Post Newsroom Not Smiling as Downie Calls Thursday Meeting

By: Harry Jaffe

As Washington Post reporters gird themselves for today’s 3 pm meeting with executive editor Leonard Downie, they use four words to describe the mood of the newsroom:

Anxious.
Depressed.
Restless.
Angry.

And for good reasons.

A month ago Downie issued a memo saying the Post would have to “shrink the newsroom staff” and “renovate sections” and tighten the news hole. Translation: fewer reporters writing shorter stories at different assignments.
Then earlier this week New York Times media writer David Carr, in a column about Washington Post Company head Don Graham, said, “Newsroom layoffs of an unspecified number are in the offing.”

Hours after the Carr piece hit the streets, Downie spit out a memo calling the report “flat wrong” and adding that he would “quash any stupid, false rumors like this one.”

But on the newsroom floor, there’s the feeling, if not the effect, of layoffs and dislocations.

Style writers have been shifted to Metro under a plan that seems to be gutting the features staff.  Veteran political editor Maralee Schwartz has fled to financial. The continuous news desk, which shuffles stories between the newspaper and the Post web site, was disbanded. Will Sunday Style combine with Sunday Arts?

Then there’s the case of Linda Hales—her treatment blurs the line between buyout and layoff.

Hales came to the Post from the International Herald Tribune in 1988. She edited the Home section for a decade. She won the Penny-Missouri Journalism Award in 1991 for general excellence in editing.

In late 1999 she started writing a weekly Style section design column. Her essays ranged from chair design to makeovers of congressional offices to her take on Italian silverware.

When the Post announced its most recent “voluntary” buyout offers, Hales says she told editors she wasn’t ready to retire. Editors told her it would be best if she took the deal.

The word from Downie, according to Hales, was: “I see you on the copy desk.”

Hales, 57, considered her 700-plus bylines and her belief that a design column has a place in a “great newspaper,” and she fought for her job. At last report she had been assigned to the copy desk for Metro tabloid sections.
Hales was not laid off, technically, but she certainly was shunned at best and at worst treated shabbily.

Downie was not available for comment.

To be sure, excitement and energy abounded all week at the top echelons of the Post’s national and political desks, as well as in financial, where Sandra Suguwara has taken charge.

Susan Glasser was assuming control of the national report in place of Liz Spayd, who became editor of washingtonpost.com. Bill Hamilton joined Glasser in remaking the political team, torn up by top writers defecting to other news operations. They hired John Solomon from the Associated Press.

But very few reporters or editors were awaiting Len Downie’s staff meeting with hopes of good news. He has become the agent of lowered expectations.