How Do You Fire a New York Times reporter?

Could Judy Miller get the ax?

New York Times columnists Maureen Dowd and Byron Calame lashed out at their colleague Judith Miller over the weekend. Some have even called for her dismissal from the newspaper on account of her role in the Valerie Plame affair. How does the Times go about firing someone?

For the most part, they don’t. Most Times staffers enjoy the protection of their union contract, which makes dismissal a complicated, drawn-out process. Last year, deposed Executive Editor Howell Raines claimed that “would-be staff members get tenure for life” as a result of the procedures mandated by the union contract. (Raines was himself fired in 2003; as a member of management he didn’t qualify for union membership.)

What Raines calls “tenure” doesn’t kick in until an employee has passed a probationary period. New reporters spend 26 weeks on probation, during which time they can be fired for any reason (except for something like racial discrimination). After that, the contract says any firing must be “for good and sufficient cause.” That doesn’t mean the paper can’t lay people off—the union recognizes economic necessity as a sufficient reason for letting an employee go. But it does mean that editors who want to fire an employee for incompetence or ethical lapses must be able to justify their decision to the union.

According to the Newspaper Guild of New York, management should first notify the reporter that there’s a problem. If he doesn’t shape up, they must provide him with a formal, written warning and meet with him to discuss their concerns. Then the reporter would have to receive another formal warning before he could be suspended or dismissed.

At any point in this process, the union can step in and file a complaint on behalf of the staffer, which may result in a “grievance hearing.” If the guild thinks a reporter has been fired unfairly, they can take the dispute to binding arbitration, where management must prove there were sufficient grounds for dismissal.

The Times almost never fires its permanent staff employees. (Freelancers and contract writers get the ax more often.) Two staffers got canned earlier this year, though. Former Baghdad Bureau Chief Susan Sachs was let go when she allegedly told the wives of two foreign correspondents their husbands were having affairs. Photographer Nancy Siesel got fired for what her termination letter called a “repeated failure to comply with warnings and directives concerning [her] job performance.” Both Sachs and Siesel denied the charges against them, and both are awaiting arbitration.

What about the reporters who got canned in 2003? Technically, they all resigned. Jayson Blair and Lynette Holloway quit at the urging of their bosses. Rick Bragg’s job wasn’t covered by the union contract when he was caught allegedly misusing a stringer. (Some senior reporters and photographers get bigger salaries at the expense of union benefits, while some low-level editors are in the union.) The newspaper suspended him for two weeks, but he left of his own accord. “I am not enjoying the atmosphere and I am not enjoying the tension,” he said.

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