The good news about newsroom buyouts.

Media criticism.
April 7 2008 7:11 PM

Two Cheers for Newsroom Buyouts

The good news about the bad news coming out of newsrooms.

Illustration by Mark Alan Stamaty. Click image to expand.

Advertising revenue at newspapers has fallen off a cliff and may tumble all the way to the bottom of the Marianas Trench if the promised recession arrives. Average circulation is down, too, and the combined trends are prompting publications from the New York Times to Newsweek to the Washington Post to the Boston Globe to the Twin Cities'Star Tribune to Sam Zell's Tribune Co. and beyond to offer senior employees buyouts.

Some newsrooms are saying goodbye with a wad of cash to their most experienced and decorated hands. At the New York Times, Supreme Court reporter Linda Greenhouse has taken a buyout, critics David Ansen and David Gates are leaving Newsweek, and prize-winning bylines at the Washington Post are likely to depart as the paper completes its third round of buyouts in six years.

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Yet, good news can be found inside the bad news. Some of the exiting veterans have held their plum positions for years, even decades, and have given no signs of leaving—this is not always a good thing. News organizations rely on turnover to keep them vital, and in many cases buyouts (hence "two cheers") may help revitalize a few franchises.

While I hold the 61-year-old Greenhouse in great esteem and will miss her coverage, it's worth noting that she had covered the Supremes for nearly 30 years. Disco was still big when she took the assignment. Starsky and Hutch was on television. In passing the baton from Greenhouse to 47-year-old whippersnapper Adam Liptak, the Times has a chance to reconceptualize its court coverage. (Of course, you can teach somebody like Greenhouse a few new tricks, but new editor-reporter teams are usually more daring and inventive.) In the Web era, is the best use of the Times'column inches the traditional day-after-oral-arguments story and the day-after-decisions dispatches? Is there a more creative way to report on the court? Should Liptak cover the court with more argument and greater point of view, the way he covers the law in his current Sidebar column? Whether dug-in journalists are excellent or mediocre, their departures give publications the opportunity to reinvent themselves.

The "retirement" of the buyout brigade has the added benefit of loosening the ugly stranglehold the boomers have over the press. I may be risking self-extermination by advocating wholesale boomer expulsion, but there are just too many of us—especially the older variety—in top slots for journalism's good. The sheer weight of our presence blocks the promotion of the next generation of talented journalists to the most desirable beats.

We like our nice salaries, we enjoy our benefits and vacation time, we dig our place in the pecking order, and we expect to live forever. So why should we leave? Our intransigence not only gives our product a rancid boomer tang—who can blame nonboomers for being repulsed?—it tends to stifle innovation.

Meanwhile, over on the Web, where news staffs tend to be younger and less tradition-bound, the sort of experimentation newspapers and magazines should be engaging in is a part of the daily routine. If not for age-discrimination legislation and other statutes, our bosses would have cleared us out with sharp-bladed bulldozers long ago and replaced us with younger, more-adaptable, and less-expensive minds. Yes, you heard right. Newsrooms must cut their budgets to survive, and the high-salaried boomers (and pre-boomers) are liabilities.

Fortunately, the one thing boomers understand is money, and the offer of a couple of years' salary in the form of a buyout has been too great a temptation for many of them to resist. Whenever a journalism vet boards the SS Buyout—no matter how good he is—his departure initiates a series of reassignments that help replenish a news organization's juices by bringing down the median age of reporters and editors and making it possible for his publication to add a lower-paying entry-level slot. (Some of the bought-out have returned to their publications without leaving by signing on as contract employees. Others, like Greenhouse, have segued to gigs in academia: She's bound for a job at Yale Law School. Others have not been as fortunate.)

Lower salaries for journalists are not a good thing, but neither are the lower profits earned by their publications. It could be that the relatively high salaries journalists have earned in the last 30 years were a function of the monopoly profits their news organizations earned, and that the average salary may have peaked around 2000, about the time the number of news jobs peaked.