You Say Hemorrhage, I Say Attrition
Why are people leaving the Providence Journal?
Kathryn S. Wenner
Kathryn S. Wenner, a former AJR associate editor, is a copy editor at the Washington Post.
THE NEWSPAPER GUILD local calls it a "talent hemorrhage." Management calls it normal attrition. Whatever is happening at the Providence Journal, winner of four Pulitzer Prizes and long known as a "writer's paper," this much is true: At least 35 news staffers have left since January 2000, just before the union's contract expired, a number of them longtime, respected reporters.
"Things right now are not copacetic at the Providence Journal," says G. Wayne Miller, one of the paper's star writers and a 20-year employee. Miller and others describe a "poisoned" atmosphere created by the labor troubles. Negotiations on a new contract have been stalled for months, and the National Labor Relations Board has issued a complaint against the Belo-owned Providence Journal Co.
Disagreement between the union and management about whether an unusually high number of editorial employees are leaving the paper may be just another aspect of the labor dispute. Chairman, Publisher, President and CEO Howard G. Sutton says that there "really is no high turnover," that despite the departures, the total news staff is down to 303 from 311 at the beginning of 2000. Those who have left include 16 reporters, seven desk editors, two managerial staffers and 10 administrative staff members, he says.
Guild executive board member and reporter and weekend city editor Brian C. Jones says he only recalls one other period in his nearly 35 years at the paper when a stream of reporters left‹and then it was only nine or 10 over a couple of years, all of whom followed a former staffer to the Los Angeles Times.
Whether or not an exodus is under way, low morale does seem to be a serious problem, though staffers differ in how much they attribute it to the contract issues. Other reasons for discontent, some say, are the lack of a clear system of promotions and not enough people to cover the news.
Linda Borg, a 14-year employee who now works downtown as an education writer, says she felt "completely stymied" after 12-and-a-half years in the bureaus. She would have considered leaving the paper, she says, had she not been moved to her current beat, which she loves. She blames low morale in part on a promotion system she calls "completely political and capricious," one that fails to reward deserving employees.
Several complaints were common among a number of those interviewed: Editors sometimes seem panicked because they don't have enough people; fewer projects are being assigned; and younger, less experienced reporters are promoted out of the bureaus after a couple of years, while older, respected reporters spend 10 years or more covering suburban night meetings.
Ellen Liberman, a seven-year employee and winner of several in-house writing awards, left in frustration in April after being passed over repeatedly for promotion out of suburban bureaus. She is now editor of a two-hour daily news and information program on the local NPR affiliate, WRNI.
"I tried everything I could to move to another beat, a subject beat, or GA, because my brain was just turning to mush out there," says Liberman, 44. "I just couldn't break out."
Ariel Sabar, 30, who's been at the paper six years, broke out fairly quickly. He was brought downtown to cover night cops after two years covering a suburb. Now he is the lead demographics writer and part of the Statehouse team. "I can't complain about my situation," he says. "There are a limited number of really good jobs. That's the case anywhere. So I understand why we've lost people. Some have been younger people who didn't want to spend a decade in a bureau."
Promotions at the Journal, Sutton says, are "based upon performance and the best skill sets to accomplish the job. We do not promote simply based on seniority." As for morale, "it would be inappropriate for me to comment on the morale of individual employees," he says. "I think that's something they have to comment on as individuals."
But people are departing for other reasons, too--the same ones for which journalists leave any paper. Christopher Rowland, a former Rhode Island Statehouse reporter who'd had his eye on the Boston Globe for several years, jumped at the chance to become chief of the Globe West bureau in January after 12 years at the Journal.
Borg and others note that many of those who've left were at midcareer, when "either they jump now," or stay at the Journal, she says. Some who left did so when the economy was still booming and well-paying jobs were plentiful, she adds, and some, "in fairness to the company," just felt it was time to move on.
Maria Miro Johnson, who quit in April 2000, says that's why she left. After 20 years in journalism, 15 at the Journal, Johnson says she knew it was time to go when stories that should have excited her didn't. "They were giving me all kinds of opportunities," like the chance to cover Hillary Clinton's Senate campaign, Johnson says, the thought of which made her want to "stick needles in my eyes." She's just finished a year of teaching English at a Connecticut middle school.
Still, even those who have stayed and are happy in their beats say the labor situation shadows the newsroom. Sutton acknowledges that "not having a contract, to a certain extent, has put some additional stress on management and union members."
As in any contract dispute, the issues are complicated, involving health, pension, vacation and other benefits, plus grievance issues. Negotiations began in October 1999 on a new contract covering the Guild's 500-member bargaining unit at the Journal, including about 300 newsroom and 200 advertising staffers. A month before the old one expired in February 2000, the company enrolled employees in a different--and, the union says, less generous and flexible--health plan, the same one that covers all other union and non-union Journal employees. Attorney Richard A. Perras, who represents the company at the bargaining table, says the union's objection to the health plan change "is a money issue that the Guild is trying to disguise as a health care coverage issue," and that "there hasn't been a single instance where any employee hasn't had completely adequate coverage" under the plan. Union Administrator Timothy F. Schick says the sticking point in the health plan change is how it was implemented--unilaterally, before an agreement was reached. For that reason and because of some other changes to benefits the company made at the same time, the Guild filed charges with the NLRB, which issued a complaint. A hearing date had not been scheduled at press time.
But despite their low spirits, staffers respect the newspaper. Reporters interviewed uniformly praised the news judgment and editing. They say they're well paid, live in a wonderful place and love their work. Jones describes working at the Journal this way: "You get New York Times-quality journalism, with non-New York living conditions, low commuting times, [and you're] near the water--many people at the newspaper have sailboats. If you shed too many tears [for us], you lose credibility."
The paper "still attracts some very talented people," Sabar says. "I'm hoping we can get past the contract dispute.... I'm hoping that this is a detour rather than a real change in direction."