‘Retraining’ New York Times Reporters: A Raw Deal

The New York Times, my former mother-ship, is offering to “retrain” its reporters and turn them into new media whiz-kids. Only one problem with that.

Nobody wants to do it.

I can’t exactly blame the reporters. The memo a couple of weeks ago from one of the least user-friendly assistant managing editors at the paper, Susan Edgerley, held out what at first appeared to be the possibility of transformation: retraining print reporters to be producers for the web.

The Times desperately needs to do this. It has a skyscraper full of overpaid reporters and editors, and a terrifying market cap currently hovering at just $586 million.  (Just five years ago, the stock price was about $45. It is now at $4.07.)

Throw in the abysmal advertising market, a declining print readership and the need to somehow hang on to the core intellectual capital of the newsroom that makes the paper what it is – and this seems like a necessary measure.

At first, reporters reacted to the memo with enthusiasm, from what I hear from the inside of the newsroom. After all, many of even the most veteran journalists want to equip themselves with the skills to survive the epochal changes hitting newsprint. Many of them want to adapt, and transform themselves.

But at what cost? It turns out that Edgerley wasn’t being candid about the consequences of such retraining.

A memo from the newspaper guild to reporters followed Edgerley’s, and warned them of the invisible downside to their voluntary “retraining”: they would have to leave the paper and be rehired at a lower salary. They would thus lose their seniority at the company, have to start earning vacation like new employees and be subject to the lesser protection offered web writers under the rules of the newspaper guild.

In fact, the gambit seems like a not-very-transparent attempt to cut reporters’ salaries, strip them of benefits and make their seniority disappear.

And what’s worse, if the paper decided the reporter didn’t cut it as a newbie webbie – they’d be out on the street.

Times are tough all over. Reporters at the cliff-hanging Seattle Post-Intelligencer were offered a similar deal last week as the paper moves toward an online only version; many rejected it.

But old-timers at places like the New York Times, Los Angeles Times and lots of other big newspapers need to do a reality check. The days of six-figure salaries for  ink-stained writers are on their way to extinction, just like hot type. Whatever new business model emerges from these changing times almost certainly does not include salaries at that level.

But let’s be real. The Times cannot expect reporters to give up so many of their hard-earned benefits and job security for a chance to leap into the world of the web.

I mean, for that kind of deal, they can come work at a place like TheWrap. (Attention Pulitzer winners: I’m listed.)