The Washington Post has pushed out — or is trying to push out — at least thirteen people through layoffs, coerced buyouts or outright dismissal on dubious charges,” Fredrick Kunkle, co-chair of the Newspaper Guild unit at the Post, wrote in a memo posted on the Guild website Monday.
“What’s more troubling is that more than half of those employees are African-Americans or other minority groups.
“The script goes like this: an employee is summoned to a meeting where she hears that ‘the bar has been raised.’ She is told her work does not meet this supposed new standard. She is handed an envelope with a buyout offer and given a deadline to surrender her job or face disciplinary action because of her allegedly poor performance. She is reminded that disciplinary action progresses from warnings to suspensions and termination.
“Never mind that the people targeted so far have included veteran journalists with years of distinguished service. Or that talk of a ‘raised bar’ comes as the Post relies more than ever on interns, bloggers, freelancers, readers or comically inexperienced content creators to fill pages. Or that some allegations of poor performance — as documented by the new, pseudo-scientific evaluation system and its across-the-board top score of ‘3’ — have included highly subjective and weaselly criticisms such as inserting too many pop culture references in stories. (We are not making this up.)”
The memo points to one of the perennial diversity issues at the Post and elsewhere: retention.
(Full disclosure: This columnist worked at the Post until a 2008 reorganization eliminated his job.)
The 2011 edition of the annual census of the American Society of News Editors found that while 324 journalists of color were hired, 499 departed, but 1,373 whites were hired while only 1,047 left. (PDF).
At the Post, the 2011 figures showed 24.5 percent minority journalists– 7.6 percent Asian American, 12.5 percent black, 4.0 percent Hispanic and 0.4 percent Native American.
But a December 2005 report from a Post newsroom committee on diversity (that followed this meeting) indicated there is more to those figures than first appears. “Each year, the Washington Post spends about $100,000 recruiting talented ethnic minority journalists. While those efforts have increased the percentage of minority journalists at the paper in recent years, the Post has failed to keep many of them for the long term,” the committee said. “From 1989 through 2003, two of every three minority journalists hired left the newspaper, according to Post management.”
Outside the Post, the Maynard Institute for Journalism Education released “Musical Chairs: Minority Hiring in America’s Newsrooms” in 1986. It argued that “it is on the battleground of retention that the struggle for full parity” would be won or lost.
“Clearly we have issues,” Milton Coleman, senior editor of the Post and the immediate past president of the American Society of News Editors, told Pamela Newkirk this year for a diversity-related piece in the Columbia Journalism Review. “A lot of people are no longer excited about what’s happening in the newsroom and left either by choice or by chance. There was the feeling that they were bumping up against glass ceilings, and that the newsrooms they were in were no longer interested in the news they wanted to do. Then on top of it, we have the turn in the news industry.”
The note from Kunkle elaborated on reasons Post management gave for the “pushout”:
“Other reasons worthy of disciplinary action? Not having enough sources. Not writing more ‘impact’ stories. Not landing on A1 often enough. One staff writer was given a 30-day production quota as follows: at least one deeply textured A1 story, at least one news feature, profile or takeout worthy of the Metro front or A1, at least three dailies a week and at least three blog posts per week. No mention of a Twitter quota. Yet.
“The reason for all this is, of course, money. The Washington Post lost $6.2 million in the third quarter of 2011. Newspaper circulation continues to skid by roughly 5 percent a year. Advertising revenues dropped 20 percent in print and 13 percent online.
“We know it’s tough. But members of the Guild think that the Post’s direction is not only unfair, it’s unwise. That’s why we are calling on the Post to create a committee to address its approach to reducing staff.”
Asked to comment, Kris Coratti, the Post’s director of communications, said, “Our commitment to diversity extends from hiring to promotion and retention. We do not discuss personnel issues.”