How the journalism talent wars are shifting

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Back in March, Ben Smith made a big splash when he devoted his debut media column at The New York Times to the subject of “Why the Success of The New York Times May Be Bad News for Journalism.” 

The piece seemed a bit like a humble brag, but it reflected some legitimate fears within the media industry about the Times’s ability to vacuum up the best journalism talent it wanted by sniping reporters away from the newspapers and magazines that had worked hard to train them. A follow-up article in Vanity Fair featured angry quotes from BuzzFeed executives who claimed that the Times was “raiding the publication’s talent pool.”

In a media environment where a few large publications are thriving while most others struggle to survive, I can see why some might be worried by the idea of a few well-funded players stealing away any journalism talent they want by simply offering them more money. But I think there’s another dynamic at play here that both small and large publishers will have to contend with in the coming years: star talent leaving to monetize their audiences directly.

Over the past few years, there has been a number cases in which those who’ve risen to media stardom within traditional journalism organizations have then leveraged that stardom to launch their own solo careers. Why? Because they’ve come to realize that they don’t get to actually benefit from all the wealth they’re generating for their employers. 

At first, most of these defections were concentrated in the video space, mostly because YouTube’s ad-sharing platform allowed creators to start generating significant revenue easily and quickly. Google the phrase “Why I left BuzzFeed” and you’ll be greeted with a litany of videos from former BuzzFeed staffers explaining why they were striking off on their own on YouTube. Here’s a non-exhaustive list of creators who built up their brands while working for traditional media outlets before launching solo channels:

Michelle Khare: Khare is definitely one of the biggest stars to emerge from BuzzFeed’s video operations. She started off as an intern at the company and was later hired on full-time as a producer. Eventually, BuzzFeed started placing her in front of the camera, and the videos she starred in racked up millions of views. In 2017, she announced she was leaving BuzzFeed to work on her own channel, which now has over 2 million subscribers and 175 million views.

Carlos Maza: Maza rose to fame while hosting an excellent media criticism show for Vox. In 2019, he became the subject of racist and homophobic attacks from a conservative YouTuber, and this year Maza left Vox to launch his own channel. He’s only published four videos thus far, but they’ve generated 44,000 YouTube subscribers and 460,000 views. More important, he’s converted 949 paying subscribers on Patreon (I’m one of them). Assuming that the average subscriber is paying $5 a month, then he already has an annual run rate of $57,000.

Sam Sheffer: Unlike the above YouTubers, Sheffer got his start as a tech blogger for sites like Engadget, The Verge, and Mashable, and he slowly graduated into producing video at these outlets. In 2017, he quit his Mashable job to focus on his own channel, and today he boasts over 300,000 subscribers and has been successful enough to take over Casey Neistat’s Manhattan studio. 

Johnny Harris: Like Maza, Harris built his brand at Vox by hosting its Borders YouTube series. As far as I can tell, he’s still employed by Vox, but he’s been incredibly active on his personal channel, growing it to 287,000 subscribers. Last year he and his wife announced they were launching a startup that will sell travel guide videos. 

Those are just a few off the top of my head; I could probably offer up a dozen more with a few minutes of Googling. 

YouTube happened to be the beneficiary of these defections simply because it had a long-established revenue sharing program in place, but the rise of platforms like Patreon and Substack is making it easier for non-video journalists to also hang up their own shingles. Here are just a few who have left their media jobs to launch their own newsletters:

Nick Quah: Quah launched his podcast-industry newsletter as a side project while writing for Business Insider. He later went on to take jobs at BuzzFeed and Panoply before quitting to go all-in on the newsletter. According to a recent interview on the Longform podcast, Quah is now generating $150,000 through a mixture of paid subscriptions and advertising.

Judd Legum: Legum was the founding editor of Think Progress and helmed the site for over a decade. In 2018, he launched a Substack account, and not only has he broken several major stories during the 2020 election cycle, but he’s reportedly pulling down six figures in revenue from paid subscribers.

Emily Atkin: Atkin left her reporting job at The New Republic to start a Substack newsletter about climate change. She’s now pulling down a six figure income. “I make more money now than I had at any salaried journalism job,” she said recently.

Matt Taibbi: Taibbi might be Substack’s most impressive get, considering that the journalist attained his celebrity status writing under the banner of Rolling Stone. He started by pre-publishing his book chapters on Substack while still writing for Rolling Stone, but in April he announced that “from now on, my online writing will be published on Substack. This is my full-time job now.”

Alex Kantrowitz: While Kantrowitz isn’t the first BuzzFeed staffer to leave the company to launch his own solo career, he may be the first text-based journalist to do so (most of the others are video creators). He announced the launch of his Big Technology newsletter in May.

Now it’s important to acknowledge that the vast majority of journalists won’t have enough star power to generate a full time living on their own, and I wouldn’t be surprised if we see some cases where a journalist leaves an outlet, only to come back with their tail between their legs six months later when they realize how difficult the environment is for solo creators.

But there are plenty of journalists out there who have built sizable online followings on Twitter, Instagram, and other platforms, and they’re no doubt noticing that some of their colleagues are achieving bigger paydays on their own. It will probably dawn on them that their employers are extracting much more monetary value than they’re paying in salary, and those same journalists might long for more creative freedom.

This kind of scenario would put publishers in a bind: they spend significant resources training and building the brands of their journalists, only to lose them the moment those reporters reach their maximum value. So what can media companies do to stop this talent drain?

Perhaps by installing incentives that allow creators to share in the wealth they create. Gawker founder Nick Denton pioneered the approach of offering his bloggers cash bonuses each month based on traffic, going so far as to creating a public leaderboard so his employees could track their views in real time. More recently, The Athletic established policies in which its newly-recruited sports journalists were given a cut of any subscription revenue they brought in via their own social media followings.

Media orgs could also partner with their departing talent. Imagine a scenario in which a journalist tells their employer they plan to launch their own newsletter, and the employer counters by offering to house the newsletter under its own banner in exchange for a revenue share. Under this framework, the media outlet would play the same role as a book publisher or record label, both of which pay their creators an advance + royalties.

Either way, it’s an exciting time for journalism. Text-based media has always been considered a low-wage industry, at least for those who do the reporting, and that’s largely because media companies have managed to horde most of the wealth created by journalists. Any mechanism that forces them to share more of that wealth is worth celebrating.

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Simon Owens is a tech and media journalist living in Washington, DC. Follow him on TwitterFacebook, or LinkedIn. Email him at simonowens@gmail.com. For a full bio, go here.