Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Now We Know...

...why The New York Times was so anxious to secure that $250 million loan from Mexican billionaire Carlos Slim.

Apparently, few of us genuinely understood the depth of the financial woes being faced by publisher Pinch Sulzberger. Along with dropping ad revenue, bloated newsroom staffs and media properties that have plummeted in value, there's that little matter of Maureen Dowd's expense account.

Jeff Bercovici at Conde Nast Portfolio.com has the scoop on Ms. Dowd's recent, pricey excursion to South Beach:

"... these are lean times at The New York Times. On Friday, the paper handed down new, tighter guidelines for employee expenses. Among the new strictures: a $50-per-head limit on meals and an end to reimbursement for entertaining fellow Times colleagues.

So there was predictable outrage after op-ed star Maureen Dowd published a travel piece yesterday about her weekend spent scoping the scene at a new high-end spa in Miami. Dowd and another Times writer, TV critic Alessandra Stanley, spent a few day getting massages and detoxifying -- taking time out to have dinner with the city's chief of police at a swanky private club-- ostensibly in the name of researching whether the down economy is causing "spa guilt" among the well-to-do.

Better yet, when Mr. Bercovici began asking about who picked up the tab for MoDo's trip, her assistant lied, claiming that the Times' columnist paid her own way. Later, a spokesman for the paper clarified that position, stating that Ms. Dowd was seeking reimbursement for her expenses.

And just how much will Sulzberger pay for that little travel piece? According to the spa's web site, a one bedroom suite with an ocean view starts at "only" $550 a night. Assuming that Ms. Dowd and her colleague spent three nights at Canyon Ranch, plus meals, airfare and incidentals (like that "body ritual" massage enjoyed by Ms. Stanley), we're guessing that the total tab was at least $5,000.

All for a 1,000-word fluff piece on "spa guilt," an emotion that clearly isn't shared by staffers at the NYT.

If Mr. Sulzberger is really interested in trimming expense accounts, we'd be happy to provide some assistance (as highly-paid consultants, of course). For starters, he could implement something along the lines of the per diem tables used by government employees. The General Services Administration or GSA, establishes lodging and meal rates for various destinations around the country, setting limits on what federal workers can spend for their hotels, meals and incidental expenses.

Looking at the current GSA per diem rates for the Miami area, it's obvious that Ms. Dowd and Ms. Stanley could never hack it as government employees. The present daily rate for Miami-Dade County is only $208 a day; $149 for lodging and $59 for meals and incidental expenses. Incidentally, that per diem rate is for all of the day's meals, not just one.

Of course, such parsimony would never pass muster at the Times. Two hundred bucks a day? Why, that's not even enough for one night at the Canyon Ranch, let alone that 80-minute, body ritual massage. We certainly can't expect the "op-ed star" and her TV critic pal to go slumming at the Marriott, or God forbid, a Holiday Inn Express.

No wonder the Times has been burning through money like a drunken sailor, or senior executives at General Motors. Send Ms. Dowd to a few more high-end spas, and Pinch Sulzberger will be making another bailout call to Carlos Slim.

H/T: JournalismJobs.com.

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