City Desk

The Slow Bleed of the Washington Post

This morning, reporters and editors at the Washington Post will convene for a huge meeting. They'll talk about the shooting death of reporter Salih Saif Aldin. They'll discuss their various journalistic victories of recent months. And then they'll get down to the question that's preoccupying the Post newsroom: How many of them will be left next year at this time?

Perhaps it's the time of year (fourth quarter) or the fact that it's been ages since good news about the news business has come over the wires. But Posties are busy exchanging gossip about just how the paper will continue trimming its roughly 800-strong workforce. Rumors center on the possibility of a third round of early-retirement offers. In 2003 and 2006, aging staffers were offered some lucrative enticements to head out the door and take with them their salaries, benefits, and expense accounts.

Word is circulating, however, that those buyouts haven't shaved enough from the paper's budget. Take it from Rick Weiss, the national reporter who serves as co-chair of the Post's unit of the Washington-Baltimore Newspaper Guild:

"I’ve certainly heard for many months now that the last round of buyouts didn’t achieve the cost savings that they hoped for, and I've heard more recently that the most recent economic numbers here cannot support the current staffing levels here."

Weiss' impressions aren't altogether inconsistent with the message from the paper's executive suite. When asked about the anticipation circling his newsroom, Executive Editor Leonard Downie Jr. writes via email that "Attrition has been continuing when possible."

Among the topics for the meeting is the "continuing restructuring of the newsroom for our multi-platform mission and expense control," writes Downie.

The Post's top dog will no doubt field some pointed questions on that last front. According to Weiss, after all, Posties are going to get stiffed next year on health-care costs. Not only are premiums escalating, but reporters will have to cover a greater percentage of those premiums than in previous years, pretty much wiping out their already frugal annual raises.

"The Washington Post is still a great newspaper — the best product in America that 35 cents can buy. And those of us who are still here pour our hearts into keeping it that way every day," writes Weiss.

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  • Edward Allen

    I cancelled the Post after they cut back on their stock tables a few years ago, and I've discovered a whole new magical world of news via the Web that the Post never touched. No more boring budget impasse stories or endless tomes on earmarks and bridges to no-where that go no-where. I occasionally read the Post online, and wonder where are these "journalistic victories" you write about. Prize committees seem to agree with me, since the Post hasn't won anything significant recently. They've gone to sleep while their readers (in my case for almost 40 years) have gone to the Web.

  • Dave McKenna

    The Washington Post's writers "are going to get stiffed next year on health-care costs"? Once again, City Paper beats the Post to the punch!

  • Brian P.

    The Post's slow bleed has been sadly fascinating. I think that it has followed the wrong strategy of trying to retain the same scope at lower cost. The result has been a paper that is sadly adrift in incompetence that occassionally rises to mediocrity. I think the better strategy would have been to focus on doing a small set of things really well. For example, the Post has an absolute advantage in reporting on what the government is doing. If it would fire everyone else and just do that, I think it would find itself very profitable again.

  • Kris

    WHAT??? Edward Allen, the Post broke the stories about lead in DC waters, the Bush admin's spying on citizens, and the plight of injured veterans when they return. The only reason most people know what Walter Reed is, is because of Post stories. There are a lot of areas where they can improve, but I would not claim the the Post lacks journalistic victories...

  • peter

    I agree with Brian P. The City Paper does a very good job on the issues it covers, but it only picks and chooses and doesn't pretend to cover everything. Not that the CP should care what I think, but I enjoy reading the CP. The CP also has been around long enough that it seems to finance a free paper with ads. Maybe this is the business model the Post should consider. Billionaire Anshutz is trying it with frighteningly right-wing tab, and also seems viable.
    My quibble with the Post is that it drops the ball on very important local stories. Take the recent AOL layoffs/relocations, which should prompt endless stories on what this means for local governments, the future of high-tech in the Wash. region, impact on an already depressed real estate market in AOL-heavy Ashton suburbs, and what is going to happen with AOL's prime and pretty office space, plus expected sob stories from laid-off AOL employees finding new jobs or talking about failed careers. How about what happened to AOL's (very wealthy) founders, and where they are now.
    But it's a local story, and Post really doesn't care.

  • Edward Allen

    For Kris: Sorry, Walter Reed was last year, the NYT broke the spying on citizens story, and lead in local water is a hardly perennial given the fact that lead pipes were used in the 19th Century when the city was built.

  • Mi-ann

    You really have to admire the guts of an editor who criticizes other papers for lack of Journalistic victories meanwhile his own paper boasts the front cover trophies of bathroom sex, drinking piss, adrian fenty getting mad at something, or a fat kid who is arrested for...too bored to finish reading that one. Wemple, do you stare in the mirror at night and wonder what your life is all about?

  • scott

    i like both the post and CP immensely but:

    -the post is a superior paper to about 90 percent of dailies in the country. you really don't know what you've got until you live in a place like dallas or charlotte and you see true journalistic mediocrity.

    -CP has increasingly struck me as pandering to puff pieces (LNS, sex in the restrooms) and less to highlighting a myriad of social issues in DC/VA/MD. it's a far cry from the CP of the mid to late 1990s but i will concede it is quite often entertaining.

    -Erik, your constant commenting on the Post betrays a pretty transparent grudge against them, which only makes me assume you have ill will from a past experience with them. as an editor, i think you owe it to yourself and to CP to not keep up with the Joneses so frequently. the Post has an ombudsman and should be called out from time to time, but what I've noticed is a rather constant whining over trivial matters.

    all in all, DC is a pretty great place for printed media. be thankful.

  • Erik Wemple

    To Mi-ann and Scott: I generally don't get involved in blog comments, but you folks are addressing me directly. So, here goes:

    First, I never made any comment about the Post's lack of journalistic victories. I merely pointed out that discussion of that matter would be on the agenda of today's meeting. In fact, I believe they have plenty to celebrate. '07 has been an enormous year, already, for that newsroom. And to Edward Allen: The Post's Walter Reed stories were all published this year, and one of the biggest foregone conclusions in journalism is that it'll win a Pulitzer. Consider also the June series on VP Cheney, an amazing feat.

    Second, I stand by our own record here at WCP, too. Including the stories mentioned by Mi-Ann and Scott. Childhood obesity is one of this country's biggest problems, and if you can find a better narrative on that subject than "The Battle Over Heavy T," I'd certainly like to read it. As to Scott's point about social issues in the region, did you see last week's cover, "Subprime and Punishment"? That would seem to be right up your alley.

    Regarding the notion that we're all about puffery: I think that's wrong and unfair.

    And on my coverage of the Post: Point taken. I think that our media coverage would benefit from focusing on other outlets. But I don't bear any ill will at all toward the Post; I just think that as the region's paper of record, it needs plenty of scrutiny, scrutiny that the ombudsman alone cannot provide.

    But my main point is this: Though I may not agree with your criticisms, they reflect the fact that you pick up this paper on a regular basis, and for that, I love you more than you can imagine. Without you, I'd REALLY have a tough time looking at myself in the mirror. So despite your gripes about the paper, I hope you continue to check it out. Thanks very much.

  • L.E.

    Bathroom sex, drinking urine, tell it to the judge, fetishes for swim caps, all fluff. The story about heavy D was about a nation wide epidemic? I must have missed where you say anything more than the musings of an overweight kid getting chased by cops in a quest to eat. I'm sure the story helped heavy D gain tons of confiedence. If you are reading this in Atlanta please clean house!

  • curm

    I see from a prior post by one of your staffers that the City Paper just lost their production staff.