First-Ever Inquirer and Daily News Performance Reviews Rankle Newsroom

Job-rating process fuels rumors, challenges morale, and further unsettles a weary workforce.

inquirer boxIn many workplaces, job evaluations are part of the routine, a once-a-year cause for heartburn and/or celebration of another year of hard work completed. The Philadelphia Inquirer and Daily News, though, aren’t run-of-the mill workplaces — and journalists at both papers are receiving what, for many of them, is a first-ever job evaluation.

It’s a brand-new process that has fueled rumors, challenged morale, and further disturbed the equilibrium of newsrooms already unsettled by legal feuding among the newspapers’ owners.

“In general, there is nothing wrong with a company evaluating its employees,” said Diane Mastrull, an Inquirer business writer, and an officer in the Newspaper Guild that represents journalists at both papers. “The problem is the chaotic, demoralizing context of this maiden evaluation.”

Philly Mag talked with several journalists at both newspapers over the last week. Most declined to speak on the record unless, like Mastrull, they were officers with the union. But off-the-record conversations revealed growing concern among journalists — particularly at the Inquirer, where editor Bill Marimow was said to have issued an edict to mid-level editors performing the evaluations that no journalist should get above a middling “meets expectations” rating unless they’d achieved national acclaim.

Mark Block — a spokesman for Interstate General Media, which owns the papers — declined comment on personnel issues, including whether Marimow had issued the reported edict. Mastrull and Bill Ross, the guild’s executive director, said they had both heard about Marimow’s reported command from editors and guild members.

“I did hear that from some of my members, and hope the editors defy Marimow and grade my members fairly,” Ross said. “I hope the results reflect otherwise, and if Marimow did make that comment, hopefully it was ignored, as it should have been.”

First Time

It may be astonishing for workers in other fields — and even at many newspapers — to find out that Inky and Daily News journalists haven’t previously been given job evaluations.

“I don’t remember getting a review before,” said Howard Gensler, the guild’s president and gossip columnist at the Daily News, who has been with the paper since 1997. “The guild tends to be against reviews.”

Why? Because the process is too subjective, Gensler said. “Nobody wants to implement a byline count, because there are all kinds of different stories and they’re different than others, some take more reporting than others. Judging the quality of writing is incredibly subjective, once you reach a certain level of professionalism. You can’t judge somebody by how many clicks they get online, because that depends on how online plays your stories.”

Nonetheless, when new owners — led by George Norcross — negotiated a new contract with the guild at the beginning of 2013, the union agreed to let its members undergo the evaluation process for the first time. The reason? Money. Journalists at the papers agreed to the process in exchange for taking smaller-than-expected pay cuts.

“We’ve always been against it. This time, the company was so adamant about it,” Gensler said. “This was money we didn’t have to give the company back. It was a substantial number — it was probably a percent or two of somebody’s salary.”

A side letter with the February 2013 contract gives IGM “sole discretion” to create performance standards and “implement a performance evaluation instrument.” According to that letter, the evaluation may be used to create “performance improvement plans” for employees who do not meet expectations.

In reality, Gensler says, the evaluations aren’t expected to have much effect one way or the other. A few employees with subpar evaluations might need the guild to defend their jobs, he said, but that’s expected to be about it. The few who receive good reviews aren’t expected to gain anything from it.

“If you get a great review, so what?” Gensler said. “If you get a bad review, it could just be because your boss doesn’t like you, and if you got a review by another person you might get a better review.”

Mastrull added: “Those who have gotten evaluations above ‘meeting expectations’ note that such kudos don’t come with a bonus check or a cancellation of the pay cuts.”

What Next?

Indeed, part of what makes the evaluation process maddening to the journalists is their sense that there’s no ultimate purpose to it — an aimless aggravation when aggravations are least needed in the newsrooms.

“Each and every employee here should earn the highest rating (far exceeds expectations) just for being able to keep their focus on doing their jobs — at a time when the owners are at war in what appears to be a battle royale over egos and very little else,” Mastrull said.

“Instead, these very employees, who are already enduring pay cuts and unpaid furloughs, are now having to endure evaluations of their job performance that haven’t had many skipping out of the building with glee. The majority seem to be ‘meeting expectations,’ a rating, we’ve been told by company officials, is good. Maybe it is, but people certainly feel what they are enduring should earn them more points than that.”

Gensler sounded a similar note.

“I’m just more concerned with the ownership squabble … than this nonsense,” he said. “I don’t see what anybody expects to get out of this in the future.”

Follow @joelmmathis on Twitter.

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