'Post' Traumatic Stress Disorder

Is Murdoch's Business Section in Trouble?

Three female business reporters have left the New York Post in the past month, which raises questions about the stability of the section. First, Wall Street and markets reporter Jessica Sommar was fired, officially for "not breaking enough stories." Then fashion and retail reporter Lisa Marsh quit to finish writing a book on Calvin Klein. Then last Friday, Wall Street reporter Beth Piskora gave notice that she had accepted a job with Standard & Poor's. To hear some people tell it, these departures come at a dicey time for Post business editor Jon Elsen. There is even a rumor going around that his own job is in danger, which the Post has flatly denied.

"I heard Elsen is on the hot seat," said one insider. "His days are numbered," said another. A third was more blunt, saying, "I think that when Nikki Finke settles, he'll get canned." Finke is the media reporter who was fired by the Post last year and whose $10 million lawsuit continues to linger in court. Finke reported to Elsen.

As further evidence that the business section is losing clout, some Post-ologists note that when publisher Lachlan Murdoch recently appeared on Charlie Rose, he praised the Post's gossip, entertainment, and sports sections as a "core part" of the paper's strengths—but failed to mention Elsen's section even once.

In an interview, Post editor in chief Col Allan dismissed the rumors, saying of Elsen, "His job is very secure. I think he's a fine editor and I hope he's here for a long time. He's doing a great job." Asked about the turnover, he said, "We have not lost anyone that we're unhappy about losing. It doesn't trouble me if people depart. I see it as an opportunity for the business section to hire some fresh talent. Jon is looking around and I encourage him to take the time to find the right people."

Elsen, who took over the section three years ago, is said to be a favorite of owner Rupert Murdoch. "Rupert loves Jon," says one source. "He thinks Jon walks on water." Elsen gets valuable support from deputy business editor Dan Colarusso, who is popular with the staff, and from media reporter Tim Arango, who files stories left and right and is seen as a loyal foot soldier to Elsen. Both worked previously at TheStreet.com.

"Jon has hired some excellent people," said Allan. "Tim Arango—excellent. Dan Colarusso—excellent." But Elsen also hired Sommar, Finke, and media reporter Dan Cox, who was pushed out last summer.

The section consists of eight full-time reporting positions, five of which are occupied by Arango, Lauren Barack (who covers tech and is now on maternity leave), Erica Copulsky (mergers and acquisitions), Keith J. Kelly (media), and Paul Tharp (general assignment). The section also publishes columns by Christopher Byron and John Crudele. Dotcom columnist Ben Silverman has been asked to pinch hit on the retail beat.

In all likelihood, most of those are happy campers. But according to one source, "A lot of people on that section would be happy to move on and get another job." Elsen's detractors characterize him as a "bad manager," "weak," and "passive-aggressive." Typical complaints include that he knows the media business but not enough about other businesses, and that at times he doesn't trust his reporters' instincts. He takes too long to fill empty slots, sources say, and too long to let reporters know if he has a problem with them. "Col Allan can be a real prick by all accounts," says one source. "He'll unload on people, but Jon won't unload on you until way past the fact."

Elsen declined to comment.

Some observers were disturbed that Elsen would not give Lisa Marsh a leave of absence to finish her book, because they felt she is an employee worth keeping. But the policy emanates from Allan, who said, "I have a problem with people taking an extended leave of absence. If they want to beauthors, go be authors. But if they're on a newspaper, we need them here to produce our newspaper every day." Allan pointed out that crime reporter Murray Weiss recently took vacation time in order to finish a book he is writing, which was fine.

Everyone has an opinion about why Jessica Sommar and Dan Cox did not fit in at the Post, but no one seems to know exactly what precipitated their departure. One insider noted that in December, around the time Sommar was told she should be breaking more stories, she broke the news that Nasdaq had asked its CEO to step down. As for Cox, sources claim he either could not or would not follow up on tips passed on to him by other people at the paper. Sommar and Cox declined to comment.

What is more clear is that after leaving, Cox hired a lawyer to negotiate a severance package, and that Cox's lawyer began calling individual Post reporters to ask if they got paid overtime.

When the word got out that Cox was demanding back overtime pay, other reporters began asking for it. Soon afterward, Post management called a meeting with the entire business staff to clarify that they were qualified to claim overtime, even though they had not been encouraged to do so. According to one source, the policy was set out as follows: Staffers are required to work 7.5 hours per day. Any overtime must be pre-approved by Elsen, and employees must take comp time during business hours that same week. (Some consider the latter demand unrealistic.) Management promised to issue written guidelines, but no guidelines have materialized.

Asked if overtime was a problem, editor Col Allan said, "It's not a big deal." He is more upset, he said, with the persistent notion that on his watch the staff has become increasingly British and Australian. "It's a myth," he said, "a pile of lies." He explained that while there are some Australians at the paper, they arrived before he did. He did hire Brit photo editor David Boyle, he said, "but only after an extended search for an American with the skill set required for the job." He predicted that at the end of March, the Post will report circulation in excess of 600,000, which he called a "fabulous" achievement.

In closing, Allan brushed off the Post's critics. "If you employ more than 300 people, you are always going to get a couple who are unhappy," he said. "But the vast majority of the people working here are having a ball."


cc@villagevoice.com

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