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Don’t Panic! The ‘Times’ Is Losing Staff, But It Will Be Fine

Erika Cross / Shutterstock

In August, reporting an article about The New York Times’ future, I spoke to Sam Sifton, the former national editor now in charge of various nascent digital initiatives that the paper hopes will allow it to secure more paying customers. He noted that media reporter/personality/unofficial Times spokesperson David Carr became a minor sensation as The Carpetbagger—an eclectic character assigned to the rich Oscars beat—only to leave the beat and hand it off to Melena Ryzik, who “transformed it into her own thing.” When Ryzik leaves—for another section of the paper, for Vanity Fair, for wherever—somebody else will become The Carpetbagger, and he or she will probably do good work with it, too. Sifton characterized this as “the classically Timesian argument.” It also has the virtue of being right.

On Monday night and Tuesday, it was reported that rising-star media writer Brian Stelter will leave The New York Times for CNN; that New York Times Magazine politics writer Matt Bai will depart for Yahoo News; and that Times Magazine editor-in-chief Hugo Lindgren will step down at the end of the year (unlike the other two, Lindgren’s move appears not to be voluntary). Together, the stories represented the collision of two of journalism’s hoariest truisms: “Three makes a trend,” and, “If it bleeds, it leads.”

True to form, other outlets did not ignore the news of the bleeding newspaper. “The New York Times Has Lost a Lot of Big Names This Year,” was the headline (which utilized New Yorker-style italicization) to a Daily Intelligencer post that listed several other recent departures, including tech columnist David Pogue; politics reporter Jeff Zeleny; senior editor Rick Berke; sportswriters Judy Battista and Howard Beck; and that Nate Silver fella. TheWrap alluded to a “New York Times Exodus.” Wonkette referred to “All These People Fleeing The New York Times.” And “Three Journalists at The Times Are Departing,” reported … the Times.

The broader story, most deeply reported and articulated by Politico’s Dylan Byers and The Huffington Post’s Michael Calderone, is that the Times just ain’t what it used to be: Less prestigious, less multiplatformed, and ultimately less flush—and therefore less able to match bids with other outlets. “It’s no longer the case that the Times can rely on prestige alone as talent fields competitive offers from both TV networks and also online sites that can pay significantly more money, provide greater journalistic freedom, and offer multi-platform visibility,” noted Calderone.

“It’s not a place where you can make a full career if you care about things like getting paid the market value of your talent,” a recently departed Timesian told me in August. “I realize it’s sounding harsh, but it’s the reality, and you’re gonna hear more.” This source has, of course, been proven right.

Enough with the hyperventilating, though! Doubtlessly the Times will miss all the writers and editors it has lost to places like Politico and Huff Post, ESPN and ABC News, Yahoo and Reuters. But equally doubtlessly, the place will be fine. In fact, the Times is perhaps the one place that can still rely on prestige—along with prestige’s attendant perks—to keep going as an economically sustainable and journalistically excellent outlet. 

First, it is worth noting that there are really two types of journalists we are talking about here. It is a category error to lump the brands (Silver, Pogue, Stelter) in with the talents whose names are unrecognizable to all but the most byline-cognizant but who nonetheless produce elite, even unique work (Zeleny, Battista, Berke, Don Van Natta Jr., Jim Roberts). The former were never long for the Times. The latter are the real story here.

Second, it is worth noting that those journalists who leave “for the money” are almost never leaving just “for the money.” Howard Beck, whose departure for Bleacher Report I reported on in September, is a good example. It is almost certain that Beck got a good-sized raise (he wouldn’t comment). But it is certain that he will be doing more multimedia stuff, and that such stuff may eventually include work with his Turner siblings NBA TV and TNT, both of which broadcast NBA games—something that is simply not in the same ballpark (er, stadium) as what the Times does. Ditto Silver, who is getting his own magazine built around him at a scale the Times is just not capable of providing. What we talk about when we talk about money, in other words, is not only salary, it’s resources and opportunities.

But these caveats don’t necessarily change the end result: The Times is losing some of its most talented staffers. This is indisputable. What makes that okay, in the end, is the prestige, the halo, the “prettiest girl at the party” factor (to borrow executive editor Jill Abramson’s infamous yet extremely important phrase), that the Times retains.

In a reported statement, a Times spokesperson noted that the Times has been poacher as well as poachee of late, specifically citing politics writers Jonathan Martin and Jason Horowitz, formerly of Politico and The Washington Post, respectively. But much more important is that the Times still has some of the most talented English-speaking reporters, writers, and editors on the planet. Really, nobody would dispute this. (If you don’t believe me, check out their international coverage every day. Or their metro coverage. Or even the Styles sections. Or even the Op-Ed page! Well, maybe not the Op-Ed page.) Given that critical mass, the Times’ journalistic track record, a sympathetic (and weirdly hamstrung) ownership, and the fact that it does by all accounts still sink substantial resources into the trappings of journalism, it is almost impossible to conceive of Times as we know it changing anytime soon.

And precisely because The New York Times Co. is so centrally dedicated to its flagship newspaper (and that was even before it spent the past few years divesting itself of most of its other holdings), it is less likely to run into conflicts of interest—which are journalistically damning in their own right as well as damaging to efforts to attract top talent. By contrast, just in the past two months ESPN reportedly backed out out of a documentary about football concussions in part due to its broadcasting partnership with the National Football League, and Bloomberg News declined to publish two articles critical of the Chinese government, though Bloomberg’s eponymous owner criticized and denied the report. (Incidentally, would you like to take a guess which media outlet broke both of those stories?)

The bottom line is that many excellent journalists will continue to want to work at the Times out of some combination of professional pride, independent financial means (this, admittedly, is a problem, but it doesn’t mean it isn’t true), and dedication to their craft.

My armchair advice to the paper would be a sort of moderated swagger. If Abramson is essentially telling staffers, “How dare you leave the Times,” as Byers reported, that might be too much. But there is nothing wrong with supreme self-confidence in the institution coupled with a market-wise strategy of letting really expensive talent go in exchange for retaining (and hiring anew) talent that is only one notch lower in the talent department but several notches lower in terms of salary, and who, working in aggregate, can produce a product that is more coherent, more precisely targeted to a desirable audience, and (as a stereotypical member of that audience) in my opinion superior to anything else on offer. Just because the Times lost Silver doesn’t mean they can’t use their prestige and institutional memory to play Moneyball, exploiting inefficiencies in a journalistic marketplace that may overprice even those bright and shiny objects that have earned their brightness and shine.