“The New York Times is surprised to find itself a stepping-stone.”
With these dozen words, a writer at The Guardian newspaper nailed the latest crisis to hit traditional media: the growing disinterest of its best and brightest at working there.
But is it really surprising that the smartest people in a declining industry—and legacy media, given its plummeting advertising and audience numbers, can’t be defined as anything but—are looking for opportunities elsewhere?
Not really. Any sensible person would do the same. What makes the trend notable is its size and depth: What started as a trickle is now a flood. A lot of prized talent in recent years, and especially in the watershed year 2013, abandoned plum names in print and broadcast journalism to forge new paths in online-only news organizations and start-ups.
A Who’s Who of the Legacy Migration to Online-Only
A lot of unsung talent probably bailed, too, but the merely good go nameless. Many likely were too young to have fully made a mark.
Here, then, is a look at about a dozen of the notables who recently left journalism’s standard-bearers, and where in the brave new world of news-that-happens-only-online you now might find them:
- Bill Keller, a Times columnist and former executive editor, is at The Marshall Project, a start-up
- Rick Berke, a Times senior editor and political correspondent, is at Politico
- Jim Roberts, a Times assistant managing editor, is at Mashable
- Megan Liberman, a Times deputy news editor, is at Yahoo
- Matt Bai, a Times political correspondent, is at Yahoo
- David Pogue, a Times technology columnist, is at a Yahoo start-up
- Ezra Klein, a Washington Post blogger (Wonkblog), is at Vox Media
- Melissa Bell, a Post digital editor and columnist/blogger, is at Vox Media
- Matthew Yglesias, Slate magazine’s Moneybox columnist, is at Vox Media
- Dan Lyons, a former Forbes senior editor and Newsweek columnist, is at Hubspot
- Andy Carvin, a senior strategist at NPR, is at First Look Media
- Anthony De Rosa, a Reuters social media editor, is at Circa, a start-up news app
- Mark Schoofs, a former Wall Street Journal reporter and ProPublica editor, is at Buzzfeed (ProPublica, in turn, was founded in 2008 by former Journal managing editor Paul Steiger and is the first online news venture to win the Pulitzer Prize—twice.)
- Jessica Lessin, a Wall Street Journal technology reporter, is now at The Information, a business news start-up
Exactly what is happening?
A Big Name isn’t the Biggest Factor Any More
Job security, or more accurately, job insecurity, is undoubtedly a factor. Major newspapers and broadcast stations began slashing staffs in the mid-2000s, and were hemorrhaging employees by the start of the 2010s. For newspapers, the cuts are a matter of survival: advertising revenues at the largest US papers have fallen by more than 50 percent since 2005, and readership by more than 48 percent between 1991 (56 percent) and 2012 (29 percent).
But job security is far from the full picture—especially for the people listed above, whose jobs were probably as secure as anything could be nowadays.
No, job satisfaction trumps as the single most important reason why mainstream media is failing to keep the talent it nurtured. The grind of feeling like you’re writing just to chase advertising dollars; the dismay of always being two steps behind in applying the newest and best technologies; the frustration of watching owners erect barriers (i.e., paywalls) to readership, while online competitors are courting and engaging readers with every means at their disposal.
“My theory,” Dan Lyons wrote in a Hubspot blog, “is that in the age of the internet, it’s what you write, not where you write it, that matters. If I can have a platform to write interesting things, if I can work for a company that’s growing and having fun … then I’m in a better place.”
Job satisfaction is what first drew talent to journalism, a profession never exactly prized for its lucrative pay or ideal working conditions.
As job satisfaction—the sense of doing something important, intriguing, and in the public interest—continues to shift to online media, so will journalists. Especially the good ones.