November 24, 2020

When The New York Times Hoovers Up Your Talent — What Then?

At what point do we start to call something a trend? Is it when multiple brand name journalists leave their respective publications to open up shop at The New York Times? I’d say we’re starting to see a trend forming here.

The Times announced last week that Ezra Klein, co-founder of Vox, would be joining as a columnist and podcast host. He went from co-founder and high level executive to a weekly writer and podcast host.

Ben Smith was the editor in chief of Buzzfeed News. In the beginning of the year, he took a gig at The Times writing a weekly column about media. Kara Swisher joined The Times as a columnist in 2018. She has a new podcast there as well. And many others have done the same thing.

The truth is, The New York Times is hoovering up talent and I see no reason why the publisher will stop anytime soon.

In addition to people going on to join major publications, multiple writers have gone on to launch their independent publications on Substack. Quite a few of these appear to be driven by whiney antics of writers who don’t like being edited, but there are also a few well respected people that have just decided to go out on their own. You can’t fault that.

But at some point, you have to recognize that there is a bit of a trend forming. Either The New York Times or independence will take quite a bit of star talent away from publications that are not large enough or don’t have the je ne sais quoi about them.

To be clear, this is a reality for only the star talent at these major publications. For the vast majority of writers, they’re going to stay at their media company jobs. The reason should be very obvious. Call it a paid newsletter or the “passion economy,” but at the end of the day, what you’re launching is a media company. And we all know how hard that is.

With all that said, what do we do about this? For those companies that are seeing their talent being poached by The Times or the allure of going independent, what do we do? This twitter thread by Simon Owens is a good start and it echoes something I’ve written about quite a bit.

I’m not a baseball guy—unless I’m struggling to sleep—but the logic is interesting. Rather than trying to play the same game as The Times by hiring star talent, why not focus your efforts on finding new talent that is not yet at the star potential? For the same amount of money that Klein was making at Vox, you could bring on multiple lesser known names.

When I was at CoinDesk, the former editor in chief put in place an incredible internship program. The edit team would go to the local journalism schools and bring on a bunch of interns. By the end of the first week, they had their first byline on CoinDesk. At the end of the internship, many would be hired full time.

Fast forward a few years many of these formers interns are doing some of the best work in the industry. Wolfie is the top reporter on crypto mining. Nik is the top reporter on issues of regulation and crypto. Anna can report on crypto issues in Russia like no one else. All three of them started as interns.

To do this, though, media companies need to invest in the right editors to help these young reporters grow. Additionally, internship programs are a ton of work and they are harder to do right than they are to do wrong.

But once that’s all said and done and you’re growing your reporters from within, what happens when they reach the point of stardom and opt to leave?

Here is where the culture of the business matters a lot… If you’re an entrepreneurial organization, you might start to look at your star employees as more than just an employee. Are they a potential business partner?

Further in Own’s thread, he touches on this and it’s something I’ve written about as well. Rather than just letting the employee leave to either go independent of join The New York Times, why not offer your resources as a way for them to grow something they own at your organization?

Let’s say, for example, you run a publication about cyber security. And within that, there’s a sub-niche that one of your best writers has gravitated toward. They decide they want to leave to launch an expensive newsletter only about that sub-niche.

Instead of them leaving, make them an offer where they can launch that newsletter at your company and you’ll split the revenue 50/50. They should feel inclined to do this for three reasons:

  1. Infrastructure: You’re larger and can support much of the annoying work that goes into running a media company.
  2. Stability: They’d still be drawing a salary while they build up this newsletter, so it’s not such a shock to their business.
  3. Growth: Going solo requires building an audience. You have an audience, so they’ll reach higher profit targets faster.

It changes the game, but the world is evolving. Brands are forming around individuals. We can either act as farms for larger publications or we can try to entice people to stick around. I think it’s worth exploration.

People will pay for local

The doom and gloom of local media is interesting to me. Publications talk about how they can’t get people to subscribe and that people just “won’t pay for news.”

But then I read interesting stories like this one on the PressGazette about the Seattle Times and I’m left wondering if the problem isn’t the that people won’t pay for news, but rather, that they won’t pay for mediocre news.

How do you persuade 71,000 people to pay for access to your local news website?

Customer service, fast page-download speeds, in-depth research into reader tastes, and close collaboration between different company departments are among the key issues to consider, he says. But ultimately, “content is always number one”.

“People just love to read about bridges and tunnels,” Blethen tells Press Gazette in a phone interview, explaining that the title’s Traffic Lab – an editorial project launched in 2017 to investigate the city’s transport infrastructure – is “the one that gets the most traffic, and influences most subscriptions”.

Stories about bridges and tunnels. That’s what gets the most number of people to subscribe to a local newspapers. Not the Pulitzer winning stories about Boeing. No, stories about bridges and tunnels.

And it makes perfect sense. People need to know what’s going on regarding things that actually affect them.

It’s like politics… We spend a ton of time talking about the Presidency, but in the grand scheme of things, it’s local government that has a bigger impact on your day-to-day life. Bill De Blasio likely causes more chaos in New York City than Donald Trump.

For local to work correctly, we need to focus on stories that are relevant to the audience. In the case of the Seattle, that was focusing on traffic problems. The story there is actually quite interesting:

“Traffic is the one thing that affects everybody,” he says. “And some of it becomes highly technical. We’ve got another bridge failure – the West Seattle Bridge – which is just egregious and affecting a lot of people.

“People really want to know about what the public agencies are doing, why is traffic so bad, why [authorities are] raising the gas tax.

“So those are examples where we know that the whole community, or very significant portions of the community, are very connected with this content.

Bridges are failing. Taxes are going up. Traffic remains bad. That’s a result of someone screwing up in government. And if someone is screwing up in government, people want to know because it’s messing up their lives. That’s the job of a local newspaper to report.

Why do I bring this up?

The doom and gloom of local media doesn’t take into consideration that companies have stopped investing in the kind of content people will pay for. We need to invest less in national stories—The Times will win there 99% of the time—and focus more on things that matter to people’s lives locally.

What are pain points for the readers? Whatever those are, focus on them. Report on them. And then people will pay for it. The Seattle Times has shown that might just be the case.

BuzzFeed/HuffPost Together At Last

BuzzFeed’s Jonah Peretti has been dying to do a deal for a while now and it seems he finally got his way. The Wall Street Journal announced that BuzzFeed was acquiring HuffPost in a stock deal.

BuzzFeed Inc. has agreed to acquire Verizon Media’s HuffPost in a stock deal, the companies said Thursday, uniting two of the larger players in digital media as companies across the sector search for ways to jump-start growth.

Verizon Media is also making an undisclosed cash investment in BuzzFeed in addition to the stock deal for HuffPost, according to a person familiar with the matter.

Peretti, who also co-founded HuffPost when it was called The Huffington Post, is back in charge of his former creation.

Now… I could spend the entire time here talking about why I think this deal isn’t going to work and that it’s just another attempt to make BuzzFeed larger so that it can hopefully get acquired by a SPAC.

But I won’t do that… Instead, I’ll spell out the three things BuzzFeed should do to hopefully make this acquisition work.

First, it needs to fully embrace the quest for 1st party data. Between the two sites, there is a large audience; however, scale is irrelevant when you don’t know enough about that audience. When the 3rd party cookie goes away, the publishers that have a deep pool of 1st party data will command higher rates from advertisers.

Second, they should focus on the commerce strategy. It’s not going to be a turnkey approach because the audiences are not exactly the same. Therefore, the types of products will be different. However, the infrastructure that BuzzFeed has built up to support its own commerce business must be used to support HuffPost’s endeavors.

Third, figure out how to migrate systems. They’re likely on separate content management systems, ad stacks, DMPs, CDPs, ESPs and the acronyms go on. If we’ve learned anything about efficiency with multiple properties, it’s that sharing technology is a good idea. This reduces the need for the engineering team to support multiple systems. Instead, it’s a single stack.

Scale is great and I know that Verizon wanted to get rid of HuffPost as badly as BuzzFeed wanted to buy it, but this is not an easy project.

I’ll be rooting for them even if I am pessimistic about this. You can’t take two bad businesses, push them together and suddenly have a good business. But I’m often wrong.

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