News & Politics

Post Reporters Threaten to Stay Mum If Not Paid for Talking on Radio

Washington Post management and reporters may be headed toward a confrontation over whether reporters get paid for appearing on the Post’s new radio station.

So far the Post’s policy seems to be “Don’t ask, don’t get paid.”

A new radio aide stopped by Rick Weiss’s desk a few days ago, during the first full week of WTWP, and asked the Post’s science writer to talk on the air about his front-page story on cloned bladders.

Weiss agreed on the condition that he be paid. The aide checked with her superiors and returned with the deal: Weiss would get $50.

“It’s a terribly unfair situation,” says Weiss, who’s co-chair of the Washington Post unit of the Washington-Baltimore Newspaper Guild. “Some people are getting paid, some are not.

“The Post should openly and honestly tell people what they are going to pay for certain kinds of work,” Weiss says. “If they pay some reporters 50 bucks a pop, then all reporters should get paid the same amount. That’s honest and good management.”

Asked about the Post’s policy, spokesman Eric Grant said by e-mail: “The Washington Post’s newsroom staff has embraced this new opportunity to broaden the reach of our journalism, much as they have embraced our other multimedia efforts. Compensation for radio appearances depends on a variety of considerations, including the level of individual involvement by the Washington Post journalist.”

Grant’s comment about reporters reflects what Post executive editor Leonard Downie has called being “brand agnostic,” which means that reporters are expected to produce copy or comment for all of the Post’s brands: the newspaper, the Web site, and now the radio station.

More than a few reporters think of the Post’s demands as “brand cheap.”

“It’s part of the speed-up for reporters’ time,” says Weiss. “It’s exactly like the old assembly line speed-up that unions have been fighting for 100 years.”

Downie, through his assistant, declined to comment.

Guild representative Rick Ehrmann met this week with Post officials to suggest the paper establish a payment schedule for radio appearances. He suggested $50 for up to 10 minutes, $100 for 10 to 30 minutes, and $250 for 30 to 60 minutes.

“The Post’s response was that they would not pay people piecemeal,” Ehrmann said. “They’re asking people to come on the radio voluntarily in an atmosphere of compulsion.”

Ehrmann cited the example of a reporter who declined to appear on radio without getting paid, at which point the Post approached another who agreed to talk for free.

“They are approaching people individually to see how cheap they can be,” Ehrmann says.

The question for Post reporters is whether they have any power to force the Post’s hand. Since 1975, when Post management broke the printers’ strike after Guild members crossed the printers’ picket line, the Guild has been relatively powerless.

Weiss recalls that reporters refused to write for during the byline strike that accompanied the 2002 contract bargaining session.

“People can do the same thing here,” he says. “We haven’t called for people to do that yet, but we can build toward that if they continue to negotiate this badly.”

The Post has made itself vulnerable to a reporters’ boycott by expanding into radio with an all-talk format that relies heavily on reporters’ filling the air time with comments about their latest stories.

No reporters could mean silence—or canned comments that are not what the Post has promised listeners.

“The Post has said appearing on radio is voluntary,” Weiss says. “Reporters can take the Post at its word and say, ‘No, thank you.' "