Several Top Journalists Are Suddenly on the Move, Placing Digital Media Businesses at a Crossroads

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The New York Times is on a roll: It has seven million subscribers, a digital presence that’s more profitable than its newsprint and unyielding soft power in the media industry. Simply put, the Grey Lady is thriving and it hasn’t been shy about poaching top talent from the most prestigious digital media companies. 

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Just look at who’s at The Times: Recode co-founder Kara Swisher is an opinion columnist and podcast host; Choire Sicha, once the top editor of Gawker and The Awl, runs the Style section; Ben Smith, former editor in chief of BuzzFeed News, is the media columnist; and last Friday, Ezra Klein announced he’s leaving Vox, the website he edited and co-founded, to become an opinion writer and podcast host at The Times.

The Times’ success and recruitment skills aren’t the only elements at play. In the last few years, many ad-supported digital players have struggled, shut down, laid off staff and consolidated. In the last year alone, Vox merged with New York Magazine, Vice bought Refinery 29, Group Nine acquired PopSugar, and last week, BuzzFeed announced it is buying HuffPost (a deal that will give HuffPost owner Verizon a minority stake in BuzzFeed). Additionally, media outlets laid off staff en masse, furloughed and instituted pay cuts (mostly) at the start of the pandemic. 

“Because of the hard times, one of the first places publishers made cuts was in the newsroom, making it tougher and tougher for the A-Player journalists to get their job done,” said Rob Ristagno, CEO of digital media consultancy The Sterling Woods Group.

Ristagno told nitronet that in order to retain top talent, journalists need “the confidence that they’ll have the resources to produce outstanding content.”

As with most trends, coronavirus has exacerbated rather than created these shifts in talent movement. With local news in decline, legacy outlets like The Times and The Washington Post have recruited heavily in recent years from the outlets that Sicha, Swisher, Smith and Klein once led, especially to fill in its rank-and-file. While staff reporters once hailed almost exclusively from smaller local papers, The Times’ Washington Bureau is full of ex-Politico reporters and its Midtown headquarters hosts veterans of HuffPost, Vice and Slate. The schism between the new and old guards at The Times has led to a much-discussed cultural reckoning inside The Times with which executive editor Dean Baquet has said he’s struggled.

But it also signals a point of consternation among the digital startups, many of which once promised to become publicly traded companies and rock the media-business world.

“The challenge is for these digital media companies is that they’re all small relative to the [Times] or Washington Post or The Wall Street Journal, never mind the television brands, so they don’t get to have a bad year,” Keith McAllister, a partner at the executive recruiting firm SRI said.

McAllister said it’s a mistake to think of The Times as a legacy print publication. “The NYT today is a digital subscription business providing multimedia content. It’s also arguably the world’s leading news brand,” he said. “So, for ‘big J’ journalists, it’s as cool a place to work as it’s ever been.”

While sources like McAllister have a lot of faith in Vox and some other digital media companies’ long-term success, the advertising model is tough in a crowded marketplace. Ristagno says that digital media companies need to better understand their audience and “figure out what it is going to take to get them to enroll in a membership or subscription product.”

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