A farewell to 15th and L

I had one last day at the Post back in April of 2011. I shared another one with other Post alumni Wednesday afternoon, when the paper marked its last official day of business at the address it had occupied for decades, 1150 15th St. NW.

The paper is moving to rented space a few blocks over on K Street; after everybody finishes packing up their stuff, the grim pile of bricks on 15th Street will have a date with a wrecking ball. But first, current and former employees got to share a goodbye ceremony modeled after newsroom farewells to departing employees.

1150 signThere were speeches, but more than I remember being customary. There was cake and also cupcakes. And there was a fake front page–headline, “So long, suckers”–on which every story was written by the building itself about its occupants.

(That story isn’t online as far as I know. Instead, you should read Marc Fisher’s history of the building, from its lead-type days to the present.)

I ran into more people than I expected to see–all the way back to Lucila Woodard, the copy aide supervisor who had hired me for a part-time job in late 1993. I stopped by my old desk and was amused to see that some of the pushpins I’d left on the cubicle wall hadn’t been moved by its subsequent occupants. I also had to chuckle at the sight of some old tube TVs still collecting dust atop filing cabinets.

(I’ve posted a Flickr album from that visit.)

The place changed immensely during my 17 years there. A series of editing-system upgrades made the screens and keyboards not look obviously obsolete; the presses stopped running downtown in 1999 and ended the tradition of late workers getting a still-warm copy of the first edition of tomorrow’s paper dropped off on their desks around 10 p.m.; the nearby blocks stopped featuring fast-food restaurants and hookers as high-end restaurants and bars moved in.

The newsroom has changed a lot since I’ve left too. The stunning sale of the paper to Jeff Bezos ended a painful cycle of buyouts and brought a crop of new journalists to the paper who don’t exhibit the same old feelings of occupational doom.  The site is no longer a sluggish embarrassment; last month, the Post had more online readers than the New York Times. I’m glad to see these things.

On my way out, I ran into a guy from IT who mentioned that one of his neighbors had stopped reading the paper after I left. I told him to tell this guy that he had my express permission to resume reading the Post.

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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.