Newspaper alumni need the occasional reunion too

CHICAGO–I’m here for the Online News Association’s annual conference, and it’s been pretty great so far. Not necessarily for all the panels and discussions (although they’ve been good too, especially Chartbeat CEO Tony Haile’s explaining how news sites and advertisers need to focus on time spent instead of page views, then Texas Tribune editor Amanda Krauss discussing how changing the “Like” button in their commenting system to a “Respect” button helped elevate the discussion), but for the people.

ONA 14 logo on tote bagThe right and honorable profession of journalism has many virtues, but occupational permanence or even long-term stability isn’t among them. Jobs change, news organizations grow or shrink, and your fellow cubicle farmers may not be there next year. The cubicle farm itself may vanish.

(That lesson is particularly obvious in this city: My walk to the ONA venue takes me past the Tribune Tower, where Sam Zell’s malicious mismanagement sent the newspaper into bankruptcy.)

You can still talk to the people you used to work with on Facebook, Twitter and mailing lists, but sometimes you want to see them in person. Tech events help–I don’t miss going to Apple product launches because of the chance to inspect a new iPhone under tightly-controlled conditions, but because they let me catch up with tech-journalism pals–but ONA is fantastic for reconnecting with old Post colleagues.

We run into each other, we ask what we’re up to now, we share our recollections of horrible CMSes, we trade tips about travel and technology, we talk about our families… and I love realizing that we’ve found happiness in our post-newspaper lives.

I’ve also run into some current Posties here, who seem much more content than many of us were when we left: The Jeff Bezos money has ended a long and seemingly unending cycle of staff cuts and started paying for hiring and travel on a scale unimaginable back then. That’s good to see too.

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Weekly output: Washington Post sale (x3), TWC vs. CBS, iPhone apps, lost and found phones

August is supposed to be a slow news month in D.C., but somebody forgot to remind the owners of the Washington Post about that.

8/6/2013: Bezos Brings Patient Capital to the Post; It Needs Bold, Persistent Experimentation Too, Disruptive Competition Project

My first take on the pending sale of my former employer to Jeff Bezos for $250 million looked at the possible upsides of the Amazon founder owning the business. (My second one ran here.) I find Bezos’s willingness to invest in costly ventures that may take decades to pay off, such as the private-spaceflight firm Blue Origin, heartening, but he doesn’t have much of a public record in standing up to government pressure on national-security issues.

WJLA spot on Post sale8/6/2013: Bezos’ influence on the Post, according to tech experts, ABC 7 News

WJLA’s Steve Chenevey–who interviewed me a few times at his old employer, Fox 5 News–asked me for some perspective about the Bezos sale on the Tuesday evening news. You can also see iStrategyLabs CEO Peter Corbett and 1776 co-founder Evan Burfield opine on the news in this report.

8/8/2013: The Hostage-Taking Foolishness of Retransmission Fights, Disruptive Competition Project

This unpacking of CBS’s squabble with Time Warner Cable over how much TWC should pay for the right to retransmit its local stations recycled much of my coverage of the 2010 retransmission fight between Cablevision and Fox–because the TV industry is recycling much of the stupidity of that “retrans” fight.

8/10/2013: How to bring iOS apps back to your home screen, USA Today

This explanation of how iPhone or iPad apps can appear to disappear almost needed a correction. But on Saturday I realized that a passing reference to how many apps you can put in a folder was incorrect (in fact, the limit varies by device), I e-mailed my editor to suggest we drop that detail, and she promptly fixed the piece. In other news, my editor is kind of awesome.

On Sulia, I complimented how everyone involved with the Post sale was able to keep a lid on the news beforehand, cast a little scorn on one story of many to suggest that Bezos’s involvement might finally allow the Post to put in place some obvious upgrades, and reported on my initial experiences with Twitter’s new login verification and Google’s Android Device Manager find-my-phone service.

A post-Graham Post

The spectacle of experienced, often cynical journalists getting a little weepy over the prospect of their paper’s ownership changing from a group of rich people to one exceptionally rich person might seem strange.

But it really happened this week when the Washington Post stunned nearly everybody, myself included, by announcing its impending sale for $250 million to Amazon founder and CEO Jeff Bezos.

Post in winterWhat was so special about the Graham family owning the newspaper and the Washington Post Company behind it?

This: To us, their stewardship was our rock.

The family had shown it would take punches for the paper. Eugene Meyer bought the Post at a bankruptcy auction in 1933, when it was the fifth newspaper in a four-newspaper town, then subsidized its losses into the 1950s. His daughter Katharine Graham took over after his son-in-law Phil Graham’s suicide and stood up to Richard Nixon and much of the military-industrial complexher memoirs show she was an Iron Lady well before Margaret Thatcher earned the title.

And even as the newspaper industry started to slide, the Post’s two-tier stock structure locked Wall Street out of voting control and, we thought, ensured the paper could be managed for the duration while others made cruel and stupid staff cuts to meet short-term earnings goals.

For me and many other under-40 Posties, the family’s role was personified by Don Graham, the paper’s publisher from 1979 to 2000, chairman from 2000 to 2008 and still chief executive of its parent firm. “Mrs. Graham” had her well-earned perch in the 9th floor executive suite, but Don was a constant presence in the newsroom who could be counted on to read every story in the paper.

If you did a good job, you might get a handwritten compliment via interoffice mail, later on an appreciative e-mail. And if you screwed up, Don could understand. In January of 2000, stressed over my aunt’s death the day before, I completely blew up at a cranky caller and hung up on him in a stream of curses, something I’d never done before and never have since; the guy promptly called Don, who heard him out, apparently talked him off the ledge and refrained from having me canned.

In and outside the newsroom, Don declined to play the part of a media mogul. He’d followed Harvard by serving with the U.S. Army in Vietnam, then in D.C.’s streets as a patrolman with the Metropolitan Police Department. He insisted he be compensated far less than his peers, with his salary frozen since 1991. It seemed normal that I’d have the occasional brief chat with him on the walk to Metro at the end of the day.

Up until maybe five years ago, working for the Post seemed one of the surest bets in journalism. But we weren’t doing as well as we thought–even as the apparent security of having the Grahams in our corner probably kept us from taking chances we should have. Circulation figures and ad revenues kept sinking, one round of buyouts begat another and another, and the newsroom leadership turned over more than once. Don Graham’s successors as publisher–Bo Jones from 2000 to 2008, his niece Katharine Weymouth from 2008 on–didn’t have the same newsroom presence.

I’ve wondered what the family members in charge thought about the steady erosion of their legacy. Now we know: Late last year, they began to explore the implausible: If we can’t escape a seemingly endless cycle of cuts and can’t find answers for the questions the newspaper business keeps throwing at us, maybe it’s time for somebody else to take over, somebody with new ideas and enough resources to fund the paper’s reinvention entirely free of the stock market’s concerns.

Since Monday’s news, I’ve been hearing anxiety from current and former Posties over what Bezos might have in store–from his history with unions to what Amazon’s done to independent bookstores. I don’t think you can overlook a deeper angst: that the Post is being wrenched off the foundation that had endured for over 80 years.

Accepting that change had to have been a crushing realization to the Graham family too–that you essentially must fire yourself from your life’s work. But it seems in keeping with the history I’ve read and the publisher I got to know. As my friend and fellow ex-Postie Frank Ahrens wrote in an eloquent note shared on Facebook: “After a lifetime of benevolent ownership, this sale is Don’s last great gift to you. He gave you a fighting chance.”

Don Graham’s work at the Washington Post may be near its close, but he remains one of the most decent, honorable people I have met. Thanks, Don.

Anniversary

Last April 7, I was up against an issue I’d never dealt with in some 17 years as a professional journalist: What is it like to make news that almost nobody expects?

I knew my job was cooked a good month before I announced the news here–and after months of increasing uncertainty. Reading the Wikipedia entry for “ejection seat” because the metaphor suddenly appeals to you? Not a good sign about your contentment with your workplace.

But before I could go public, first I had to tell my wife, then my mother and brother, then old friends, then a few close colleagues and some tech journalists I’ve known for a long time.

It got progressively easier to surprise people with the news. But I still didn’t know what to expect when I clicked “Publish” on that post and quickly fired off links to it on Twitter, my Facebook profile and my public Facebook page: boom, boom, boom, there goes my job. I mean, the people on the other side of the cubicle wall didn’t even know the news. In retrospect, I’m amazed that nothing leaked… maybe I do know a thing or two about PR after all.

(Other people have taken longer to find out. It was somewhat awkward a few weeks ago when a neighbor asked how my writing at the Post was going.)

I shouldn’t have worried about the reaction. It felt immensely liberating to come out of the closet–to stop pretending that things were going great at work and, instead, finally hit that ejection seat.

But I should have taken a screen capture of my phone showing 200 or so notifications from Twitter, maybe 50 from Facebook, dozens of e-mails and a round of text messages.

It’s now one year later. As I began writing this post, my Q&A column for USA Today about the Flashback drive-by-download Mac malware had a prominent spot on that paper’s home page and was listed as its most-read story. I think I’m doing okay.

Bye, out: More Posties to leave

Sometime later this year, my old shop will have another series of farewell cakings: The Washington Post plans to trim its newsroom staff through its latest buyout program.

This will be the fifth round of buyouts at the paper over the last decade, courtesy of a still-overfunded pension program. (The Post Guild would add an unofficial round last fall in which about a dozen staffers were at least strongly encouraged to leave.)

I didn’t enjoy learning about this Wednesday, because I remember how much fun the previous episodes were. First you see the announcement, then people speculate about who will be eligible, then you count who took a buyout offer and who declined that exit–and finally, as the newsroom goodbyes wrap up, you realize how much experience and talent is walking out to the sidewalks of 15th and L Streets NW.

It’s not good to watch this happen in a place where people traditionally stick around–the Post has no formal recognition of tenure until you clock 20 years, at which point you get a pin. It’s worse when this keeps happening.

This year’s program aims to whittle away 33 positions out of about 600 in the newsroom–down from roughly 1,100 at its peak, then 850 in 2009. About 200 people could be eligible, but the specified reductions would hurt some sections worse than others: The tiny Investigative section is set to lose three people while Metro would drop nine and Sports only two. Some parts of the newsroom are exempt: anybody hired from 2010 on, foreign correspondents, national politics and government reporters, most columnists and all of Outlook and Weekend, among others.

The reaction from friends inside the newsroom doesn’t seem too positive. Outside it, there’s American Journalism Review editor Rem Rieder’s pithy dismissal of the do-more-with-less messaging: “So cut if you must. But spare us the bogus happy talk.”

I hope the paper I still read and subscribe to keeps doing its job. As for my old colleagues who discover they need to find a new one, there’s a phrase I’ve heard a lot lately: It gets better.

Departure

After more than 17 years, I’m leaving the Washington Post.

No, that’s not an easy sentence to write.

The proximate cause is management deciding that the sort of review and analysis of technology that I’ve been doing for most of those 17 years is no longer part of the Post’s core mission. As I understand it, the paper places a high priority on covering Washington the city (as in, local news and sports) and Washington the story (politics), but other topics may not be assured of column inches or server space.

As a journalist in a newsroom, you own the quality of your work but not your spot in the paper or on the Web site. Beat, column and blog assignments change. Sometimes your editors offer you another position–my colleague Patricia Sullivan arrived here to edit technology coverage but moved on to become a talented obituary writer. And sometimes they offer you an exit.

I could try to expand on the reasoning behind the paper’s decision, but I’ve never pretended to be a spokesman for management and won’t start now. Trust me on this, though: My critiques of the Post–such as those of its iPhone and iPad apps or its advertising policies–had zero bearing on my departure.

Instead, let me explain why this isn’t a bad time for me to log out and investigate the next thing, and why I’ve been pondering that move for a while.

First, in two words, I’m exhausted. I wrote more than 2,000 words on Monday alone, and I’ve easily exceeded that figure on many days over the last few years. My longest time off since starting here in 1993 was three weeks of paternity leave last year, which you should recognize as being a long way from vacation. The newsroom’s new editing system, as noted by our ombudsman in late March, has only compounded the fatigue factor.

Second, there’s this life outside the office that I’d like to reacquaint myself with, however briefly. As I write this, my daughter is about ready to crawl even as our house remains un-babyproofed. Spring is arriving and I have a (small) lawn and garden ready for my attention. The kitchen has a stack of recipes overdue for me to try, while the rest of the house hides a long list of deferred-maintenance chores. I won’t mind stepping off the treadmill for a bit to focus on things that don’t involve gigabytes, kilobits or megapixels.

Third, the journalism market is seeing some changes. The Post’s union kept some eminently fair severance provisions in our contract, and they should give me time to consider opportunities that didn’t exist a year or two ago.

In the meantime, I’ll use this space to write about my exit and my next steps. My Post e-mail address should work through the end of the month, and you can also reach me at rob@robpegoraro.com.

Thanks for reading. See you on the other side of my next byline…

- R