As the NY Times seeks talent, it should beware the star journalist

A big takeaway of The New York Times’ internal 2020 Group report was the need to attract a bigger paying audience. Among its recommendations was to bring in more top journalists from the outside to help make its coverage better than the competition’s.

The Times didn’t explicitly say it would be hiring “star reporters,” but one could easily see why it would go in that direction. As Fusion’s Felix Salmon tweeted, “One implication of this which is not in the report: More name-brand journalists, perhaps, who can singlehandedly draw subscriptions.”

Star-based hiring is as old as journalism itself — it’s a longstanding tradition at rarified magazines like Condé Nast’s — but it’s taken on new importance recently, especially with the rise of VC-backed digital outlets like Mashable and BuzzFeed that have poached established journalists to build recognition and credibility quickly. The social web has helped elevate journalists by enabling them to forge direct relationships with their audiences.

As ad-poor publishers cast around for ways to get more revenue from readers, they’re considering what people will pay for, if they will at all. People are willing to pay for good reporting, which is The Information’s model, and also for strong voices. The Times traditionally has been an editor-driven kind of place, but has cultivated columnists and reporters, like DealBook founder Andrew Ross Sorkin, with his own mini media empire; and the highly visible technology reporter Jenna Wortham.

Salmon predicted more of this is on the way as the Times looks for ways to produce coverage that can’t be found anywhere else. “The more people you have like that, the more people will be inclined to subscribe,” he said. “As your worldview changes from being based on pageviews, it really changes who you hire and what you ask them to do and how much freedom you give them. It’s got to be a lot less buttoned-down.”

As power shifts from advertisers to readers, it makes sense that individual journalists who have a bond with core readers and do something unique would gain in stature, NYU journalism professor Jay Rosen said. And Politico media writer Jack Shafer pointed out that poaching stars can be a great way to staff up, signal the seriousness of your mission and help you attract other people.

It’s pretty easy to test such a strategy, which makes it worthwhile, said Tony Haile, former Chartbeat CEO and now CEO of startup subscription service Scroll. “You hire a star, look at their audience, the propensity for their audience to convert, and quickly learn effectiveness of it.”

The star strategy has its flaws, though. Politico is a great example of how stardom can put a new publication on the map (and its cofounder Jim VandeHei is replicating that aspect of the model with his new startup, Axios). But an institution like the Times has already star power of its own; people can make a name for themselves through their reporting, but when they’re working for a famous global outlet like the Times, it’s hard to say where the stardom came from, the person or the platform, Shafer said.

Getting the price and offering right is tricky, as the Times’ earlier attempts to charge for direct access to its journalists showed. In 2005, it launched TimesSelect, a $50-a-year, members-only access to archives and columnists, but pulled the plug two years later. Then it launched Times Premier, a $585-a-year membership program that had an inside-the-newsroom feature, but that offering was underwhelming. Its paywall strategy where people pay for the bundle has been far more successful; it has 1.3 million digital-only subscribers.

And there isn’t always a correlation between stardom and good work, observers said. The Washington Post’s David Fahrenthold was known in media circles before his string of scoops on the Donald Trump foundation; based on that reporting, he’s now a CNN contributor. But ask the average news consumer whether they’ve ever heard of him.

“The people writers think off as stars often don’t have broad followings,” Gawker co-founder Nick Denton said. “Is Fahrenthold really going to move subs? Most readers don’t follow writer bylines. Except for a few op-ed writers.”

Individual journalists with voice and a following can move their show elsewhere, as Nate Silver did, Rosen said. “You have to give them more autonomy. They are harder to control. They can screw up and cost you big points, reputationally.”

And the star system requires a lot of tending, Haile said. “Are you basically incubating your future competitors, which is personal brand journalists? If you go down this star system route, you have to constantly be creating new stars.”

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