Online Exodus: Can Newspapers Keep Digital Talent?

By: Jennifer Saba

Is the newspaper industry in the throes of a serious loss of digital knowledge? One after another for the last several months, some of the most high-profile digital executives have announced they are decamping not just from their newspaper, but the newspaper business entirely.

These are the industry’s bold-faced names: Rusty Coats. Chris Jennewein. Eric Grilly. Chris Saridakis. Steve Buttry. Coming at a time when many top editorial talents are also walking away from a newspaper industry deep in transition, the digital-side departures are particularly dispiriting. There are enough of them to constitute a Trend Story in any newsroom — but do they really signify that the best digital thinkers no longer believe newspapers are a worthy destination?

Newspaper-industry recruiting veteran Rich Papike says he’s experienced a bit of that sentiment firsthand. “I think without going into individual newspapers, in a lot of people’s minds [newspapers] aren’t part of the future, they aren’t cool anymore,” observes Papike, president of the Tristaff group and a recruiter since 1982. “Sometimes it’s easier to say, ‘Why fight this? Why not go to a digital company?’”

Which is not to say all is lost — Papike says he’s found just as many people who still get excited about working in newspapers. He just filled the position of chief digital officer at a newspaper company where the executive had come from a digital pure-play. “He was excited, he just embraced the challenge,” says Papike.

Owen Youngman, too, waves off the concerns over the recent departures. As an early  Tribune Co. digital executive, Youngman  developed  the flagship Chicago Tribune’s Web site and the entertainment site metromix, among other New Media projects before becoming the Knight professor of digital strategy at the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University.

People with digital chops “have way more mobility” than newspapers are used to, Youngman says. It’s tough for an industry, where it’s common to have people grow 30-year roots, to comprehend employees who can move around with ease. He sees it as a sign of encouragement that outside companies are even interested in people with digital experience from newspapers. “It says a lot about the industry,” he says. “Newspaper businesses are more like Web businesses.”

Well, perhaps. Newspapers have progressed light years in the digital space and have planted their stakes in the ground longer than New Media critics are willing to admit. But these are trying times for an industry saddled with heavy debt loads, rapidly declining advertising revenue and the weight of big iron, distribution trucks, ink and pulp. Newspaper executives haven’t exactly been shoveling money back into their companies, and instead are busy whacking costs and positions.

Coats, who left as vice president of Interactive at E.W. Scripps in early March to explore his options outside the industry, says he believes if fully embraced, the digital side can carry the rest of the business. “It’s a difficult row to hoe,” he says because the digital side has to support the legacy aspects of newspapers. He recalls how some of his former colleagues used to describe the situation — “like walking on eggshells with a freight train on your back.” Coats left Scripps for personal reasons, as well. He was based in Knoxville, Tenn., away from his wife, Janet Coats, former executive editor of The Tampa Tribune, for three years.

Chris Jennewein, who led SignOnSanDiego and then later went to Greenspun Media Group, says it’s no secret that the newspaper industry has been contracting for the past several years, creating a drought of high-level opportunities.

“On the other hand, there has been an explosion in opportunities elsewhere,” says Jennewein, who is now president of the start-up U.S. Local News Network in San Diego. “I think anyone who has significant experience online at newspapers is going to look at these opportunities.” Jennewein, too, had a personal motivation, for leaving: His family is in San Diego.

It’s a point that Jack Lail, news director of innovation at the Knoxville (Tenn.) News Sentinel, made on his blog “Random Mumblings” in noting the departures, and what may be one reason for them: “Many interesting things are happening at newspapers and they are evolving, but the incubators for the news forms of the future seem to be occurring outside the walls of traditional media companies.  … It’s harder to find truly innovative efforts at traditional media companies, particularly their flagship nameplates.”

That’s why seeing these people leave should set off more alarm bells, argues Howard Owens, a former newspaper digital executive most recently at GateHouse Media and who now has his own news site, The Batavian. He thinks there are still talented people working in newspapers, but the fact that so many of the early pioneers are leaving seems like a “tremendous brain drain.”

In most of the people Owens knows who are now out of the newspaper industry, “I think there is a little sadness to have to move on,” he says. “If you look at some of the stories, people who were forced out or just decided to leave or were tired of fighting the battles with the print side.”

Still there are lots of talented executives — pioneers in newspaper digital initiatives —who remain involved in the industry, counters Randy Bennett, senior vice president of business development at the Newspaper Association of America. Names that come quickly to mind are Chris Hendricks at McClatchy, Leon Levitt at Cox, Lincoln Millstein at Hearst. “There is a track record of newspapers attracting people outside the business to lead their digital media efforts,” he says.

On the recruitment side, Chuck Peters, president and CEO of Gazette Communications, is busy trying to fill the slot Steve Buttry left when he recently departed for the Washington D.C. Allbritton Communications local news start-up. “We are having great luck,” Peters says. “I believe it is because we are big enough to make a difference but small enough to move quickly. The challenge of creating a competitive local media company is a very intriguing challenge for many people.”

The same holds for Journal Register Co. and its chief John Paton, who is in the midst of reshaping the company. “Since we announced about two months ago — and have very publicly documented since — our efforts to transform Journal Register into a true multi-platform news and information company, we have had a small flood of qualified applicants,” he says. “There are a lot of qualified people on the job market right now and while that helps increase the number of applications, we are seeing many applications from those who are excited about the challenge of transforming the company in an open and transparent environment.”

Indeed, there are many who are interested in helping media organizations, but the newspaper industry has to pitch them exactly the right way.

“You can really attract digital talent to the newspaper if you really sell the mission of newspapers, which is not the newspaper — it’s journalism,” says Coats. “Do you want to attract talent right now in 2010? Saying the mission is about home delivery or single copy sales … I’m sorry, I just got sawdust in my mouth. You lead with the real mission, not the infrastructure.”

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Published: May 19, 2010

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