Business

11.13.13

The New York Times Brain Drain

Star reporter Brian Stelter just jumped ship to CNN, the latest in a string of big-name exits. But does the talent exodus signal trouble at the paper or only a changed media landscape?

Is The New York Times hemorrhaging talent? By most accounts, it is. Is that cause for alarm? Depends on whom you talk to.

Some insiders at the Times—like most newsrooms, a hotbed of smart, ambitious, and gossipy malcontents, except more so at America’s best newspaper—claim things are getting dire. But senior management insists everything will be all right, better than all right, and advises the doomsayers to chill out and count their blessings.

Still, the much-hyped announcement Tuesday that star media reporter Brian Stelter is jumping to CNN —along with the quieter leave-taking of Times magazine political writer Matt Bai for Yahoo News, joining Yahoo News editor in chief Megan Liberman, who left the Times in September—is only the latest in a cascade of high-profile exits since the beginning of the year.

The Stelter desertion is especially remarkable because, after a mere six years at the Times, he just turned 28, a tender age when many reporters are launching their careers at the elite news outlet. He was widely expected to stay put even if CNN chief Jeff Zucker hired him to anchor Reliable Sources, the Sunday media criticism program for which he’d been auditioning as a guest host. Longtime Reliable Sources host Howard Kurtz—who recently left for Fox News, creating the vacancy at CNN—had anchored the weekly program while holding down full-time jobs at The Washington Post and then at Newsweek and The Daily Beast. Stelter will take on wider-ranging duties, reporting on media and entertainment for CNN, its web operations, and its sister cable outlets. “Brian’s departure is sad for all of us who worked closely with him and valued him as a colleague and friend,” Times media editor Bruce Headlam wrote in a memo to the staff. Stelter didn’t respond to phone messages seeking comment.

“I have felt for a while that he’s one of the best journalists they had, so that’s a loss, because he’s an extremely talented guy,” said New York University journalism professor Jay Rosen. “But I wouldn’t sign on to the idea that this is a trend.”

Yet Stelter’s escape is hardly unique. Among the recently departed are chief political correspondent Jeff Zeleny and national correspondent Susan Saulny, both for ABC News’s Washington bureau; assistant managing editor Rick Berke, to become executive editor of Politico; technology writer David Pogue, also for Yahoo News; and—amid much wailing and gnashing of teeth in the media-obsessed blogosphere—FiveThirtyEight blogger Nate Silver, for his own little duchy at ESPN.

The above list, by no means comprehensive, doesn’t include the exodus of half a dozen senior editors—including John Geddes, Jon Landman, Bill Schmidt, and Joe Sexton—who took with them decades of institutional memory and collegial good will along with their severance packages. (Tuesday’s abrupt defenestration of Hugo Lindgren as top editor of the Times magazine appears to be in an entirely separate category.)

“If you were a top reporter for The New York Times, it meant you wanted to be a newspaper reporter, and if you left, it was for one of two or three places...I don’t think that’s true anymore.”

“It’s a disaster,” said a Times veteran who asked not to be identified in order to maintain cordial relations with top editors at the newspaper. “You cannot separate that issue [of brand-name journalists and beloved senior editors heading out the door] from the other things that are going on—the media world changing, the digitalization of everything, and obviously there are issues of money. It’s devastating to these old institutions. The infrastructure at the Times, which might have helped insulate it, is gone. You have a perfect storm.”

Times managing editor Dean Baquet, who himself left the paper from 2000 to 2007 to serve as a top editor of the Los Angeles Times, cautioned against leaping to such gloomy conclusions.

“This is one of those cases where it’s easy to say three or four or even five or whatever the number is who have left, [is] a trend, which I don’t think it is here,” Baquet said. “People have always left The New York Times. I left The New York Times…Everybody who left, left for very different reasons…Brian left because he had a very different set of ambitions. I don’t want to speak for him, but I think Brian wants to be a TV guy. And that’s very different from why Nate Silver left. I really don’t think there’s a broader issue at play here.”

Baquet pointed out that while some talented journalists are leaving the paper in the churn that naturally occurs in a newsroom of 1,100 staffers, other talented journalists are arriving. “We hired Jonathan Martin from Politico and Jason Horowitz from The Washington Post,” he said by way of example. “I don’t think there is a trend of less interest in The New York Times. I base that on the people who are lining up to work here, some of whom have big names that I can’t go into.” That some Times reporters have been lured away to other outlets, often for significant salary spikes, “doesn’t signal anything larger, other than the fact that this is a competitive landscape,” Baquet added.

In other words: Move along, folks. Nothing to see here.

“I do think there are a lot more institutions looking for top talent than there used to be,” Baquet said. “If you were a top reporter for The New York Times, it meant you wanted to be a newspaper reporter, and if you left, it was for one of two or three places, like The Washington Post or the L.A. Times. I don’t think that’s true anymore. More places are looking for top talent than has been the case in the past…I think that’s great, by the way. I want there to be competition. I think it’s fabulous.”