Accuracy in Media

In an effort to boost profitability, The Washington Post is going to reduce its workforce by offering buyouts to newsroom employees.

Politico managed to get a hold of the memo announcing the “voluntary buyout.”

To the staff:

Today, we are announcing that we will offer a voluntary buyout to some Newsroom employees. Our objective is a limited staff reduction that won’t affect the quality, ambition or authority of our journalism. We believe this is possible, given the changes in how we work and the great successes we have had building our digital readership lately.

To preserve that momentum, we do not intend to offer this program to every department or individual in the Newsroom. The reality is that we’re able t0 absorb staffing changes better in some areas than in others. In those departments where we do offer the buyout, there will be caps on the number of people who can participate, in order to moderate the impact and preserve our competitiveness in core coverage areas. In addition, we may turn down some volunteers if we feel their departure would impair our journalism. That said, it is important that we achieve real savings.

The exact details of the buyout, technically a voluntary Separation Incentive Program, will come later, after the company talks to the Guild about its proposed terms. Here’s what we can tell you now: The program does not accelerate pension benefits. It will include enhanced separation payments and company-paid COBRA (health insurance) premiums for eligible fulltime employees. Post representatives will be discussing the proposed program with the Guild over the next two weeks, consistent with the terms of the labor contract. The terms they agree on also will be included in an offer to Newsroom editors in eligible departments.

This program will be available for a specified period of time only; employees will have 45 days to study this offer and decide whether to accept it or decline it. The Post will schedule the final date of employment for those who elect to resign as part of this program; for most employees this will mean a resignation date of May 31, 2012.

Any measure like this is difficult. But we believe this approach is a sensible and effective way of addressing the economic forces affecting our industry. We constantly rethink how we do certain things in order to become more efficient, agile and competitive; this will require more such thinking. The Post’s Newsroom remains formidable, and we will continue making tactical hires so that even as we get smaller, we get stronger.

We plan to distribute SIP packages to eligible employees in a few weeks. We will have two Town Hall meetings today, at 11 a.m. in the Community Room and at 4:30 p.m. in the Auditorium, to answer your questions.

Marcus, Liz, Shirley, Peter

This is the fifth official buyout in the last decade and probably not the last, depending on how many employees accept the paper’s offer.

Less than three years ago executive editor Marcus Brauchli told employees that the buyout the paper was offering at that time would help the Post “emerge as a stronger organization prepared to meet the challenges ahead.”

To borrow an old axiom, the paper would become leaner and meaner. Well after another buyout Brauchli got the meaner part right.

While part of the Post’s financial struggles can be blamed on readers migrating from the newspaper to the Internet, and advertisers that have cut back on advertising during the recession, most of the blame lies in the company’s over-reliance on its Kaplan education unit, which at its peak accounted for 60% of The Washington Post Company’s profits.

Kaplan, which has come under fire along with the rest of the for-profit education schools for their student loan practices and low graduation rates, has seen its profits plunge as a result of federal investigations and lower enrollment, which has put greater pressure on the Post.

There is no doubt that the Post has to do something to try to return to profitability on the newspaper side. But if they aren’t careful they risk lowering the quality of the paper so much that it winds up chasing even more readers and advertisers away and only exacerbates their financial problems, not to mention employee morale.

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