The good news about newsroom buyouts.

The good news about newsroom buyouts.

The good news about newsroom buyouts.

Media criticism.
April 7 2008 7:11 PM

Two Cheers for Newsroom Buyouts

The good news about the bad news coming out of newsrooms.

Illustration by Mark Alan Stamaty. Click image to expand.

Advertising revenue at newspapers has fallen off a cliff and may tumble all the way to the bottom of the Marianas Trench if the promised recession arrives. Average circulation is down, too, and the combined trends are prompting publications from the New York Times to Newsweek to the Washington Post to the Boston Globe to the Twin Cities'Star Tribune to Sam Zell's Tribune Co. and beyond to offer senior employees buyouts.

Some newsrooms are saying goodbye with a wad of cash to their most experienced and decorated hands. At the New York Times, Supreme Court reporter Linda Greenhouse has taken a buyout, critics David Ansen and David Gates are leaving Newsweek, and prize-winning bylines at the Washington Post are likely to depart as the paper completes its third round of buyouts in six years.

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Yet, good news can be found inside the bad news. Some of the exiting veterans have held their plum positions for years, even decades, and have given no signs of leaving—this is not always a good thing. News organizations rely on turnover to keep them vital, and in many cases buyouts (hence "two cheers") may help revitalize a few franchises.

While I hold the 61-year-old Greenhouse in great esteem and will miss her coverage, it's worth noting that she had covered the Supremes for nearly 30 years. Disco was still big when she took the assignment. Starsky and Hutch was on television. In passing the baton from Greenhouse to 47-year-old whippersnapper Adam Liptak, the Times has a chance to reconceptualize its court coverage. (Of course, you can teach somebody like Greenhouse a few new tricks, but new editor-reporter teams are usually more daring and inventive.) In the Web era, is the best use of the Times'column inches the traditional day-after-oral-arguments story and the day-after-decisions dispatches? Is there a more creative way to report on the court? Should Liptak cover the court with more argument and greater point of view, the way he covers the law in his current Sidebar column? Whether dug-in journalists are excellent or mediocre, their departures give publications the opportunity to reinvent themselves.

The "retirement" of the buyout brigade has the added benefit of loosening the ugly stranglehold the boomers have over the press. I may be risking self-extermination by advocating wholesale boomer expulsion, but there are just too many of us—especially the older variety—in top slots for journalism's good. The sheer weight of our presence blocks the promotion of the next generation of talented journalists to the most desirable beats.

We like our nice salaries, we enjoy our benefits and vacation time, we dig our place in the pecking order, and we expect to live forever. So why should we leave? Our intransigence not only gives our product a rancid boomer tang—who can blame nonboomers for being repulsed?—it tends to stifle innovation.

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Meanwhile, over on the Web, where news staffs tend to be younger and less tradition-bound, the sort of experimentation newspapers and magazines should be engaging in is a part of the daily routine. If not for age-discrimination legislation and other statutes, our bosses would have cleared us out with sharp-bladed bulldozers long ago and replaced us with younger, more-adaptable, and less-expensive minds. Yes, you heard right. Newsrooms must cut their budgets to survive, and the high-salaried boomers (and pre-boomers) are liabilities.

Fortunately, the one thing boomers understand is money, and the offer of a couple of years' salary in the form of a buyout has been too great a temptation for many of them to resist. Whenever a journalism vet boards the SS Buyout—no matter how good he is—his departure initiates a series of reassignments that help replenish a news organization's juices by bringing down the median age of reporters and editors and making it possible for his publication to add a lower-paying entry-level slot. (Some of the bought-out have returned to their publications without leaving by signing on as contract employees. Others, like Greenhouse, have segued to gigs in academia: She's bound for a job at Yale Law School. Others have not been as fortunate.)

Lower salaries for journalists are not a good thing, but neither are the lower profits earned by their publications. It could be that the relatively high salaries journalists have earned in the last 30 years were a function of the monopoly profits their news organizations earned, and that the average salary may have peaked around 2000, about the time the number of news jobs peaked.

"There goes our institutional memory," somebody usually laments whenever a graybeard leaves a news organization. The speaker is usually another graybeard who, if pressed, couldn't tell you what is so vital about the institutional memory wheeling out the door. If institutional memory has any real value, it's been written down or passed down. It's not locked up in some geezer's head. Not all on-the-job experience brings wisdom that translates into better coverage, especially the experience that's used to protect turf as opposed to breaking news. When institutional memory impedes newsroom progress, it deserves a good erasing. At the Washington Post, the brass is currently degaussing its editing process so it can rescue the paper from the bureaucratic excesses of the industrial era and drag it into the electronic. 

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The stereotype driving this column—Veteran journalists! Get out of the way!—is blunted by longtime Washington Post political reporter Thomas B. Edsall. Edsall took his paper's 2006 buyout and has thrived outside its confines, with a teaching position at Columbia University's J-school and assignments from an array of top publications. In May 2007, he became political editor and writer at the Huffington Post.

Edsall doesn't want to minimize the difficulties others may have faced since taking the buyout, but he says his post-Post experience has been "a great ride" and that the Huff Post people are "excellent … with a sense of mission and a go-for-broke spirit."

I've enjoyed Edsall's Huff Post work on the campaign trail more than anything he's done in his career. He seems to feel pretty good about the work, too.

"Stories I wrote got published the way I wrote them—no editorial bureaucracy. ... After working at heavily edited publications all my life, this was like being born again," he says via e-mail.

Or maybe Edsall shows that the old horses have lots of go left in them—they just need new riders. Should the Washington Post hire him back?

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