Why are top journalists leaving mainstream media?

Well, Brian Stelter certainly hasn’t lost anything in the move from the NYT. Two interviews about highly-publicized and high-profile journalists who are leaving big traditional newsrooms (where they have very good roles) to start something new.

Bill Keller – of NYT – is starting a digital media org that’ll focus on issues and abuses in the American criminal justice system. Laud the motive, appreciate the possibility. Read Stelter’s interview with him.

Ezra Klein’s new Project X – an as-yet-largely-undefined explanatory news site under the Vox Media banner. Here’s Stelter’s interview with Vox CEO Jim Bankoff.

I remember when Andrew Sullivan took the Dish independent, and shock waves went through the industry. Many people ran his numbers and said he’d never get enough subscribers to offset his costs. In the case of Klein, much has been made over Wonkblog’s 4 million visitorship figure (which doesn’t seem all that high).

But it also makes me wonder at this broader trend of top journalists leading major news orgs to start their own digital media ventures. In a piece in Nieman Lab, @kendoctor posited one possible cause: “No printing presses or broadcast pipes.” He says “relatively cheap entry” at about $25 million is now achievable. To be fair, most of these new ventures aren’t projected to be cheap – they’re the opposite. Keller’s site will employ some 20-25 full-time journalists.

Doctor also points to the increasing mobility of individual journalists, who have become content brands in their own right and want to own larger shares of the revenue pie. This isn’t just a greedy move, it’s a smart one, since as he points out, the competition for online ad dollars is already pretty brutal. Doctor says that top journalists have enormous Twitter followings in their own right. To his observation, I’dd add that the digital age has given us very visible and obvious ways to measure the brand value of individual journalists (this brand value probably existed before, but it was lumped in with a newspaper’s general “readership” – which we didn’t parse so closely). Now that we can measure hits, engagement, and RTs for every story and every page, journalists use metrics that even venture capitalists can understand. The shift seems dramatic because it’s taken place so quickly.

These moves make me wonder:

As the competition for talent becomes more intense, are mainstream media organizations losing out?

And if so, what can they do to change that? Walt Mossberg reportedly walked away from AllThingsD in part because he wasn’t offered a sweet enough deal to stay.

In the Millennial age, workers value job “security” less than ever. What do they want? Big challenges, the chance to grow their personal brands, equity or something like it. This is a game where traditional news orgs are going to lose  unless they can find a way to offer that kind of control, risk-taking and profit-sharing.

The other aspect is work culture, and a reputation for valuing really good journalism, rather than just aggregation/virality. A lot of the sites that are coming up plan to spend big (relatively speaking) on talent. Journalists – like all of us – have a tendency to see themselves as indispensable, but the point here is that these ventures are creating jobs for good reporters and writers – for good journalists (something mainstream media companies haven’t been doing for a very long time).

We’ve been talking about “entrepreneurship” within the journalism industry for so long – maybe the chickens are coming home to roost.

It’s natural that those with the ability and talent to take big risks will attract big opportunities. But the industry has also encouraged this new mentality, with conferences, papers and debates over how to bring a culture of entrepreneurship into the journalism industry. Clearly, the efforts are succeeding.

At the end of the day, these projects are great for our industry. But could Keller’s new project – anchored by good reporting and a clear sense of public purpose – have found a home at the NYT itself? And if not, is that something the NYT should be worried about?

(Also see: this story on Vivian Schiller’s move from NBC – and a many-year career in mainstream media organizations – to Twitter.  Another sign of how the competitive landscape for journalistic talent has shifted dramatically in just a few short years. And this isn’t the end, it’s the beginning. As Doctor mentions in the piece above, online ad dollars have gravitated towards big players like Facebook and Google, both of whom are looking for new and creative ways to monetize the relationships between community, technology and content.)

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