Guild Leader Concerned Washington Post Trending Away From Professional Journalists

Blog ››› ››› JOE STRUPP

A Newspaper Guild official representing Washington Post employees expressed concern today about the paper potentially moving away from using professional journalists.

Fredrick Kunkle, co-chair of the Washington-Baltimore Newspaper Guild and a Post reporter, spoke in response to the Post asking readers to help review the 24,000 Sarah Palin e-mails being released today.

He said the union did not specifically object to the Post asking readers to look through e-mails. But he said it raises a larger issue about how much the paper plans to use inexperienced journalists and non-journalists in the future.

"We are more concerned about sort of a long-term shift to a different model of covering the news, the region, and those things," Kunkle said Friday. "In that sense, we are concerned where the Post is contemplating a model where they eliminate more professional journalist positions in favor of a model like the Patch or Huffington Post, where essentially we turn over coverage of some areas of the news to unpaid or underpaid bloggers, community journalists, people with very little experience in order to save money but to continue to create content. That bothers us or worries us."

The Post and The New York Times raised interest on Thursday when they asked readers for help in reviewing the Palin e-mails being released by the State of Alaska today.

While the Times had asked readers to review the emails online and send in their thoughts, the Post had originally asked for 100 "organized and diligent" volunteers to go through the emails and highlight those they found of interest.

The Post's original offer online stated, in part:

We are looking for 100 organized and diligent readers who will work alongside Post reporters to analyze, contextualize, and research the e-mails. Think of it as spending some time in our newsroom.

But a few hours after the initial request, Post Spokesperson Kris Coratti told Media Matters in an e-mail that the plan had changed:

We've reconsidered and revised our approach and are now inviting everyone to send us their comments. We will cull the responses and post selected comments in annotations of the e-mails.

The Post then posted this update to the request:

UPDATE: We have had a strong response to our crowdsourcing call-out on the Palin e-mails. We've reconsidered our approach and now would like to invite comments and annotations from any interested readers.

Asked to explain further about why the change had been made, Coratti sent an email Friday to Media Mattersstating:

It was an internal decision after a second look at how the idea was presented.

Kunkle's comments came three days after the Guild's last two-year contract with the Post expired on June 7. He said the two sides remain in contract talks, with the paper seeking more power to reassign and terminate employees.

"The Post very clearly is trying to make it much easier to lay people off and pay them less severance or even re-classify jobs and by reclassifying jobs, paying you less, at their total discretion. That is what we are really fighting against."

The Post guild unit represents more than 900 newsroom and non-newsroom employees, Kunkle said. He claims most have not had a raise since 2008.

Kunkle said the latest management offer was an $800 lump sum raise as part of a two-year contract, while the guild wants a 5% raise per year for each of three years.

Coratti did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the contract talks.

The guild local drew attention last month when it publicly criticized the newspaper for failing to give its members the same 16.4 % raise that Publisher Katharine Weymouth received.

Kunkle stressed that signs of the Post reaching out for non-staff help and seeking more power to cut staff in the contract talks has sparked worry:

"What does bother us and what seems from our view clear in these contract talks is that the Post clearly wants to shrink further, wants to make it easier to eliminate positions and what we worry about is that they will replace experienced professional journalists with unpaid bloggers, underpaid bloggers, contract writers, community journalists and inexperienced writers. That's how they will try to continue providing content under the brand of The Washington Post. That is what concerns us.

"This is all new territory, this is crowd-sourcing and sort of involving readers in a new way. It also is related, in some ways, to this era of citizen journalism, where we're also concerned. Are they going to the next step, where we use more and more citizen journalists in place of experienced journalists?"

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