Depleted “Washington Post” Newsroom Left Begging for Volunteer Reporters

Coverage of last week’s storm and the ongoing heat wave causes the newspaper’s editors to plead for more work from its dwindling staff.

By: Harry Jaffe

Has the Washington Post cut its newsroom staff past the point that it can cover basic news, such as the current heat wave?

We raise the question after reading a plaintive memo from Metro editor Vernon Loeb. The well-respected conductor of local news is forced to beg for “more volunteer” reporters to show up this weekend.

“We are a daily newspaper,” he writes, “and we have a shared responsibility to be the best in America.”

This weekend, Loeb just wants bodies to stay ahead of readers complaining that the Post’s storm coverage is lacking. Loeb reports that he “went off” on ombudsman Patrick Pexton, who asked him to respond to complaints.

The complaints might be better directed to the Post’s publishing side and the umbrella Washington Post Company. To cut costs, the Post has chosen to reduce its staff. The dominant newspaper in the nation's capital has offered buyouts to journalists five times in the past decade. It has lost dozens of name-brand writers, such as Tom Shales, Stephen Hunter, and Tamara Jones, as well as Pulitzer winners such as Henry Allen.

But the most recent buyout, completed in May, reached deeper into the reporting ranks. Many of the estimated 50 newsroom staffers were Metro reporters who covered local news, such as storms and extreme heat waves. The newsroom that once had 900 staffers stands at about 550.

In announcing the buyouts, executive editor Marcus Brauchli said in a memo to the staff: “Our objective is a limited staff reduction that won’t affect the quality, ambition, or authority of our journalism.”

After reading Vernon Loeb’s memo, and other plea from editor Monica Norton, it’s fair to wonder whether Post’s “quality” has survived the staff reductions. 

All:

I really hate to be even asking for more volunteers, coming off the past week and the incredible extra effort so many of you have contributed. Nine reporters were working last Sunday, and just about that many on Saturday. And it’s pretty much been non-stop since then. When the ombudsman asked me yesterday to respond to critics of our storm and heat coverage, I went off on him—and had no hesitation in saying our coverage has been broader, deeper and more incisive than anyone else’s—by a mile.      

Having said all that, we’ve still got a couple of days of extraordinary heat to go until we get a break, and if some of you could step up and run the live blog or pull a reporting shift on Saturday and Sunday, I’d be most grateful—and I promise very generous comp time deals for such last minute requests. We are a daily newspaper, and we have a shared responsibility to be the best in America. That's something I know we all take really seriously. Please, let me know if you're available.      

With admiration and appreciation, Vernon


From: Monica Norton/news/TWP

Subject: Seeking the moon and the stars . . . . We're heading toward record-breaking, potentially dangerous temps over the next couple of days and we need your help. For tomorrow’s story, we're looking for feeds throughout the day on how people are coping. We’re not simply talking about the people heading to the movies, but those who may have limited options. Let's find the cooling center that has been non-stop for several days, the nursing home having to bring in extra staff to help their elderly clientele. It’s not just that it’s hot. It’s also changing how Washington lives and works. In addition, with Saturday’s temps projected to reach 105 we could use a few extra hands. Please