Welcome to corporate America, journos! Reporters at The Washington Post will now be ranked with a multiple-choice job-performance assessment each year.
Accompanying an annual written evaluation, each reporter will be described as: “frequently exceeds expectations,” “sometimes exceeds expectations,” “meets expectations,” “sometimes fails to meet expectations,” or “frequently does not meet expectations.”
“It’s like a third-grade type of evaluation system,” said one Post staffer.
“I initiated this because we’ve had complaints over the years from reporters who would be evaluated and feel that their evaluations were inconclusive,” said Peter Perl, assistant managing editor for training and career development.
This past summer, Mr. Perl set out to overhaul The Post’s evaluation system and met with three senior Post staffers: Milton Coleman, deputy managing editor; Shirley Carswell, assistant managing editor; and Tom Wilkinson, assistant managing editor. Then the group’s ideas were presented to executive editor Len Downie and managing editor Philip Bennett.
In October, Jill Dutt and Sandy Sugawara, top editors in the financial section, spearheaded the process, delivering evaluations to staffers.
“Many of you will find these evaluations to be more brief than what we’ve done in the past,” wrote Ms. Dutt, in an internal memo obtained by The Observer.
Ms. Dutt wrote that Messrs. Downie and Bennett read each evaluation and “don’t have time for long recitations of all the stories each reporter has done over the past year.”
Soon, reporters across the newspaper will come forth to be judged: Mr. Perl estimated that only about 100 of 800 newsroom staffers have received evaluations under the new system.
This evaluation process, combined with the infamous Downie memo of Nov. 14, which forecasted newsroom reductions, has concerned some staffers that layoffs could be on the horizon. “It’s been one thing after another,” said a Post staffer.
“Obviously, the timing of me doing this is unfortunate, because some people—a minority of people—think this is a prelude to getting rid of people,” said Mr. Perl.
Mr. Perl, who counts 27 years as a Newspaper Guild member and officer, said that he wouldn’t “design an evaluation system for that purpose.”
“I’m quite familiar with people who are upset by the process,” said Mr. Perl. “It tends to be the very small group of people who got the lowest ranking, or those who are philosophically opposed to boiling down someone’s performance to a rating.”
According to Post staffers, there are other concerns, too.
The new evaluation system still doesn’t take into account a reporter’s growing role outside of the print edition, according to one staffer.
“At a time when our paper is going heavily into the Web, the evaluation still focuses mostly on the newspaper,” said a Post staffer.
“The ultimate thing you’re judged on is whether you got onto A1,” continued the staffer. “If you didn’t, you failed. A1 is still the gold standard. I don’t think they know how many times you go on the radio or News Channel 8.”
However, after receiving their evaluation, Post staffers then get to write a self-evaluation—with the opportunity to include such information.
Another Post staffer said that the new system is “a much more rigorous process” and more “like what they do in corporate America.”
The staffer continued: “Before, if someone was a mediocre performer, they would let it slide. Now, they’re trying to give those people signals that we’re not so thrilled with their performance.”
“It’s a wake-up call for some people to improve what they are doing,” said Mr. Perl.
NYT‘s Berlin Bureau Goes Begging
On Nov. 27, New York Times staffers discovered a grand new job opening in their inboxes: Berlin bureau chief.
Since Richard Bernstein resigned from that position in July 2006, there hasn’t been a permanent bureau chief.
“We’re operating at a time of great concern about cost,” said one Times staffer. “When you have a foreign bureau that has been going along unfilled, people naturally assume there’s a possibility that the bureau will not exist.”
Still, the bureau chief’s desk has only been empty about half the time during the past four months.
Following Mr. Bernstein’s departure—and until the position is filled in summer 2007—The Times’ Mark Landler has been hopping on the autobahn between Frankfurt and Berlin.
“Mark Landler, who’s a fantastic Frankfurt bureau chief, was eager to expand his portfolio and agreed to take on both jobs,” said foreign editor Susan Chira, who is, with Ethan Bronner, handling the hiring process.
But prior to the new in-house job posting, one foreign correspondent had already been tapped for the position.
In May, Craig Smith, currently reporting out of the Paris bureau, was offered the Berlin job, according to a source with knowledge of the situation. Ms. Chira declined to comment.
Mr. Smith turned down the position because of family reasons, according to the source.
However, Mr. Landler’s chair in Berlin has occasionally been kept warm while he’s been working out of Frankfurt—at least during this past August and September.
Brian Montopoli, an associate producer with CBS News’ Public Eye, worked out of Mr. Landler’s fourth-floor office while on a two-month Arthur F. Burns Fellowship. During that time, Mr. Montopoli had one story published in The Times, concerning a sweeping steroids raid.
“It’s the total dream foreign correspondent’s setup,” Mr. Montopoli said.
Located in the tony Charlottenburg section of Berlin, the bureau encompasses two apartments and features a library. Longtime office manager Victor Homola and International Herald Tribune reporter Judy Dempsey occupy the fifth-floor apartment.
“There are a lot of judgment calls, and there are a lot of ways to slice up Europe,” said a Times staffer, who doesn’t believe the Berlin bureau will be closed any time soon because the powers that be take pride in the paper’s foreign coverage. “That’s integral to our brand.”
Beam vs. Beam
Bloggers find many opportunities to complain about the theft of their ideas by what they call the “mainstream media.” This week, Chris Beam, the 21-year-old co-founder of IvyGate, stumbled onto an opportunity of his own.
On Nov. 27, mainstream-media monster Alex Beam published yet another column in The Boston Globe. (This year Mr. Beam, 52, marked his 16th anniversary as a columnist; he appears biweekly.) This latest was about Felicia Nimue Ackerman, a Brown University professor and serial New York Times letter-to-the-editor writer.
Ms. Ackerman’s name and hobby had appeared on IvyGate five days earlier—but that Web site was not credited in Mr. Beam’s column in The Boston Globe.
“When dealing with mainstream media, I wouldn’t expect MSNBC or Fox News” to credit IvyGate, said Chris Beam on Nov. 27. “But my own father? That’s just painful.”
“When I plagiarize, I always plagiarize from IvyGate,” Mr. Beam père said when confronted by phone that same day.
The elder Beam had a defense ready: “I had written a whole queasy column on this subject a week earlier!”
Indeed, Alex Beam’s Nov. 20 column examined “the subculture of newspaper letter-writers, the men and women who beg to differ …. ”
A reader responded to that column by sending an e-mail about Ms. Ackerman, triggering Mr. Beam’s next column on letter-writers.
And because Ms. Ackerman teaches at an Ivy League school—and because she uses a photo of a black cat with piercing yellow eyes for her faculty Web page, rather than her own likeness—Alex Beam passed that information on to both his son and IvyGate co-founder Nick Summers. “It had humor and bizarreness that we come to associate with IvyGate,” he said.
Chris Beam and Mr. Summers—who are both recent Columbia grads, and a Slate editorial assistant in Washington, D.C., and a Newsweek reporter in New York, respectively—debuted IvyGate in July 2006. At first they wrote anonymously. In October, they revealed their identities. They maintain the site, http://www.ivygateblog.com, when not at their day jobs, according to Mr. Beam.
It was Mr. Summers who wrote the Nov. 22 IvyGate item on Ms. Ackerman. Chris Beam said that he didn’t know his father planned to follow up on it in The Globe.
This fact apparently did not surface during some shocking old-and-new-media hobnobbing last week, conducted while passing the gravy during Thanksgiving dinner on Nov. 23.
“This was something that he thought was leftover and funny and right up our alley,” said Chris Beam. “So we pounced on it.” He said he didn’t find out until a “trusty Google News alert let me know.”
(Mr. Beam has an e-mail alert for his father’s column because it’s “pretty buried in Boston.com,” while the older Mr. Beam regularly checks up on IvyGate, one of his “Favorites.”)
“He’s already going to get a hard time from me over the dinner table,” said the younger Mr. Beam, “and I know where he sleeps.”
But when the question of attribution was presented to the elder Mr. Beam, he burst out laughing.
“Fuck IvyGate,” he said. “I’m not attributing anything to them. It will be years before I’ll attribute anything to them.”
The Village Voice‘s Film Czar
Allison Benedikt, formerly a television and film critic at the Chicago Tribune, has been appointed the film editor for The Village Voice.
“It’s kind of two jobs in one,” said Ms. Benedikt, who has served as interim editor for three weeks.
It is the dual nature of the job that proved troublesome for the last film editor. In addition to editing for The Voice, Ms. Benedikt will oversee the film coverage for the 17 newspapers that comprise the Village Voice Media chain.
Ms. Benedikt moved back to New York from Chicago in August with her husband, John Cook, who is a reporter at Radar. She did not have employment arranged.
Neither did many recently departed Voice staffers. In just one year under the paper’s new management, more than 25 Voice staffers have either been fired or resigned.
One of them was Dennis Lim, The Voice’s film editor for eight years, who was let go in October 2006.
“Film features and coverage of local events were no longer a high priority,” wrote Mr. Lim, reached via e-mail. “There was also a lot of pressure to dumb down the writing, now that it was being farmed out nationally. The editors at the other papers routinely complained that the work was too ‘thinky.’”
Ms. Benedikt said she is not unhappy to be bringing more of a “pop sensibility” to the job and plans to work with a variety of writers, including those with an “encyclopedic knowledge of film theory and film history.”
Shortly after moving to New York, Ms. Benedikt contacted David Blum–who had just been named The Voice’s editor in chief–regarding freelance opportunities. After Mr. Lim was terminated, and after former Voice staffer Joshua Land replaced him for just a few weeks, Ms. Benedikt assumed the role on a freelance basis.
Veteran critic Jim Hoberman remains on staff, with the addition of former New York Sun critic Nathan Lee. Ms. Benedikt said she is ready to improve the film section’s “tarnished” reputation, which was explored in depth on Nov. 15 by the film blog The Reeler (www.thereeler.com).
“I’m trying to focus on The Voice right now more than the syndicate situation,” Ms. Benedikt said. She is reaching out to venues like Film Forum and the Angelika Film Center. “That is a priority on the job. It’s tremendously important for The Voice to be covering the local film community.”
“Dennis came for the first few days,” said Ms. Benedikt. “He was a huge help, and a gentleman. There wasn’t a feeling of bad blood.”
Since his termination, Mr. Lim has kept busy freelancing for The New York Times, with pieces appearing each of the past four Sundays. He also edited a book that will be published in mid-December: The Village Voice Film Guide.