Last week—just before the Las Vegas shootings—New York Times columnist Joe Nocera told readers that he was ending "The Gun Report," the popular daily rundown of gun violence in America he'd created in the aftermath of the Newtown massacre. The reason, insiders say, was that the Times didn't want to give his assistant a pay raise for writing it.
That editorial assistant, Jen Mascia, has compiled and written the online column for the past year. "I built it each day from scratch, writing a news analysis of a pertinent gun issue followed by 35-40 shootings. I spent about 500 hours of overtime on it during the weekends over the past year, and four hours a day at my desk here in editorial," said Mascia, an eight-year veteran of the Times.
Editorial assistants—who typically fact-check columnists, copy-edit, and produce copy for the site—are paid by the hour and take home $40,000 or less a year at the Times, sources say. If their duties go beyond those basics, the paper is required to pay them more.
"Writing, web producing and editing earns a higher pay bracket," Mascia said. "According to our contract, doing this work continuously for six months triggers an automatic upgrade."
Mascia said that in April, the paper's union, the Newspaper Guild, told her she was being underpaid. In early May, the Guild brought a grievance to the company charging the Times with reneging on its contract terms, along with "retaliation charges for [Mascia] asserting her contract rights.
"We had a grievance meeting to discuss Jennifer's case on June 3," a representative of the union wrote in an email to Gawker. "On June 5, the Gun Report was killed."
The Gun Report was a favorite of readers and a key source for journalists on the firearms beat, myself included. In lamenting its loss Wednesday, Times public editor Margaret Sullivan noted that she'd received more than 100 emails from readers who complained that killing the feature was "a simply terrible idea."
"We got an insane amount of reader comments, and a respectable number of page views," Mascia told me. "We were written up in the New York Review of Books and even appeared on New York Mag's Approval Matrix."
So why'd it die? In a terse online sign-off, Nocera wrote, "The Gun Report had run its course," adding that "a few months ago, I began to feel that we had made the point already." Sullivan pressed Nocera's boss, New York Times editorial page editor Andrew Rosenthal, for additional details, but he echoed Nocera's talking point: "It had run its course... It was repetitive, basically a list."
Repetitiveness has never stopped Rosenthal from publishing Tom Friedman or Maureen Dowd. Mascia and sources in the Times' union said that Nocera and Rosenthal are covering for the paper's miserliness.
The company's contract with union members states that editorial assistants and similar employees can write no more than 2,250 words for the paper or its website each month. "In cases that employees in these positions exceed 2,250 words, they are permitted to file for a pay upgrade for the entire month," the Newspaper Guild representative wrote. Mascia "qualifies for permanent upgrade based on her work as reporter, web producer and copy editor."
The difference could amount to about a 25 percent upgrade in Mascia's pay, plus overtime and back pay for work she's already done. Since early 2013, when this contract provision kicked in, the company "has been challenged successfully before" for back pay to its workers, the union rep wrote, while declining "to put a number on" how many employees have fought similar battles.
In Mascia's case, the June 3 meeting didn't go well, according to multiple people who were present. Five representatives of the union—including two editors and a web producer—sat down with a New York Times Company representative, labor relations director Chris Biegner. The union reps broke down a sample Gun Report entry piece by piece and explained how it was higher-level work, requiring a promotion and more pay for Mascia.
But after they made their case, "It got heated," a union representative who was present at the meeting said when reached by phone. "When we first started the conversation, the first thing he said was 'No.'"
Biegner "raised his voice, got red in the face, became angry and insulted one of our members," said another newsroom worker who was present at the meeting. "It was very strange."
After some more yelling, Biegner "said that he was basically done talking," and stormed out, the worker said. "We were really surprised and trying to figure out what behavior like that could mean." (Biegner has not yet responded to a request for comment.)
Just two days later, "Joe [Nocera] pulled me aside and said he was ending the gun report because Andy Rosenthal decided it had 'outlived its usefulness,'" Mascia said. (Rosenthal referred Gawker to the Times Company's communications department, which has not yet responded.)
The column's sudden cancellation was a move that "hadn't been foreshadowed," the newsroom worker in the negotiations said. "It certainly raised a lot of questions."
"They abruptly ended it out of nowhere," said the other union member who was part of the June 3 negotiations—"not the way they ended other blogs," which have usually been phased out over time.
If concerns over money did contribute to the Gun Report's demise, they're not shared at the upper levels of management at the Times. Reuters reported on Tuesday that the paper's top three executives made a total of $11.9 million in 2013.
Those executives, the company said in a statement, "were paid according to their performance-based executive compensation program," in accord "with market practice."
Update: Shortly after publication of this story, Times spokeswoman Danielle Rhoades Ha responded in email to several questions from Gawker. "As a general rule, we do not discuss labor negotiations or personnel matters," she wrote. "Also, we start and stop features all the time. Phasing something out would be unusual. We have started and stopped numerous features on the Op-Ed page in print and online."
[Photo credit: AP Images]