Friday, December 27, 2013

The Washington Post Cuts Expenses

As I've stated, when I arrived at the Post in the late 90's it was still the worker's paradise. Most employees didn't actually do that much work and had great job security as well. You almost had to kill somebody to be fired. The Post preferred to give wayward employees some sort of counseling to sooth them back onto the path of righteousness. In actual fact there was a murder in the Washington Post by an employee who killed another employee during a robbery. He was fired.

Rules, rules, rules were the rule of the day more and more. You can't do this. You can't do that. You better do this and you better do that. Smoking was on the way out. A gym was installed to coax workers to get more active which was fine for me. The health insurance plan we had, which was the envy of workers of the world everywhere was severely cut and our cost increased. That happened in several stages - each time the workers losing more coverage while being forced to pay more deductible.

I had never been in the union since they did their best to keep me from getting work in the beginning. So I figured why join them now that I'm an employee? I never came to regret that decision and the longer I worked at the Post the more former union members agreed and quit as well.  From my perspective, all the union was doing was selling out the workers slowly. This at a time when the Post was raking in the ad revenue. These profits were being made by an entirely new Ad Operations crew that was much smaller and made up of mostly younger, lower paid workers compared to the old expensive mostly union workers. So the Post was making more money with lower costs as well. They must have thought the economy would expand forever because they built two new plants to print the paper - one in Alexandria, Virginia and one in College Park, Maryland. They created a couple shadow Ad Operations, Editorial, etc. offices in these plants that could produce the paper should something happen to the L Street location where I worked. This fact would come to worry me later as I shall discuss. But it was of no concern to me then.

The paper went to color and bought two enormous color printing presses for each plant. The presses didn't register as well as was advertised by the manufacturer meaning the Post could not print as close to the edge of the page as they had hoped. This meant the printing area of the paper had to be shrunk so it would not run off the page. I wondered how the advertisers would take to the reduction in their ad sizes. Apparently they didn't mind because the ads were just screaming in - especially Real Estate ads. Thursday nights was my dreaded night since we closed the Real Estate section and the various zoned sections could be enormous.

Zoning was a little trick the Washington Post could do with the new CCI Pagination software we used to paste up the paper with. In the old days the same paper went to millions of people and you needed a good or service that you wanted to advertise over the entire region. With zoned ads the Post could produce sections for the paper that would only go to readers in the county in which they lived. So the advertisement would only be seen by those people in that region but it would be much less expensive than the daily ads which could cost one hundred grand.

I was going with the flow but all the union workers were grumbling under their breath about the working terms. All I knew was the Post had replaced everybody from the old guard in three months and things got better, more efficient and productivity soared in Ad Operations. We could go on strike about our working misery but we'd lose our jobs, the management would produce the paper for the couple months required to replace us with new workers happy to do so. I knew this and so did the Washington Post. But the union workers still had their dreams and regularly handed out their little flyers about meetings and such. I chucked them into the trash at least until the very end which I shall also discuss when the time is right.

Despite the large amount of ad revenue taken in each day by the Post, there was one fact occurring at this time which they knew about which none of us or anybody was privy to. The Post was starting to bleed subscriptions. Before long the number would dip below one million subscribers and then continued to drop. Finally the Post had to admit publicly that subscriptions were going down. It was close to being a scandal since the ad fees charged by the Post were based on the number of subscribers to the paper. When they finally admitted the numbers they called us into yet another meeting to massage the workers so we would not worry and do our jobs flawlessly with a calm, clear mind. So they explained all the things the paper was doing to remain viable and how unlike many papers they were still in the black. The management railed against craigslist.com for crushing the Post's classified ad revenue as well as the net in general for the demise of the newspaper industry. The conference room was filled with worried eyes but not for me. However long the Post would operate I figured I could stay till the end since I was a hard workers and management knew it too.

During this time the retirement parties began in earnest. In the early days the Post threw a lot of parties as well. But these were to thank the employees and make them feel good for making the Post so much dough. They had casino nights when the Post would take over an entire bar somewhere downtown or for karaoke, etc. Drinks were free and the delicious food was everywhere. Most of it I could not eat as it was filled with dairy product and other things killing the average Post worker. It was a slow death - killing themselves each time they bent their elbow which caused their mouth to open wide involuntarily. Those parties were great! I like to dance and sing and never miss an opportunity to do either. The drinking I did a couple of times but returning to work to proofread after five rum and cokes after one party where I was fried. I swore to myself if I got through the night without giving up a write off I'd never drink at a Post soiree again. I got lucky and decide to never press my luck again no matter how free the booze was. I just stuck to the food I could digest then went back to the sixth floor to proof ad copy or paginate and sometimes both.

But the retirement parties were a bit of a different affairs. Many times the retiring quests of honor were obviously not pleased with being forced to retire. That was the case with my boss Tom being pushed out just months before I decided to go myself even thought my managers said I shouldn't. I had my reasons which will become evident later in this tale of a mockingbird. There is always rivalry among various managers and at Tom's "retirement" it would be no different. In saying their goodbyes many managers gave their subtle little digs at Tom. He clearly didn't want to go, was not in a financial position to do so but that was his problem and it was not the Post's.

Still, these parties were a sad celebration. But at least the economy was doing well in the early part of the decade. Some got jobs in Real Estate as agents or other work in advertising elsewhere. The old employees would pop by from time to time. Some were doing okay while others not so. One thing for certain. I understood the Post's position. They were not running a charity. I figured the Post did things purely out of business needs including what they would print. As the decade moved forward I would come to realize this was not the only criteria.

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