Five Leave Times in Ten Days–Does It Mean Something?

Yesterday’s news that the New York Times’s Sunday Business editor, Tim O’Brien, was leaving to become the National Editor at the Huffington Post provoked a lot of worried response. John Koblin pointed out that O’Brien was the fifth Timesman in five days to voluntarily leave the paper for better opportunities.

David Shipley went to Bloomberg; Dexter Filkins to the New Yorker; Ashless Vance also went to Bloomberg’s magazine BusinessWeek and Christine Muhlke decamped to Conde Nast. This comes at the end of a week when Tina Brown hired several Washington Journalists for her revamping of Newsweek: Robin Givhan and Blake Gopnik from the Washington Post as well as Michelle Cottle from New Republic which had its own changing of the guard at the top of the masthead.

This rush of media moves caps off another year of doubt and uncertainty in the media. But not all of the anxiety is bad. There seem to be many and new opportunities opening to journalists. Under a post with a pithy headline–“Nobody in Journalism Has a Career Plan Anymore”–Slate’s Tom Scocca (Hey, Tom, does anyone in this economy have a career plan anymore?) captures that confusion aptly:

The money is coming back, but the career currency has completely collapsed. The old certificates of status—a masthead spot at the Times!—are like Confederate banknotes or ownership shares in a tulip-growing syndicate. People say Bloomberg doesn’t even have cubicles. Is this what people want? Are people going to the Beastweek because it is the future, or because it is Newsweek, or because it is Vanity Fair in 1985? Are people going to the Huffington Post because—no, why is anyone going to the Huffington Post?

I’m afraid I’m with Scocca. There may be many good reasons to go to the Huffington Post–including the fact that they’ve reached 26 million monthly unique visitors in November–but none of them are self-evident. For all its traffic, HuffPo remains a content farm without star writers or the clout of breaking news. Howard Fineman and Peter Goodman have only been there a few months, it is true. They have yet to make their mark.

O’Brien’s role is supposed to be something of a mentor to the less professional talent at the site. That too might be an opportunity but it also sounds like a lot of heavy lifting even if it gives O’Brien a broader ambit than simply business news, which many find confining.

Finally, before we leave the subject of O’Brien entirely and move on the rest of the shuffling. One can’t help but wonder about the O’Brien/Sorkin feud that bubbled out into public view during the publication of Sorkin’s book. Yesterday, @Anal_yst tweeted a link to this story with this comment–“no dysfunction at the NYT biz section, no, not at all..”–just as the news of O’Brien’s departure was breaking.

It’s no secret that Sorkin has moved even more toward the center of the Times’s business coverage since the success of the book. Is that relevant? Probably not.

Moving up the ladder of media credibility. Tina Brown’s hires seem like a replay of her talk raiding where she gathered a mixture of the under-recognized and the recklessly hopeful. Though many of the writers who made their way through Talk suffered for the experience. Many more, like O’Brien or the Times’s Sam Sifton, came out the other side better off. Whether they were better off for their sojourn with Brown or just better off for having moved on to other projects is another question.

Newsbeast may be smaller than Huffington Post but it has the chance to have much more impact. The mediascape is more about having multiple outlets for one organization than it is about winning a single platform.

That’s where the Bloomberg hires have the most relevance. The nature of news and newsgathering hasn’t changed during the massive dislocation of the news business. We know that large organizations that can afford to have reporters and writers on staff produce better news and interpretation than small ones. Newspapers and television networks used to have the deep pockets to keep folks in remote outposts or on obscure beats that become incredibly important only at odd or rare times.

Now that role is filled by Bloomberg and Thomson Reuters. The financial information business has replaced network television as the top of the news food chain. The few international newspapers–the FT, Guardian, NYTimes and Wall Street Journal–now inhabit the second tier. Some magazines with solid brands, like the New Yorker, Economist and Vanity Fair will continue to fill out the ecosystem.

So it shouldn’t be a surprise when there is circulation between these three tiers. Dexter Filkins  moves to a magazine where he can be treated more like a star than the Times (with a few exceptions) will allow. David Shipley joins Bloomberg because they need his ability to run a great Op-Ed page and they pair him with Mr. Christiane Amanpour so he’ll have talent wrangler on tap.

Over time, the shuffling allows the Times to make choices about its staff rather than offering buyouts or making layoffs. The good news of this latest round of media moves is that people are leaving for what they perceive to be opportunities, not taking the money and hoping for the best. The media business isn’t going way. But it is getting to be tough going.

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