Bunker mentality: Iraq story reduces domestic journo work force in ’05

Even with national elections to be held in the Iraqi cauldron on Jan. 31st, not even the dimmest grunt or least wired khaki-ed out journo harbor illusions of coming home soon. They’d better not. Because while the war depletes our boots on the ground, forcing Pentagon planners to train more of them, it is about to have the opposite effect on journalism, and not just of the war junkie kind.

With The New York Times nearing the end of construction of a hardened, steel-and-concrete bunker in Baghdad’s “Green Zone,” prepare for a big chunk of this quarter’s – hell, this whole year’s – operating budget to be siphoned there. Nothing spells “permanent” like a bunker, built to house an entire bureau for the duration. This is no Somali excursion, no Balkan weekend trip to get the T-shirt and say you’ve been there. Top Times editors have already told editors of all the various (and unrelated) sections to trim their sails (read: spare cash) for the rough going ahead – which can only mean lean days for freelancers and even staff. Because the sand is thirsty.

And if you think this is only a Times issue, think again: Every major newspaper in this country – or what’s left of them – will have to commit significant resources to a story that only increases as the election nears. Like it or not, Iraq will remain the news priority for ’05. You have a choice: Either take twice as many assignments here at home to meet the rent, or put on the flak jacket and pray for a space inside the bunker.