CJR’s Jon Allsop on Ten Days of Media Turnover

Jon Allsop’s The Media Today at cjr.org wraps up “Ten Days of Turnover”:

Last TuesdayAudie Cornish, a host of NPR’s All Things Considered, announced that she would be leaving at the end of the week. “I am joining many of you in ‘The Great Resignation,’” she tweeted, referring to the national trend of people quitting their jobs, often to do something new.

Cornish, who declined at the time to say what her something new was, became one of a number of prominent journalists of color to have left NPR in recent months; soon after she made her announcement, Ari Shapiro, her cohost, flagged the trend, tweeting, “If NPR doesn’t see this as a crisis, I don’t know what it’ll take.” When contacted by the Washington Post, a spokesperson declined to use that word, noting that NPR has recently promoted other reporters of color and attributing the wave of departures to increased competition in the audio space, though journalists familiar with the world of public radio told the Post that stunted opportunities for growth and creativity are more to blame. Cornish, for her part, reiterated that she left NPR for a new opportunity with “no malice or resentment,” though she also noted systemic equity and diversity issues in audio journalism, and acknowledged that the recent exodus is a “red flag.”

Staff turnover is nothing new or unusual in the media industry, for all sorts of reasons—including both the desire for a new challenge and persistent barriers to opportunity—but the last couple of years have been more turbulent than most, with the pandemic, its confluence with other exhausting and traumatizing news cycles, an industry “reckoning” over institutional racism, and deepening economic turmoil for the news business, among other factors, supercharging the dynamic. Last April, I wrote in this newsletter that the first few months of 2021 had been particularly busy for high-profile media moves. The same has been true of the first few days of 2022 (albeit without the same degree of change, so far, at the very top of major mastheads).

Last Monday, the New York Times made a statement hire when it added the Post’s David Fahrenthold, who won a Pulitzer for his reporting on Trump’s dodgy charity donations, to its investigative team. On Tuesday, The City, a local-news site in New York, named Richard Kim, the executive editor of HuffPost, as its next editor in chief, and The Verge, a tech site that is in expansion mode, rehired two prominent former staffers: Zoë Schiffer, since of NBC, and Sarah Jeong, since of the Times. On Thursday, the BBC put Deborah Turness in charge of its newsgathering operation as the broadcaster navigates a tricky moment of external political pressure and internal restructuring; the Post promoted Steven Ginsberg, its national editor, to managing editor; and Christian Baesler—who joined BuzzFeed last year when it went public and merged with Complex Networks, where he is the CEO—became that company’s first chief operating officer since the role was vacated in 2014. Also on Thursday, Scott Tufts, the head of Court TV, left in mysterious circumstances shortly after leading the morning editorial meeting. On Friday, Jared Hohlt left Slate, where he was editor in chief, by mutual agreement with his bosses.

Yesterday was a bumper day for media-jobs news even by recent standards. Variety promoted Ramin Setoodeh to co-editor in chief, alongside Cynthia Littleton; the pair will succeed Claudia Eller, who went on leave for five months in 2020 after lashing out at a reporter who criticized her record on diversity, before being reinstated to see out her contract, which is up this summer. Politico made its first big move since its acquisition by the German media giant Axel Springer, appointing Goli Sheikholeslami—who, in her time as CEO of New York Public Radio, also oversaw high staff turnover and complaints about a lack of diversity—as its new CEO. There were big moves in cable news, too. Fox News named Jesse Watters, a trollish flamethrower with a history of offensive remarks, as the new permanent host of its 7pm hour. MSNBC appointed Symone Sanders—who was a top spokesperson for Vice President Kamala Harris and, before that, the Biden campaign—to host a weekend show and appear on Peacock, an NBC streaming service. And Cornish landed at CNN’s forthcoming streaming service, CNN+.

Some of the year’s early turnover has involved whole companies—or the idea of them, at least. Last week, the Times announced that it is acquiring The Athletic, a sports site whose founder once promised to “wait every local paper out and let them continuously bleed until we are the last ones standing”; the site, which was losing money but has a million paying subscribers, will retain its existing brand while bolstering the Times’s own subscription bundle. Meanwhile, Ben Smith, the Times’s media columnist (and the editor of BuzzFeed News before that), left the paper to launch a global news venture with Justin Smith, who stepped down as CEO of Bloomberg at the same time. Despite the anguished efforts of several reporters, the two Smiths haven’t said much about the venture, though the details they did drop—including their plan to target the “200 million people who are college educated, who read in English, but who no one is really treating like an audience”—were enough to both titillate and enrage media Twitter.

I wrote last April that, while it’s hard to generalize about the reasons for turnover, the wave of moves in 2021 to that point together seemed to reflect a “turning point” for the media industry. It’s still hard to generalize—but, looking at the 2022 wave so far, it’s perhaps easier to see the opposite, with many moves seeming to reinforce prior trends. The Times, already a behemoth, continues to suck in both talented individual reporters (Fahrenthold) and entire newsrooms to the detriment both of major rivals (the Post) and smaller local outlets; Politico, under Sheikholeslami’s watch, looks set to enter acquisition mode, too. Ben Smith’s ambitious new venture might one day disrupt his old employer’s hegemony; it’s hard to know without more information and a crystal ball. But on its face, and as many critics pointed out, college-educated English-readers are far from an underserved audience; indeed, one could make a cogent case that the US media industry is increasingly serving them, at the expense of both local and traditionally marginalized communities. As Alex Sujong Laughlin wrote for Poynter, media founders of color would likely have a much tougher time selling investors on such a vague proposition.

Yesterday’s TV hires, along with a couple of the other recent moves, entailed some diversification: Sanders and Cornish will step into a cable-news landscape where hosts of color, and women in particular, are still too rare, despite recent steps forward. In a different sense, though, the hires “doubled as statements about each network’s positioning in the news and talk marketplace,” as CNN’s Brian Stelter put it. Watters will make Fox’s evening lineup even Foxier; Sanders is a lesser-known quantity as a TV host, but her background as a Democratic operative—and statement, on leaving the Biden administration recently, that she would “continue to be a reliable voice for this White House on the outside, regardless of whatever I do next”—suggest that she might make MSNBC MSNBC-ier. (In an interview with the Times yesterday, Sanders walked that comment back a bit, saying, “I’m going to tell the truth.”)

Cornish going to CNN+ is perhaps the most exciting and curious of the recent moves, given her long background in radio and the fact that CNN+ is still taking shape. Taken together, however, some of the new streamer’s other early hires—Alison Roman, Chris Wallace—hardly look like leaps into daring journalistic terrain, even if the format is relatively new. (Roman, a food writer and social-media star, has been criticized, as the New Yorker noted in a recent profile, as “both a product and a perpetuator of structural racism in food media.”) The reaction to Cornish’s departure from NPR illustrates a trend, too, even if her reasons for leaving are her own.


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