Does the Greenhouse Defect Signal a ‘Times’ Brain Drain?

The problem with buyouts is that you can't choose who leaves. So when New York Times executive editor Bill Keller announced to the staff on February 28 that the paper would be mailing out buyout packages to every non-guild employee in the newsroom, it was hoped that some of the paper’s more redundant staffers might self-select. “There’s so much deadwood at the paper, and everyone knows it,” says one former Times reporter. “There are editors who basically do nothing and writers who write 30 pieces a year.”

Linda Greenhouse, the paper’s Pulitzer Prize–winning Supreme Court reporter, is not one of those. She has been tirelessly covering that beat for three decades, and although she has received her share of criticism (a speech she made at Harvard in 2006 slamming the Bush administration was perceived as crossing the line by the Times’ critics, some of its reporters, and even its public editor), she is widely considered to be in the handful of the paper's elite reporters (“The queen bee of Supreme Court reporters,” the Columbia Journalism Review called her.)

So when she announced that she had accepted the offer, there was some consternation. Could this herald a brain and talent drain at the paper of record? The buyouts were meant to keep Keller from laying off as many as a hundred news staffers, but as one veteran Times reporter says, “If they’re going to give people buyouts, they’re going to lose some Linda Greenhouses."

“I think it’s better to leave a job like this when people say they’ll miss you, instead of when they’re wondering why you’re still here,” says Greenhouse from her office in the paper’s Washington bureau. At 61, she points out that she was already contemplating retirement and the terms of the severance ($300,000, a little more than double her yearly salary of $140,000) were attractive. “The buyout offer came so suddenly that the decision was first to take it, not to worry about what would happen next.”

If Greenhouse was surprised by the offer, she was probably in the minority. Rumors of pending layoffs have been circulating for months, with the recession only adding thunder and lightning to the already grim climate of the newspaper world. “It’s a unique set of circumstances,” says the anonymous reporter, who is not taking the buyout, citing layoffs and downsizing at rival papers including the Washington Post and the Los Angeles Times, to say nothing of the work-in-progress that is Murdoch’s Wall Street Journal. “There is no other newspaper that anyone wants to work for anymore.”

There is an inherent danger in losing veterans like Greenhouse, who hints that her “second act” could bring her to academia. “When I started, the TV networks all had a full-time person there,” she recalls. “Now it’s only NBC and CNN. There were many more newspaper reporters assigned to the Court; it was a more popular beat. So it’s a mystery why the Court, which is no less important than it was 30 years ago, is not covered more intensely.” She points to Court sites and other online commentary as proof that readers still care. “It’s the publishers and news directors who don’t seem too interested.”

Deadline for guild members to request a buyout package was March 5; non-guild employees were mailed them. Each had 45 days to follow through, though at press time it was rumored that not enough people had gone for the parachutes and layoffs were imminent.
In the meantime, the Times just lost another prized reporter of an entirely different generation: music critic Kelefa Sanneh will write culture features for The New Yorker. It may be better to be a pop-culture critic than a hard-news reporter in today's unforgiving newspaper world. Or to be ready for your own second act. —Sean Elder

Update: According to an email sent to Guild members this morning, the buyout deadline has been extended to March 7 because not enough volunteers have stepped forward. If that's still the case on the 7th, "the Times may need to resort to involuntary layoffs and... there is a possibility some of those layoffs would be done out of seniority order."