City Desk

WaPo Buyouts: Helping the Competition?

The Washington Post has offered four buyout packages this decade—all of them generous bundles of cash and benefits designed to push older reporters and editors off the paper's payroll.

That, at least, is the intended consequence.

A less-intended consequence is that the Post abets competing publications by hastening the departure of top talent and rewarding them for making the leap. Along these lines, some names from past early-retirement rounds jump out: Investigative wizard Sue Schmidt took a Post buyout en route to the Wall Street Journal and legendary Federal Reserve correspondent John Berry cashed out in favor of a slot at Bloomberg. Tom Edsall went to the Huffington Post on buyout cash.

The 2009 buyout season, however, could add an even more compelling tale of ship-jumping. According to several sources, longtime Postie Bill Hamilton is pondering a move to Politico. When reached on this matter, Hamilton went into non-confirm-or-deny mode: "Just not going to talk about that," said Hamilton.

Politico brass, likewise, stayed away from discussing any discussions with Hamilton, preferring the safer territory of platitudes: "I am a big bill fan," wrote Executive Editor Jim VandeHei via electronic mail. Editor-in-chief John Harris: "Bill is terrific."

Whatever terrific Bill Hamilton does with respect to Politico won't be clear till early next week. That's when the so-called rescission period for the Post buyout ends. Though Hamilton signed up for the buyout before yesterday's deadline, he has a week to withdraw and stay on at the paper. Last year, he signed up but then rescinded.

Why does all this Hamilton-related business matter?

*He's a 29-year veteran of the Post and has a deep reserve of knowledge on politics. He's currently the paper's "enterprise editor."

*Politics is at the very core of the Post's repositioned business/editorial strategy. Back in December, Publisher Katharine Weymouth, in a vague memo, decreed that the Post needed to be "about Washington." A big part of that mandate is political coverage.

*Politico is among the few must-beat outlets for the Post. The founders of Politico knew that sites that dedicate themselves to a single topic area—or "vertical," in the lingo—thrive on the Internet. The Post must beat Politico on this field while also reporting on everything else that happens everywhere else. One advantage it has had over Politico over the past two-plus years is its newsroom, a place crawling with reporters and editors steeped in national politics. With each buyout, that advantage shrinks.

There's also a moral of the story. Ever since Harris and VandeHei left the Post for Politico, the startup has been viewed within the Post newsroom as an archenemy. Staffers never pass up a chance to snicker about some Politico failing or question whether its biz model is as sturdy as its partisans contend. Hamilton has a more positive take: "It's a very friendly rivalry. It’s great competition."

Though the current buyout isn't as generous as previous ones, it provides plenty of inducement for a guy like Hamilton to take what's doubtless a nice-paying post at Politico. Among other bennies, Hamilton would get a lump-sum payment equivalent to a year's salary. For a big shot Postie like him, that's not too far south of $200,000.

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  • Dave

    Good for Post competitors, bad for 20-something, unemployed journalists.

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