Until the past few years, a reporter at The New York Times was the journalism equivalent of a federal judge—you had found your job for life. Nobody, but nobody left The Gray Lady for another journalism job unless they were pushed or got a huge promotion at another esteemed paper.
This past year, however, The Times has resembled a small-market Major League Baseball team with a lot of talent that is being pickpocketed by the Yankees, Red Sox or Dodgers. But the big-money teams picking off print journalism’s free agents have names such as Yahoo, Politico and Bleacher Report.
A Times senior editor left to become executive editor of Politico. The Times popular tech columnist is working on Yahoo’s new tech site. And Howard Beck, for nine years the New York Knicks beat writer, left to become one of the four new NBA writers hired by Bleacher Report.
“I thought I was there for life,” Beck told me. “I can honestly say I was never looking to leave. Nine weeks ago. Never even. I revere the institution and I enjoyed working there.”
From a newspaper editor or publisher’s standpoint, this could be the latest in a string of Internet Insults. First the Internet stole our readers. Then it took our advertising revenue. Now it’s coming for our talent. Although The New York Times is the most visible evidence of talented journalists choosing the digital domain over the one with ink and paper, the roots of this trend go deeper.
What journalist stands before a class of college students these days advocating a career in newspapers? What top-of-the class student sets his or her sights on the local newsroom after graduation? It’s clear that many of the best in the business are leaving after they get to newsrooms and many of the best young ones are never getting to print newsrooms.
Joe Yanarella, managing editor at Bleacher Report, put it this way to me: “Pure print opportunities are decreasing and talented writers are looking around and asking themselves, ‘How can I make sure I’m viable and a desirable commodity in the next 5 or 10 years?’ ”
What can newspapers do?
All is not lost. Here are four ways I think newspapers can retain their best journalists:
1. Pay more for the best. Our competitors are. There used to be psychic income paid to the reporters at the best newspapers. Not anymore. Journalists often used to lament that no one went into the newspaper business for the money. But it’s not a joke any more. Beck and others received hefty pay increases. Newspapers have traditionally been reluctant to pay for more talent and often refrain from bidding wars. The new competitors have no such restraints. They understand that websites, much like television networks, are as much about personality as they are about content. Newspapers need to start paying for their stars, even if it means having fewer people on the staff.
2. Teach the old dogs new tricks. Joe Yanarella, managing editor for Bleacher Report, said each of the print reporters that Bleacher Report has hired “has a combination of incredible talent, maturity and experience working with professional teams and athletes. They’re seasoned journalists with a firm understanding of a good story. At Bleacher Report, we excel at taking those stories and delivering them in a way our fans most want to consume them, whether that is text, original video, TV or radio.”
3. Instead of imitating, innovate. Newspapers can’t just do better what Politico or Bleacher Report do. They have to do “different.” Newspapers, like many industries, tend to treat disrupters to their models as opponents to be copied. But former industry leaders only leap ahead of competitors by fresh invention. (Take IBM as an example. After completely missing the move to PCs, it focused on developing innovative technology products and network consulting and regained its stature as a global brand.) No one would suggest that we have reached the end of the innovations of technology and information. Why can’t newspaper companies become the leader of the next era?
4. Remember that the heroes don’t always win. Even today you often hear journalists whining that bloggers are nothing more than slugs who rip off newspaper stories for the content on their blogs. While there is a great deal of truth in those statements, it doesn’t change the outcome of the game. The bloggers are winning because they have a low cost source for content. While journalists are principled and aspire to fair reporting that is carefully vetted, such standards might not be enough to provide financial victory in the information world. The British lost the Revolutionary War because they continued to play by the old military rules of marching in formation while expecting to meet their enemies on the battlefield doing the same. Journalism needs to remember its proud traditions, but play by the new rules.
Tim Gallagher is president of The 20/20 Network, a public relations and strategic communications firm. He is a former Pulitzer Prize-winning editor and publisher at The Albuquerque Tribune and the Ventura County Star newspapers. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.