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'Washington Post' journalists stage daylong strike under threat of job cuts

More than 750 <em>Washington Post</em> workers have agreed to walk off the job on Thursday to protest stalled contract negotiations. The company has warned of layoffs if too few staffers take voluntary buyouts.
Pablo Martinez Monsivais
More than 750 Washington Post workers have agreed to walk off the job on Thursday to protest stalled contract negotiations. The company has warned of layoffs if too few staffers take voluntary buyouts.

More than 750 journalists and business-side staffers at The Washington Post walked off the job for the day, saying they are angered by the company's decision to embark on massive job cuts while contract negotiations have stalled.

"We did not come to this decision to do this walkout lightly," says Post reporter Marissa Lang, who covers housing and serves on the union's bargaining team. "We all work at The Washington Post because we believe in its mission and we believe in what we do. And we care deeply about the work we do, the people, the communities, the stories we cover.

"I think this indicates how seriously we all are taking this, how deeply felt a lot of these concerns are in the Washington Post newsroom and in the company at large," she says.

The strike Thursday is the most serious labor action at the paper in decades. It follows months of worker activism throughout the nation. While some of those have led to wins for labor, the media industry has suffered sharp layoffs this year.

The newspaper's acting CEO, Patty Stonesifer, announced plans in October to cut 240 jobs, about 10% of the workforce, through voluntary buyouts. She told staffers that previous management had been "overly optimistic" about the paper's prospects for growth.

Last week, Stonesifer warned in a memo first reported by Semafor that half of that number had accepted buyouts. If more people did not accept them by next week, involuntary layoffs would ensue on far less generous terms, she said.

A Post spokesperson released this statement Wednesday: "We respect the rights of our Guild-covered colleagues to engage in this planned one-day strike. We will make sure our readers and customers are as unaffected as possible. The Post's goal remains the same as it has from the start of our negotiations: to reach an agreement with the Guild that meets the needs of our employees and the needs of our business."

Washingtonian magazine posted a memo it obtained from a Post section head telling staff of fears the paper would have little to publish during the daylong strike. The editor beseeched colleagues to file stories on "anything that even whiffs of news," citing a need to "hoard" copy. "This is the first time I have typed these words in my life: The bar is low," the editor wrote.

Anger at Jeff Bezos and his leadership team

The Post is privately owned by Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, one of the world's wealthiest people. He has invested tens of millions of dollars annually after acquiring the paper. In recent years, it has suffered financial losses.

It is not alone in that regard. Cuts have plagued the industry, encompassing legacy media outlets including NPR, the Los Angeles Times, Gannett's newspapers and New York Public Radio, as well as Vox, Vice Media and BuzzFeed. Spotify announced this week that it would lay off 17% of its staff.

Former <em>Washington Post</em> publisher and CEO Fred Ryan was forced out this year. Many staffers blame him for poor financial decisions.
Mark Wilson / Getty Images
Getty Images
Former Washington Post publisher and CEO Fred Ryan was forced out this year. Many staffers blame him for poor financial decisions.

Yet many journalists at the Post look longingly northward up Interstate 95 at The New York Times, which has spun digital subscriptions into gold. And they blame former chief executive and publisher Fred Ryan for failing to attain similar success in Washington. Ryan, who could not be reached for comment, was forced out this year.

"Our former publisher made some pretty misguided business decisions, and those profits disappeared," Lang says. "Now the people who are being asked to pay for that mismanagement are the workers on whose backs the success that we had was really hard won." Lang says Bezos should invest more to help the paper return to the black.

Fears over local news

Union members say specific areas have been disproportionately targeted for buyouts, including metro news, copy editors and the audio team.

"What they're doing is really going to decimate the local news desk, which brings the idea of a news desert to the nation's capital, with fewer and fewer journalists covering local news issues," says Jon Schleuss, president of the national NewsGuild. He says the walkout stems from his union members' fury and recognition that such actions have worked elsewhere.

"It's building on a massive revolt in media organizations," he says.

NewsGuild units have undertaken significant work stoppages at The New York Times, the Gannett newspaper chain, Business Insider and other outlets.

Union members say it's hard to disentangle the buyouts and threatened layoffs from the larger tensions over compensation and working conditions. Staffers have worked for several years without guaranteed raises that allow their salaries to keep pace with significant inflation, the union says.

According to a Nov. 16 memo to staff acquired by NPR, the Post has made what it says is a "comprehensive contract offer" to the union. It includes incentives available only if the offer is accepted by the end of the year. They include extending the contract for three years rather than two, slightly higher annual wage increases and additional job protections.

"This offer contains everything The Post is willing to offer in a labor contract with the Guild," the memo states.

Guild members say there is currently no plan to stage additional walkouts after Thursday's strike.

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David Folkenflik was described by Geraldo Rivera of Fox News as "a really weak-kneed, backstabbing, sweaty-palmed reporter." Others have been kinder. The Columbia Journalism Review, for example, once gave him a "laurel" for reporting that immediately led the U.S. military to institute safety measures for journalists in Baghdad.