By Jack Shafer
Nov 15 (Reuters) - Recent defections of talent from the New York Times - Nate Silver, David Pogue, Jeff Zeleny, Richard Berke, Brian Stelter, Matt Bai, et al. - have unjelled the media firmament, according to Politico media columnist Dylan Byers. In a piece this week, Byers called the departures “a brain drain,” “a sucker punch to staff morale,” and an opportunity for the paper to come “face to face with a harsh reality” that in the new media age, its star journalists can no longer be satisfied by the “‘aura’ of the newspaper of record.” In the same day’s Huffington Post, Michael Calderone had the paper fretting about its “retention rate,” adding the names of Don Van Natta Jr., Lisa Tozzi, Judy Battista, Howard Beck, and Eric Wilson to the list of departees.
The Washington Post’s Erik Wemple neutered Byers’s observation by noting that if anybody is suffering a brain drain, it’s Politico, shifting the discussion from the-Times-ain‘t-the-ultimate-destination-it-once-was of Byers to the more durable assertion by Wemple that retaining-good-people-has-never-been-easy-for-any-outlet-and-it- ain‘t-getting-easier. My view comports more closely to Wemple‘s, but that doesn’t mean Byers is full of it. The Times departures mean something. But what?
The exodus of accomplished Times reporters to television has been going on for so long that the exits of Jeff Zeleny to ABC News earlier this year and Brian Stelter to CNN this week barely deserve our notice. For as long as broadcasters have been flush, they’ve had their pick of New York Times newsroom stars. Among the earliest stars to step under the lights was John F. Kieran, the paper’s first sports columnist, who hosted a syndicated TV show in the late 1940s and early 1950s after success in radio. William H. “Bill” Lawrence worked at the Times for 20 years, as White House correspondent and other roles, before joining ABC News in 1961. In 1972, the paper’s Supreme Court reporter, Fred Graham, moved to CBS News where he worked for 15 years, and in 1979, Jim Wooten joined ABC News from the paper. After Hedrick Smith left the Times in 1988, he created 26 prime-time specials and mini-series for PBS, also working as a special correspondent for its NewsHour program. Charlayne Hunter-Gault spent 10 years at the Times before going to The MacNeil/Lehrer Report in 1978. Terence Smith made the migration to television in 1985, Bill Geist in 1987, Gwen Ifill in 1994, Buster Olney in 2003, and earlier this year, Susan Saulny joined ABC News from the paper.
And that’s just a cursory list. I‘m sure other Times reporters have made the predictable transition from well-paid to fabulously paid after the TV people called. With the exception of a few future candidates for the executive editor job and a couple of eccentrics, I’d wager that given the high wages TV pays, the news networks could collect the byline of almost any Times reporter who has a stomach for the cameras and sweat glands for the lights. You could almost define the New York Times as the TV industry’s finishing school.
The flight of a Times reporter to this or that TV channel says almost nothing about any brain drain from the paper or a lost “aura.” I‘m certain that before the Stelter goodbye cake has a chance to go stale, the Times business section will have rediscovered whatever morale it misplaced at the top of the week. By January, the folks in the Times newsroom will be saying, “Does anybody remember Brian Stelter?”
I write this not to denigrate Stelter, whom I have always regarded as a first-rate news donkey, tirelessly ferrying accurate dispatches from his beat to his many readers in the media industry and the general public. I but underscore the twin notions that 1) the Times as an institution still trumps any star it has ever helped create and 2) the next Brian Stelter - possibly a better Brian Stelter! - is out there in the boonies, dying to do Stelter’s old job better. No journalist is irreplaceable, a fact that dawns on some of them too late in their careers to do them any good. Nate Silver, another member of the Donkey Hall of Fame, would probably concede after consulting his spreadsheet that the Times would be wiser to hire three or four young Nate Silvers for the equivalent of what ESPN is paying him than to use that money to keep him. It’s called “moneyball.” (Drop me a line and let me know if I‘m wrong, Nate.) The Times pays well enough, but it has never and will never compete on salary alone.
Web outlets, especially those who measure their new worth in the tens or hundreds of millions of dollars, possess the pockets to offer higher wages than the Times, as the Huffington Post’s run on Times talent a couple of years ago demonstrated, and which probably explains, in part, Pogue and Bai’s move to Yahoo and Berke’s to Politico. Each defector likely got a better deal than the Times was willing to give them, hardly unprecedented in the paper’s history. In an earlier era, reporters like David Halberstam and Gay Talese ditched the Times for the independence of the lucrative book-writing life. Journalism has always been a nomadic trade, with reporters and editors hopscotching from outlet to outlet in their careers. To ascribe something catastrophic or irreversible to a handful of high-profile Times departures is ridiculous.
Far from depressing morale, high-profile departures like those of Silver, Pogue, Zeleny, Berke, Stelter, Van Natta, Battista, and Bai should have sent serotonin levels racing at the Times newsroom. As good as the best are at places like the Times, the people riding the bench behind them are usually their equals, and if not their equals than only marginally their lessors. Departures of the all-stars allow the junior varsity and other accomplished players a first opportunity to suit up and get lots of game time. Once on their field, they can showcase their skills and produce the sort of bylines that will attract the attention of the TV and Web moneybags.
If a completely demoralized newsroom is what you seek, search out the ones where there is absolutely no movement of star personnel to bigger and brighter venues. There is no sadder newsroom than the one where the gray-hairs have chained and locked themselves to the best slots and refuse to die.