AOL’s Huffington Post has poached another big name from the New York Times: Energy reporter Tom Zeller.
Zeller is the third senior editorial hire Huffpo has made recently from the NYT. He follows Tim O’Brien, who is now Huffpo’s national editor, and Peter Goodman, who is now Huffpo’s business editor.
Huffpo reportedly paid O’Brien and Goodman massive salaries (by print journalism standards) to make the jump. Zeller’s Huffpo’s salary is thought not to be as huge as O’Brien’s and Goodman’s–O’Brien reportedly makes $400,000 and Goodman $350,000–but it’s reportedly large enough that a source at the New York Times says the move was “all about the money.”
(The offer was apparently large enough that the New York Times did not even counter it. And large enough that our NYT source wondered whether Huffpo’s spending spree “is a 2000 moment,” referring to all the wild salaries and comp packages folks paid back at the peak of the dotcom bubble. The NYT source didn’t say this to slime Zeller–the source wasn’t at all surprised that Zeller took the money.)
Zeller, for his part, says his compensation at Huffpo will be “comparable” to the New York Times. He says he is moving because of the opportunity to work with his former NYT colleagues in a “2.0” newsroom in which he will have more freedom and responsibility.
“We’re clearly charting new territory,” Zeller says. “I see it as a big adventure… We have the opportunity to build a newsroom that is innovative and can compete from the ground up in a new way.”
We asked Zeller whether he thought he was rare at the Times in seeing Huffpo as a fun adventure–or whether dozens of his colleagues would soon be making the same move. Zeller thinks he might be rare in that his interests have always been a “hybrid” of print and digital. “I grew up listening to the mating calls of modems,” he says, observing that he was a subscriber to AOL before it was even called AOL.So what are the broader takeaways?
First, this is yet another reminder that the future of journalism is alive and well. A couple of years ago, withering newspaper companies almost scared everyone into thinking that they deserved a taxpayer bailout, on account of how society would go to hell in a handbasket if they went bust. In the years since, it has become clear that, even if some newspaper companies croak, many of the talented folks that produce them will just move to healthier companies. So we should no longer confuse the state of “journalism” with the state of “newspaper companies.” Journalism is in fine shape.
Second, Huffington Post has plenty of money to spend, and it’s going to spend it poaching the best talent available. Arianna Huffington says that, by moving away from AOL’s freelancer model–and releasing thousands of AOL’s former freelancers–she has freed up enough money in her budget to hire 70-80 experienced full-time journalists. These journalists will go a long way toward making Huffington Post as “serious” a news organisation as most of the traditional companies it is competing against. The days when New York Times editor Bill Keller can dismiss Huffpo as little more than an aggregator of adorable kitten videos and not be ridiculed by every reader will soon be over.
(Keller’s recent column drew howls of ridicule from many media critics, but lots of folks apparently agreed with it.)
Third, the ongoing exodus of top print talent to digital publications will make it even easier and more acceptable for other print folks to follow suit. One of the big incentives for Zeller to move, Zeller says, was to join Tim O’Brien and other NYT colleagues at Huffpo. Digital, in other words, is no longer a home only for pioneers and risk-takers, and, at least at some organisations, it no longer means taking a huge salary hit.
Fourth, although the New York Times has seen lots of defections lately, the NYT is smart not to “do whatever it takes” financially to keep folks like O’Brien, Goodman, and Zeller from leaving. The New York Times’s brand and product is not dependent on any individual who works there. With 1,200 folks in the newsroom, and with huge crops of talented journalists hitting the market every year from other publications and schools (most of whom would be thrilled to work for the NYT), the New York Times could lose hundreds of its editorial folks and still be in fine shape. The NYT’s biggest problem right now, in fact, is its legacy cost structure. So if a company like Huffpo wants to foot the bill for some of its senior folks, the NYT can replace them with hungry (and cheaper) junior folks, and be better off financially (if not psychologically).
Fifth, the trend of top folks leaving legacy publications and moving to companies like Bloomberg, Huffington Post, and other upstarts is not likely to end any time soon. Huffpo and Bloomberg are growing rapidly, and they are net importers of talent. The New York Times, et al, meanwhile, are shrinking, and as they shrink they will no longer be able to afford all the talent they already have.
This trend, by the way, has played out in every disruptive industry transition since the dawn of time: The economics of old models break down, and they’re replaced by more efficient ones. And as they are, some of the top talent in the older organisations moves to the upstarts.
In the tech industry, this trend often plays out very rapidly: 10 years ago, “incumbents” like Microsoft and Yahoo saw their talent begin to flow to Google, et al, and Google has recently seen its talent begin to flow to Facebook, et al. The trend is slower in the media industry, especially when it comes to a model–newspapers–that has been wildly profitable for more than a century. But it’s the same.
So expect more where this latest move came from.