What buyouts reveal about The Washington Post’s strategy

How will the voluntary buyouts announced by The Post this week — the fifth such round in the past nine years — affect the quality of the publication?

It’s early yet — I won’t know for several weeks who or how many will be leaving. The Washington-Baltimore Newspaper Guild, which represents many employees here, gets a chance to weigh in on the terms of the buyout, then the paperwork comes out, and then Post employees have 45 days to decide.

This is a targeted buyout, aimed at some newsroom departments and not others. It is an attempt to cut costs but also an effort to shape the newsroom, and in that it reveals something about The Post’s strategy.

The Post hopes that 33 to 48 people will leave voluntarily, out of a newsroom of roughly 600 people, according to Executive Editor Marcus Brauchli and documents delivered to the guild. That doesn’t sound like a lot — maybe an 8 percent downsizing out of 600 if 48 leave.

The protected areas include, as Brauchli said, the core of the publication’s mission: national politics and government, national security and foreign desks, editorials and opinion, Sunday Outlook, Style columnists and arts critics, Sports columnists, news columnists, and the Weekend and Going Out guides.

But look at what could shrink.

Metro, for example, which covers the District, Maryland and Virginia, could lose up to nine people out of a staff of maybe 100. Many readers feel that the Metro staff already is missing too many stories. Recall, too, that last year The Post announced it would trim its suburban bureau office space as leases came up. That worries me. Covering local news is a cornerstone of The Post’s franchise.

Out of The Post’s special investigative unit — seven reporters who do long-form investigations — three could go. That news came out the same week The Post published a data-driven investigation into the use of congressional earmarks to benefit the privately held properties, and relatives, of members of Congress. Are investigations not a core part of The Post franchise?

Copy editors are not being targeted as much as they were in earlier buyout rounds. Brauchli said the earlier rounds hurt the newspaper’s quality control too much, and I think most readers would agree, judging by the errors in fact, spelling, grammar and punctuation that they complain to me about. Still, the copy desk could lose up to three people.

Digital and graphic designers generally are not eligible for the buyout, but people who design the daily print pages, and photographers, are. That could mean less variety in newspaper design and more wire photos. Seven people could be lost in this area.

Almost all Post columnists are protected from this buyout, but overall I count 21 shoe-leather reporters and line editors who could depart — people who report, write and shape stories about the national economy and business; health, science and the environment; lifestyles; sports; and local news.

Now for the caveats. I am not one of those who say the glory days are gone. The Post newsroom still is, by far, the largest in this city and one of the largest in the country. The newsroom is still larger today than it was during the Watergate era (it includes a huge staff of digital and information-technology workers that didn’t exist in the typewriter era.) The Post still produces an A section and home page that are among the great daily reads in this country.

But in looking at this buyout, I worry that The Post is moving away from local news and toward a publication that covers only national politics and government and the Redskins, one that relies too much on columnists.

The cost-cutting side of the argument is persuasive. Profits and ad revenues are down, although the decline in print circulation has fortunately slowed and online traffic is way up. This is an expensive year, Brauchli explained, with a national election and the Olympics coming up — that means huge travel budgets. He said he’d rather trim expenses in a chunk, early in the year, than nickel-and-dime people all year and scrimp on election and Olympics coverage.

Ultimately, readers, online and print, will be the judges of the downsized Post. The staff here is not happy. They ask, Where is the bottom? They hate the less-is-more bromides from senior editors, so I’ll not quote those. I’ll quote Brauchli’s most telling statement from The Post’s town-hall meeting on the buyouts: “This is painful.”

This column was originally published in The Washington Post on February 10, 2012.

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