of a new set of press restrictions adopted July 15 by the Crawford Independent School District, in advance of this August’s presidential visit. “There will be NO smoking or use of any tobacco products on school property. Use of tobacco products on school property is a violation of State law,” reads one of the nine rules for the school, whose classes start each year in mid-August.

“I’d hate for you to make a big story about that, but [the press] would prefer a place to smoke,” says Kenneth Judy, superintendent of the Crawford Independent School District.

Other restrictions limit press to “designated restroom facilities” and require display of a press badge at all times. Compliance with the rules shouldn’t be too hard for the White House pressies, who have learned all about limited access from the Bush PR machine.

In fact, Crawford residents appear to harbor feelings about the media that Bush administration officials attribute to middle America. At a June 24 Crawford school board meeting, for instance, a parent complained: “Children have to chase balls that go out of the playground into areas where press corps are and where they are out of eye sight [sic] of teachers,” according to a school system document.

“I thought it was a pretty happy little situation,” says USA Today White House reporter Judy Keen.

Back to the Future

In the summer blockbuster Minority Report, a District resident on a sunny morning walks out his front door and grabs his freshly delivered newspaper. It’s a USA Today.

In the real-world District, that scene is about as common as the movie’s central theme: D.C. cops stopping crime before it happens. According to the Audit Bureau of Circulations, USA Today has about 11,000 individually paid subscriptions in the city—a tally that excludes the critical hotel-guest crowd.

The Post, meanwhile, has 138,869 D.C. subs.

So how did the Post get scooped? The explanation starts with the movie’s sci-fi setting. The Dreamworks SKG film starring Tom Cruise depicts D.C. in the high-tech world of 2054, a conceit custom-made for USA Today’s sleek pie-chart journalism and monopoly on the short attention span.

Another factor: USA Today has an agent in Hollywood, Norm Marshall & Associates. According to USA Today spokesperson Heidi Henderson, the agent scours scripts and summations of TV shows in search of branding opportunities for the paper. In Minority Report, says Henderson, the arrangement yielded 19 seconds of exposure for the paper in three scenes. “We don’t pay anything for the placement,” she says.

One of the scenes depicts a Metro passenger reading an edition of USA Today with a local crime scoop, the bread and butter of Post coverage. Editor-cum-moviegoer Coll scoffed that the story wasn’t USA Today fare and cringed at the subway scene: “It pissed me off that we weren’t there on the Metro, as we are in fact.”

The Post has no Hollywood presence and merely reviews product placement requests that come in over the transom. “We don’t aggressively pursue placement in the movies,” says Grant. The paper’s passivity vis-a-vis celluloid seems ill-placed for an institution whose spot in pop culture was cemented by the 1976 movie All the President’s Men, which depicted the Post’s Watergate heroics.

Grant says the existing approach has netted a recent placement on the History Channel and a plug in a remake of the late-’60s TV series Family Affair. CP