Can The Post avoid further staff cuts?
The many changes at The Post in 2009 included further staff reductions through a fourth round of early-retirement buyouts. Is more downsizing in the works for 2010?
In an interview last week for my Sunday column, executive editor Marcus Brauchli said The Post is entering a “somewhat better year financially” and that he is “optimistic” that 2009 cost-reduction measures “contributed to a more stable picture for the paper.”
That said, he left the door open: “I don’t think we would rule out further staff reductions through attrition or other means.”
It’s the “other means” that strikes fear in Post staffers.
The newsroom staff of The Post currently is roughly 650 FTEs (Full Time Equivalent print and online employees), according to deputy managing editor Shirley Carswell, who oversees newsroom administration. That includes about 590 who are full time, and part-timers make up the rest. In addition, The Post employs more than 60 others who are on contract.
Combined, that’s still a very robust staff when compared to most metropolitan newspapers.
But it’s also far fewer than when the decade began. In 2000, when The Post newsroom staff was at its peak, there were more than 900 FTEs at the newspaper. That did not include many others who worked at The Post's Web site, which was then a separate operation.
Can The Post produce a quality product with about 650 FTEs and another 60-plus staffers on contract? Sure. The Post regularly produces magnificent journalism. “Even as we have reduced staff, we have hired some extraordinary talent in the last year,” Brauchli said. “We are continuing to look for the sharpest minds in journalism because we want to draw them into this newsroom.”
Staff quantity isn’t the same as quality. It’s worth noting that at the height of the Watergate scandal in 1974, when President Richard Nixon was forced to resign, The Post staff was roughly half of what it is today.
And when legendary executive editor Benjamin Bradlee took the helm in 1968 and began making The Post into a newspaper of international distinction, he inherited a newsroom staff that he remembers being “something like 160” in size.
“That was woefully inadequate,” he told me. “It had no foreign staff and virtually no national staff. My first priority was to get better people.”
By the time he stepped down in 1991, he had hired some of the nation’s best journalists. Post revenues were steadily growing. Hiring wasn’t an issue.
“You always got what you needed,” Bradlee recalled. “It was automatic. You could always create new positions if there was something interesting and new that you wanted to try. Even if there was just some piece of talent hanging around, we’d get it.”
When the Washington Star folded in 1981 after 130 years of publication, Bradlee said, The Post quickly hired 21 of its best staffers. His biggest regret was not hiring the Star's Maureen Dowd, who went on to become a columnist for The New York Times, where she won a Pulitzer Prize.
But that was then. Today, the Post and other publications are struggling to survive. And as my Sunday column noted, The Post must not only retain its core print readership, but it must simultaneously grow its Web site for the day when it becomes the primary source of its revenues. The Post’s staff during Watergate didn’t need to feed a Web site 24 hours a day.
Financially, The Post’s 2009 losses were less than had been projected. Still, it ended the year solidly in the red by tens of millions of dollars. The Post expects to lose money again in 2010 and become profitable in 2011. But how?
The trend line is positive. But much of the improved financial picture is due to reducing costs, and much of that has been from buyouts. The start of 2010 will be key. If revenues sharply miss projections, staff reductions through “other means” may be inevitable.
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