For generations, editors everywhere have barked out two basic orders to their underlings: (1) Get out of the office and (2) work the phones. The reporters’ job has been to figure out how to obey those conflicting imperatives at the same time—a challenge neatly solved by the cell phone.
The Washington Post values this technological breakthrough, and the accompanying boost to reportorial enterprise, as much as the next paper. It just has second thoughts about paying for it.
Earlier this year, Post Assistant Managing Editor for Planning and Administration Shirley Carswell informed employees that the paper had “struggled to control [cell phone] costs while providing staffers ready access to company cell phones.” Phone costs were one of the “fastest-rising budget items in Newsroom spending,” Carswell wrote in a January memo. In an interview, Carswell declined to specify how much money the phones were costing.
The paper’s solution: stiff hard-working reporters. Although its new, cost-efficient plan pays the cellular bills of 24-7 personnel such as police reporters and photographers, other staffers who rely on their cells get a separate deal. Where it once paid for all business calls, the paper now forks over a subsidy of just $15 per month.
The policy has prompted a revolt among communication-conscious reporters, who are now appealing the issue to Post management. “It’s just ridiculous,” says a writer who asks to remain anonymous.
Another staffer, whose business
cell-phone bills occasionally reach $200 a month, has given up on even claiming the $15. “What’s the point?” the reporter asks. Says a third anonymous staff reporter, “I’m basically subsidizing a very rich company.”
The parsimony, say reporters, would be fine if cell phones hadn’t become standard journalistic equipment. But these days, editors have come to expect reporters to be reachable at all times. In preparation for the April globalization protests in D.C., for instance, Post management noted in an April 16 memo, “[W]e plan to use the bureau phones or reporters’ personal phones in the field during these demonstrations.”
National-section editor Liz Spayd understands the rank-and-file angst. “It’s like giving a tax cut and then taking it back,” she says, adding that the high costs warranted a policy change.
Partially in deference to staffer protests, the policy still hasn’t been fully implemented, says Carswell. According to staffers, Carswell has agreed to review an employee proposal that would have the paper paying a greater share of business calls.
“Whenever we change rules, we can’t be sure how it will affect everybody,” says Executive Editor Leonard Downie.
What’s My Line?
From the start of talks this spring with its newsroom union, Post brass have made one thing clear: These are bad times, and you’re not getting big raises. Over the three-year term of the contract now under negotiation, the Post has insisted on yearly pay hikes as low as 1 percent. Vis-a-vis inflation and the Washington area’s real-estate trends, the proposal amounts to a cut in earning power.
Two weeks ago, the paper’s management thought it had a package that would sew up the negotiations. It made a significant concession on pension contributions and a piddly offer on wages—specifically, increasing a proposed lump-sum bonus from $1,050 to $1,100 and raising pay an extra 10 bucks per week starting in 2003. Three additional $10 hikes would be sprinkled throughout the remaining two years of the contract.
The workers weren’t impressed. Newsroom staffers joked that the new offer would pay for morning coffee.
“They have acknowledged that it’s not much, but it’s the price we have to pay for not having layoffs,” says Post staff writer Rick Weiss, co-chair of the paper’s bargaining unit in the Washington-Baltimore Newspaper Guild. The union represents newsroom and commercial employees at the paper.
In a closed-door meeting on Tuesday, union members discussed staging a byline strike—among other protest actions—as a way to fight back. Under such a strike, reporters would withhold their names from their stories. The omission would mean nothing to most readers, but union stalwarts say it would embarrass management. “It draws media attention to what’s going on,” says Post staff writer Linda Wheeler, who has vowed to participate in such a campaign.
On Wednesday, Wheeler and about 200 other Post employees picketed the paper’s headquarters. Many of the writers chanting against management vowed to take part in a byline strike. A guild committee will decide in the coming weeks whether and how to organize such a protest, which the union used in the late ’80s to pressure the company. Guild board member Peter Perl says that the union is now mulling a “more prolonged” version of the ’80s byline strike.
The hunger for action, say union members, is driven by recent signals that the Post is out to destroy the guild altogether. According to guild chief negotiator Rick Ehrmann, the paper in a recent session declared its insistence on a provision that would enable guild members to opt out of the union at any point in the year. Under current rules, members may do so only during a one-month window. Union leaders consider the opt-out window essential to the organization’s very existence, because it allows them to plan budgets and expenses.
“They are now taking an extremely hard line on this item,” Ehrmann says. “It has nothing to do with the costs to the Post and everything to do with union-busting and destabilizing the guild.”
A source in Post management says that if employees can join the union at any time, they should be able to quit the union at any time. Plus, says the source, the paper has contracts with other unions that allow members to bail out at will.
Whatever the guild’s concerns, Post higher-ups ask that they be addressed in negotiations, not on the street or in bylines. “We need to resolve our issues at the bargaining table. That’s where the Post’s efforts are focused, and we hope the guild’s efforts will be focused there, too,” says Patricia Dunn, the Post’s vice president for labor.
CBS News last week broke the story that President Bush had been briefed a month before Sept. 11 on the possibility that al Qaeda might hijack airplanes in the United States.
The revelation raises one question in the minds of area newshounds: Where was Bob?
Answer: Post legend Bob Woodward and political correspondent Dan Balz chose the wrong month. In an exhaustive and exhausting eight-part series earlier this year, the duo chronicled everything that went down at the White House in the immediate aftermath of the attacks. The result was a novella of Oval Office minutiae, showcasing all the boardroom talk that editors generally delete, to the benefit of the reader. One excerpt:
“We need new options,” [Secretary of Defense Donald] Rumsfeld said at one point. “This is a new mission.”
The president seemed to agree. “Everything is on the table,” Bush said. “Look at the options.”
In the reporters’ defense, they got what was gettable. White House officials cooperated with the Post’s first—and perhaps final—draft of history, and the president himself even sat down for a look-back interview. Of course, the administration folks were happy to pass along material that depicted them as bold war planners. They were evidently less eager to discuss second-guessing over that August briefing.
The back story was a separate assignment. Special-projects reporter Barton Gellman turned in an authoritative Jan. 20 piece on the pre-Sept. 11 terrorism intelligence landscape. “We did put a lot of time and resources at the paper into looking at the Bush administration’s first eight months,” says Gellman.
Gellman’s fine work notwithstanding, the American public is now finding out that the run-up to Sept. 11 was underreported. “Sure, in retrospect it was, though given this administration’s unbelievable penchant for secrecy, I think getting at that pre-Sept. 11 story…would have been difficult, even for the best intelligence reporters,” says Balz.
Balz has a point, but the CBS story makes a bigger one: A single insight about what the White House knew beforehand is more valuable than 40,000 words on who was with Bush in the White House’s Treaty Room at 4:30 p.m. on Sunday, Sept. 16. Perhaps the paper should reconsider its policy that the only investigative journalism worth publishing comes in multi-part series that no one reads.
Regarding the paper’s eight-part series, Downie says, “I have no problem with that deployment at all.” He says Woodward “broke most of what you know” on pre-Sept. 11 intelligence.
And Woodward himself ranks “autopsy” journalism behind stories on government reaction and new threats.”The most important story is what’s going to happen,” he says. —Erik Wemple