The New York Times’ firing of Executive Editor Jill Abramson last week let to much commentary about the implications for the paper’s future. Amid the speculation, the paper’s assistant ME for digital strategy, Aron Pilhofer, announced he was leaving for the Guardian. Quartz saw this as an ominous sign:
Compared to the firing of the New York Times’ top editor, Jill Abramson, last week, Pilhofer’s departure may not seem that noteworthy. But it’s interesting for what he was supposedly doing at the New York Times: trying to “save” it, according to a 2009 feature in New York Magazine.
The feature ran under the the headline “The New Journalism: Goosing the Gray Lady” and discussed five “renegade cybergeeks” who were doing some of the most innovative work at a publication that some, at the time, thought was doomed. The five were Pilhofer, Andrew DeVigal, Steve Duenes, Matthew Ericson, and Gabriel Dance.
Five years later, The Times is on a more solid financial footing, but with the departure of Pilhofer, three of those people are now gone.
Most of the reactions I saw echoed Quartz’s frame that this portended hard times ahead for the NYT. The keys to its future are leaving! And so on.
Not so fast:
— Mark Deuze (@markdeuze) May 20, 2014
BREAKING: In the course of five years, newspapers see turnover. http://t.co/WbiLCg6hUo
— Erin Kissane (@kissane) May 19, 2014
Ten years ago a newsroom recruiter told me that the Times was a final destination: People hired there would stay till retirement, because there was no better place to be. This was certainly the case in the 20th century and was still true early in the 21st. But today, Deuze has it right: Moving around is becoming the norm. Organizations big and small are starting up and innovating all over the place, and anyone bright and creative enough to stand out at the Times will attract the attention of its rivals and other ventures. The Times can get poached, too. Horizontal mobility is on the increase as challenges besides pulling a nice paycheck at a big legacy news org beckon to all the competent folks.
QZ doesn’t say whether the members of the team that would save the Times who left got replaced. Considering that they were midlevel employees with mostly fungible skills, I’d say they were. The story here isn’t good people fleeing the Times, it’s the danger of prizing personality over organization. These aren’t the only people who can do what they do, and the Times isn’t the only place they can do it.
Nate Silver left the Times. Ezra Klein left the WaPo. The Guardian’s Janine Turner was wooed by the Times but decided to stick it out where she was. Even with the office politics involved in her courting, it sholudn’t be a shock that a talented editor might decide she already has a gig as sweet as any the Times can offer.
Maybe it would be a more ominous sign if all five of those guys were still there.