And you thought newspapering didn’t pay

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From the heady canyons of the Big Apple we hear of a huge buyout for an icon of a reporter. Okay, you may not have heard of Linda Greenhouse, but she’s been writing at the New York Times since 1968 and has been on the Supreme Court beat through five presidents and eight terms, almost non-stop since 1978.

Linda got a $300,000 buyout to leave the Times, which must cut 100 staff jobs and offered generous buyouts to get the ball rolling.

This took 35 years to earn, so you could argue that she’s had an $8,500 a year pension growing. Pretty good for newspapering that started in the 1970s. But the buyout is all about newspapers contracting their staffs, especially the top writers. Linda’s had the most durable tenure as a reporter covering the most important court in the US for one of the most important papers. There’s no glass ceiling on this job for this woman.

In the terrific New York Observer article about her departure, Linda was asked what her favorite Supreme Court story has been. It’s probably not a surprise that it came on the night the court decided who would be President, for the first time in the history of America:

On that fateful December night in 2000, when Bush v. Gore was decided, Ms. Greenhouse waited patiently in line in the Supreme Court press room all day. At a little after 10 p.m., when copies of the decision were finally handed out, she grabbed her copy and headed straight for a cab. Back at 229 West 43rd Street no one could make sense of it and TV reporters had already started announcing that Gore was victorious and a recount was headed back to Florida.

The Supreme Court didn’t offer the handy guide that it normally does—the decision wasn’t signed so absent was a small summary with a vote count as it does for most decisions—so reporters were actually forced to read the thing. While on a cab to the Washington bureau, Joseph Lelyveld had an open phone line for her and said, “We’re confused over here. Can you make sense of this?”

She had read a few paragraphs and it was pretty clear, even if the fine details weren’t.

“It’s obvious—it’s 5-4, it’s over, Bush wins.”

“Okay,” he said back. “You have 10 minutes to write it.”

And now, she’s got $300,000 to her credit for all those years or writing “literature in a hurry,” as they call journalism. She also wrote a book, Becoming Justice Blackmun: Harry Blackmun’s Supreme Court Journey. And at the standard 8.5 percent royalty most authors get after an agent’s fee, the $15 paperback of this fine account of the Court she covered for three decades must sell 234,375 copies to equal her buyout.

A fellow has to wonder how long that kind of sell-through will take, compared to three decades of work that was paying $140,000 a year when she retired. She could make it; two of the top five current best sellers (other than the Bible) have covered George W. Bush.

Those best seller numbers don’t matter to this scribe. She loves academic work, so she’s headed to those ivory towers to study:

She said she wouldn’t disappear when she retired and had a few things lined up, though it’s mostly academic work, which she actually really loves. One piece will be for a journal named Constitutional Commentary.

“I’m not going to disappear. I’m going to keep writing and thinking and talking about Supreme Court,” she said.

If you’re newspapering, keeping writing those leads. It can lead to a big exit paycheck after, oh, 30 years or so.

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