Reuters, performance improvement plans and the case of Glenn Somerville

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TALKING BIZ NEWS EXCLUSIVE

Talking Biz News has been reporting for the past three weeks about the Performance Improvement Plans within the Reuters newsroom.

The reporters believe that the PIPs, as they are called, are designed to push out long-time reporters so that the new management team can hire new staffers. The managers respond that the plans are designed to improve the performance of reporters who are not doing as well as they should. The union is now arbitrating their use in nearly two dozen cases.

Which leads us to the case of Glenn Somerville, a longtime economics reporter for Reuters in Washington who resigned last month rather than be subjected to one of the plans. His case calls into question the real objective of the PIPs.

Somerville covered the U.S. Treasury and economic affairs in Washington for nearly three decades, during which he was widely recognized as a pre-eminent reporter in his field. He is known among reporters on the beat as the “Dean of the Treasury,” not only for his mastery of a wide range of financial topics but also his constant willingness to help others learn.

Somerville, who did not return an e-mail or a voice mail from Talking Biz News on his last day at work, has been vacationing in Canada. But colleagues, competitors and even government officials wonder why he’s no longer on the beat.

A Dow Jones Newswires reporter told Talking Biz News that Treasury secretary Timothy Geithner wrote a personal letter to Somerville after hearing about his departure. “Definitely the kind of guy you want to force out,” snarked the reporter.

On Twitter, Martin Crutsinger, veteran AP Treasury reporter, wrote, “I cannot imagine covering Treasury without Glenn.” Tony Fratto, former White House and Treasury spokesman, wrote, “Had the pleasure of traveling the world with Glenn. Will really miss him.”

Peter Szekely, the secretary-treasurer of the New York Newspaper Guild who worked more than 25 years at Reuters, said that Somerville’s departure was a “huge loss” for the newsroom.

At Reuters, he was viewed as an anchor of economic coverage, traveling the world with various Treasury secretaries over the years and chronicling everything from the 1990s economic boom to the burst of the Internet bubble and the financial crisis of 2008-2009.

Somerville’s work was recognized in 2002 by the Society of American Business Editors and Writers,  which selected a series of stories titled “Bush’s economic housecleaning” that dealt with the firing of Treasury Secretary Paul O’Neill and the subsequent overhaul of advisers as the “best in business breaking news.”

To his colleagues, Somerville was someone they could consistently count on to chip in and help on anything, anytime.

Somerville may not have been doing what management wanted. But Reuters management could have handled his situation a whole lot better than they did. You don’t just push someone like Somerville out the door.