There’s probably no good way to end a publication and lay off 20 people. But it can be done humanely. That’s not how the Washington Post chose to shut down its commuter paper, Express, on Wednesday. Around 11:30 that day, Post management called Express employees to a noon meeting in the Graham Family Conference Room, where HR VP Wayne Connell, HR director Jennifer Legat, and managing editor Tracy Grant told them that Express had lost too much money two years in a row, and that Wednesday would be their last day at work. While the meeting was in progress, the Post published a press release and a reported article by Paul Farhi about the closure.
Staffers began receiving texts from concerned friends and family members during the meeting. “It was definitely a gut punch” to find out the rest of the world learned about their job losses at the same time they Express employees were trying to learn how long they’d have access to the Post network and how long they’d have to clean out their desks, one staffer says. She texted her husband quickly during the meeting in hopes he’d hear the news from her. The choreographed rollout felt “pretty awful,” another staffer says. “I realize many companies tend to do this before other people put a spin on it, but I had a friend texting me before I had even told family members.” The staff then left the conference room to assemble Express‘s final issue. Farhi tells Washingtonian he learned of Express‘s closure 24 hours in advance, under embargo. The embargo’s terms included that he talk only to people who already knew of the decision.
The Post‘s PR operation would not answer a question from Washingtonian on Wednesday about what sort of severance pay or assistance finding new jobs the publication plans to provide to Express‘s 20 staffers. Washingtonian subsequently attempted to verify the reporting in this blog post with Post management and invited comment via the Post‘s PR operation, which did not respond.
Multiple Express staffers say the severance package includes full salary through the end of October, then two weeks’ pay for every year of service afterward, with a minimum of four weeks, resulting in at least 11 weeks’ salary for laid-off staffers. The Post will pay COBRA premiums for six months for anyone who’d been employed less than ten years and a year for anyone who’d been there longer. Grant encouraged Express staffers to apply for open jobs on the Post‘s job site. “There is a pretty concerted effort to absorb people wherever it makes sense,” says Dan Caccavaro, Express‘s executive editor. “Having Express on your résumé here is a real plus.” Other staffers felt the company’s welcome mat was a little skimpy. “There’s certainly no preferential hiring for those of us who’ve been laid off,” one says.
David DeJesus, the Guild’s co-chair for the commercial side of the Post, says he expects a “reciprocal effect in commercial departments like advertising.” There’s been one layoff of a sales rep announced so far, DeJesus says.
And then there are the hawkers. As is depressingly common in US business, the folks who actually delivered Express to readers were independent contractors and therefore ineligible for any severance. Caccavaro says he’s heard that some will get the opportunity to sell single copies of the Washington Post instead, newsie-style, which I was unable to verify. DCist reports the hawkers received no severance. “I can’t say enough about our hawkers,” Caccavaro says. “I think so much of why people loved Express was because of the hawkers.”
Express‘s relationship to the mothership has always been complicated. The publication was based out of the Post‘s non-unionized Arlington newsroom when it launched in 2003, and its journalism appeared on different URLs before being rolled onto the Post‘s main site. Post stories ran in Express; Express stories ran in the Post. Express journalists have Post email addresses and have worked out of the Post’s DC offices for a decade. But Express was financially separate from the Post in ways that made unionizing its staff an intricate task, says Washington-Baltimore News Guild Executive Director Cet Parks. Express staffers would have had to organize separately, sign cards, and have an election. They couldn’t just be accreted into the Guild’s contract with the Post, he says, due to what the Post Guild described as as “legal and bureaucratic fictions” in a blog post.
Those fictions had nonfiction consequences. Staffers say salaries at Express were markedly lower than those at “Big Post,” as they called it. So even though, as Parks says, the severance package Express staffers received “sounds like they got pretty much close to what we got in the contract,” they’ll receive a lot less money than they would have had they managed to unionize. Another benefit they’ll miss out on: Guild-repped employees get preference when they’re considered for job openings after being laid off.
Several Express employees say they actually got pretty close to unionizing between last winter and this spring, but “fearmongering” about Express‘s financial condition put a lid on such efforts, one staffer tells Washingtonian. “We were extremely close,” the staffer says. “We had a mission statement, a press release ready. We were planning to go public.”
In an email to members Wednesday evening, Guild news co-chair Katie Mettler said the union has “no legal power to help [Express staffers] negotiate for a stronger severance package” and suggested ways staffers could help immediately, including Venmo-ing cash for drinks at Maddy’s Taproom Wednesday night (the staff kicked in $1,365, says Zainab Mudallal, an assistant editor in the Opinion operation) and sharing job leads. “STAY TUNED for more formal actions directed at the company in the coming days,” Mettler wrote, noting that more than half of Post employees are now union members, the highest percentage of membership the Guild has enjoyed in 20 years. “A lot of our members are close to [Express staffers] and our heart goes out to them, and we wish the publication could have stayed open,” says Parks. He advises any journalist who’s able to do so to organize. A lot of the reason Express staffers got what they did, he says, was because of the terms the Guild already came to with the Post.