By: Lucia Moses
Newspapers See Top Talent Leave For Dot Coms
After five moves over a 23-year newspaper career, Charlotte-Anne Lucas
was ready for a change, but loathe to uproot herself again. Intrigued
by the Internet, she traded her business suit for jeans last August and
went to work as a senior editor for commentary at TheStreet.com, a
financial Web site based in New York.
The job came with stock options, but Lucas says it wasn’t just about
the money. She also was excited about the chance to work from home and
be part of a new medium.
‘I truly believe the challenges and real innovation are with the Web,’
says Lucas, who had worked at The Dallas Morning News , the San
Francisco Examiner , and the San Antonio Express-News . At
TheStreet.com, she appreciates how work can change direction quickly,
while likening newspaper employment to ‘being encased in amber.’
Lucas’ story is emblematic of the brain drain facing newspapers across
the country. In San Antonio and such high-tech markets as Silicon
Valley and Seattle in particular, papers have seen their business
writing talent head to Web sites.
Carolyn Guniss, executive director of the Society of American Business
Editors and Writers (SABEW), says the dot-com raiding is a big problem
for some newspapers. ‘The technology coverage – if you can wrap your
arms around it, you’re more marketable than most,’ she says. Guniss
needs only point to SABEW’s own Internet job postings to demonstrate
the ‘pre-IPO’ draw: ‘It’s the lure of the money to the Web. You can’t
compete with stock options.’ She expects the topic to be addressed at
the society’s upcoming convention, April 30-May 2.
The San Jose (Calif.) Mercury News was among the hardest hit when
it lost about a fifth of its business news staff to dot coms last fall.
The paper also lost people to other media outlets. Dan Gillmor,
technology columnist for the Mercury News , remembers, ‘There have
been times we’ve felt stretched superthin.’
It’s not just dot coms doing the raiding. The newspaper business is
robust, and papers are ramping up their own Web sites and their
business coverage. They are poaching from other papers – or, in some
cases, from within their own organizations – to staff their Web sites.
As a result, some are seeing turnover like never before, forcing them
to try desperate measures.
‘I’m begging and pleading a lot,’ says Jon Talton, business editor at
The Charlotte (N.C.) Observer , which has lost many of its business-
desk staffers to bigger papers and magazines – the highest turnover in
memory. ‘It’s something the big bosses are thinking about a lot.
There’s no question that overall you have to pony up more money.’
Existing staff must also be wooed
The job market is forcing newspapers not only to dig deeper to win over
candidates but also to pay more attention to existing staff.
The Mercury News hired a third recruiter exclusively for the business
desk and provided more training opportunities while trying to make the
staff feel more appreciated, says Executive Editor David Yarnold. The
paper has since filled all its vacancies, and so far this year no one
has left for the Web. The paper’s planning to add another 16 in the
business section as part of an overall newsroom expansion.
The Seattle Times made retention a company priority for 2000 after
the newsroom lost 15% of its staff last year, mostly to other papers,
Executive Editor Michael Fancher says. ‘Money is not going to solve
this kind of problem,’ he says. ‘You have to provide them a great
opportunity … to grow and learn and work in a great environment.’
Some newspaper execs say the dot-com threat is overblown. Most of the
stand-alone news sites aren’t doing sophisticated journalism, and their
economic models are tenuous, they claim. Print newspapers may not be
cutting edge, but they have profits and, in some cases, established
names, they add.
Dan Barkin, business editor at The News & Observer in Raleigh, N.C.,
says he gets a steady stream of calls from people at technology Web
sites who want to work at a daily newspaper. For them, dailies offer
more stability, editing, and money – and in the News & Observer ‘s
case, a chance to cover such high-tech leaders as Cisco Systems, Lucent
Technologies, and Nortel Networks.
‘It’s a good way to break into the business when they get out of
school, but when they’re looking at what may be the next move, that’s
where I think it’s still evolving,’ Barkin says. ‘I think there’s still
a desire to get some experience in newspapers.’
But newspapers also must innovate if they want to remain attractive
places to work. Gillmor, for example, says he gets head-hunted a lot,
but the Mercury News pays him well. It also is in the forefront in
its Web presence and business coverage – and expanding. ‘I know I could
make more money doing something else, but there’s more to life,’ he
says. ‘If I thought the Mercury News was going in the wrong
direction, I would think about leaving.’
Lucia Moses (email@example.com ) is associate
editor for Editor & Publisher magazine.
(c) Copyright 2000, Editor & Publisher