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Watching the Clock, Not the News


Are BlackBerries an electronic leash?


Unions shake one's faith in human evolution.

An industrial-age mindset is hard to wrap around a BlackBerry (RIMM) in the digital age, but that hasn't stopped a union at ABC News (DIS) from trying.

The spitting match: Should writers be compensated for checking their BlackBerries on their own time?

The Writers Guild of America, while (of course) proclaiming its members to be "professionals," frets that the occasional use of handheld electronic devices will grow and grow and (golly) keep growing until wordsmiths are routinely slaving away without getting paid for their brilliance.

This shouldn't be a head-scratcher. People sort themselves out in life, and different types of people find their way to different careers.

Reporters, for example, tend to be competitive, halfway bright and chronically under-dressed. The good ones don't care that Wal-Mart (WMT) is their tailor, so long as they beat the competition. If they tire of knocking heads with the cross-town rival, it's time to get a job selling shoes to Imelda Marcos.

Staying competitive in a cutthroat business may mean checking the BlackBerry now and then when away from the newsroom.

It may also mean - well, forget it, because the era of the dashing reporter has passed into folklore. In the Internet age, much reporting is done from an ergonomically designed desk in an air-conditioned office. A Dell (DELL) or Hewlett-Packard (HPQ) PC is a reporter's boon companion and Google (GOOG) or Yahoo! (YHOO) his faithful source - not the shift sergeant down at the cop shop. Still, a reporter may have to forgo the white wine now and again in order to chase the news.

In a free market, you'd think that people who didn't want to check their BlackBerry after work would become bureaucrats. In many cases, it's lifetime employment with no requirement to do anything productive.

Here's a guide for those fretting about uncompensated use of a BlackBerry after leaving the office:

  • If you want to be home every night, don't become a truck driver.
  • If you don't want to be on call, don't become a doctor.
  • If you're a technophobe, don't become a computer geek.
  • If you don't want to check your BlackBerry after hours, expect to read breaking news on a competitor's website.

In any case, what about all the chronic goofing-off that goes on in just about any office? Have you ever read your personal e-mail, checked a ball score, futzed around on eBay (EBAY) or read a blog on the sly at work?

Naaahhh, didn't think so.

So, you have a choice: leave the BlackBerry at the office and defeat the purpose of having it or tuck the handy little gizmo in your pocket and remain competitive.

Good bosses know who produces and who doesn't. If you're cranking out stories, the smart editor will reward you with plum assignments and an occasional day off to practice your champion toe-wiggling.

Side deals between you and your boss aren't carved in granite and don't require the intervention of the union's shop steward - and that's what drives organized labor nuts. If the union isn't around to routinely turn molehills into Mount Vesuvius, why are rank-and-file members paying dues? (If you said it's so union honchos can attend "training seminars" in exotic places like Puerto Vallarta, you're beyond redemption.)

Maybe the attitude at ABC News explains why the network routinely trails Fox (NWS) in the ratings.

As they used to say at Berkeley during the 1960s: "If you don't like today's news, go out and make some of your own."

The free market corollary: If you don't like your current job, find another.

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