Washington Post plans cuts

Paper aims to reduce news staff by 10% via buyouts and attrition

March 11, 2006|By NICK MADIGAN | NICK MADIGAN,SUN REPORTER

Echoing cost-cutting moves at newspapers elsewhere, The Washington Post is preparing to eliminate about 10 percent of its newsroom jobs this year through attrition and buyouts.

Staff members were told of the plan to eliminate about 80 jobs in a series of meetings Thursday and yesterday with Executive Editor Leonard Downie Jr., according to people who attended. Downie could not be reached for comment.

In an e-mail to the staff yesterday, Post Publisher Boisfeuillet "Bo" Jones Jr. said the paper would roll out the "voluntary retirement incentive programs" in the spring, but that the details are still being worked out.

"They will be offered selectively, only where the newspaper can save costs," wrote Jones, who ascribed the job-cutting plan to economic factors that have bedeviled big-city newspapers across the country.

"During the past year," he said, "newspaper revenues have flattened while expenses - particularly newsprint - have continued to rise. Departments have always adjusted their staffing to meet reader needs and business conditions, as we are doing now."

The Post last offered buyouts to staff members in December 2003, ultimately losing more than 50 people from the newsroom. They included some of the paper's best-known reporters and editors, including Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist William Raspberry, financial reporter John M. Berry, local columnist Bob Levey and George Solomon, who was assistant managing editor for sports for 28 years.

"The paper clearly took a hit in terms of some very talented people," said Howard Kurtz, the Post's media columnist.

"The good thing, though, is that there have never been any layoffs in the 25 years I've been here, and there won't be this time," Kurtz said.

Last year, The New York Times cut almost 60 people from its newsroom, and the Los Angeles Times lost more than 80.

The Sun lost 17 in its news department and 70 throughout the company.

"It's a brave new world," said Kurtz, who also hosts CNN's media show, Reliable Sources, on Sundays.

"But I don't know how much sympathy there is out there for newspapers when there are companies laying off 10,000 people a pop," Kurtz added.

Profit at the Washington Post Co., which includes the Kaplan educational division as well as television stations and other media operations, fell 5.5 percent last year to $314 million.

Operating income at the newspaper publishing division fell 12 percent.

Jones, the publisher, maintained in his staff message that the Post "is a very strong newspaper today."

"We will continue to approach staffing here in ways that serve the newspaper's basic goals," he wrote.

The Post has more than 800 editorial employees, about 600 of whom are represented by the Washington-Baltimore Newspaper Guild.

"As worrisome as this is, this is not one of those horrible stories of scores of people being laid off," said Rick Weiss, a science reporter and the Guild unit chair at the paper.

Weiss attended one of four meetings held yesterday for national staff members, which followed two sessions on Thursday for metropolitan staff.

The paper's management and the Guild have yet to negotiate the terms of the buyout offers.

"The funny thing is that no one knows what the bottom line is," he said. "The rumor is that it won't be until May that people start going out the door."

There are rumors of other cost cuts at the Post, according to the trade paper Editor & Publisher, including the eventual closing of at least two foreign bureaus and changes to some other overseas bureaus that would have staff working out of their homes.

Sources at the paper told E&P that some of the foreign cuts are being considered because of the high cost of covering the Iraq war, up to $1 million a year.

nick.madigan@baltsun.com

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