The Media Today

Ten days of turnover

January 11, 2022

Last Tuesday, Audie 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).

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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.

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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.

Below, more on turnover:

  • CPJ: The Committee to Protect Journalists also made a big hire yesterday, naming Jodie Ginsberg as its new president in place of Joel Simon, who stepped down last year following a fifteen-year tenure. Ginsberg was most recently the CEO of Internews Europe, a media-development nonprofit; prior to that, she led Index on Censorship and worked as a reporter and manager at Reuters. “Jodie Ginsberg is an accomplished advocate and talented journalist with first-hand knowledge of some of the perils journalists face,” Kathleen Carroll, the chair of CPJ’s board, said. “Jodie will bring bold leadership and a clear vision to the pursuit of our mission.”
  • CBS, the Times, NewsNation: Three more moves from yesterday: CBS News announced several staffing changes, promoting Mark Lima to vice president and Washington bureau chief, giving Mary Hager a new title as executive editor of politics, and hiring ABC’s Matthew Mosk as senior investigative editorial director. Elsewhere, the Times announced that Anna Martin, a producer in the paper’s audio department, will host its Modern Love podcast. And the veteran Post columnist George Will is joining NewsNation, a network that touts itself as a nonbiased counterpart to cable news, as a senior contributor. “NewsNation meets a national need for news delivered without political agendas, clenched fists, and raised voices,” Will said. “It offers news leavened by a sense of the complexity and grandeur of American history.”
  • Meanwhile, in Baltimore: The Baltimore Bannera new nonprofit newsroom backed by Stewart Bainum, Jr., a Maryland hotel magnate who tried and failed to buy the Baltimore Sun out of the clutches of Alden Global Capital, a cost-slashing hedge fund, last year—has started to flesh out its newsroom. Kimi Yoshino, the editor in chief, announced last week that three prominent Sun reporters—Justin Fenton, who covers crime and courts; Liz Bowie, who covers education; and Tim Prudente, an enterprise reporter—are all joining the Banner. Andrea K. McDaniels, another Sun veteran, will serve as managing editor, while Lawrence Burney, who founded a magazine to cover Baltimore’s music scene, will join as arts and culture editor.
  • The Athletic: Aron Pilhofer, a professor of journalism innovation at Temple University, argues that the Times buying The Athletic is a “potential disaster” for local news. “By purchasing The Athletic, which covers 270-plus sports teams in more than 47 local markets, the Times has placed itself in direct competition with every local news site for the same pool of subscribers,” he writes. “Newspaper execs will say the Times has been competing with them for decades, which is true. But the Times has never competed as directly in a domain (local sports) that, until now, was largely owned by local news.”

Other notable stories:

  • On Friday, Lori Montgomery, the Post’s business editor, tweeted that a scathing column about Ben Roethlisberger, the Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback, was “completely FOS” (“full of shit”). The column addressed rape claims against Roethlisberger; after Montgomery posted her criticism, Felicia Sonmez, a Post reporter and survivor of sexual assault, flagged the tweet, noting that facts in the column were supported by the Post’s own reporting. Montgomery has since deleted the tweet, saying that she never intended to question the validity of the rape allegations and that she is a survivor of sexual assault herself; the Post’s union is now asking management to address staff about the incident. Sonmez is currently suing the Post—and editors including Montgomery—over the paper’s past decision to bar her from covering sexual assault. Washingtonian’s Andrew Beaujon has more details.
  • Julie Zauzmer Weil, Adrian Blanco, and Leo Dominguez, also of the Post, created the first ever database of members of Congress who owned slaves; they identified at least 1,715 lawmakers who were slaveholders at some point in their adult lives, representing more than sixty political parties and serving in Congress as late as 1922. To create the database, the Post researched all of the nearly six thousand members of Congress who were born before 1840. “The verdicts on who enslaved people and who did not are based on journal articles, books, newspapers and many other texts, with the vast majority of the information coming from the 1790 through 1860 decennial censuses.”
  • Politico’s West Wing Playbook team profiled Joey Politano, a Labor Department staffer who also writes a Substack newsletter called Apricitas (meaning “sunshine” in Latin) and recently used it to take issue with administration claims about inflation. It’s unusual, Politico reports, for civil servants to weigh in publicly on the administration they serve, but Politano said that there are no strict internal rules curbing his speech. “People tend to underestimate the first amendment protections federal employees get,” he said.
  • In the spirit of “pundit accountability,” David Leonhardt, who writes The Morning newsletter for the Times, revisited big errors of analysis that he made last year, namely underestimating the problems of breakthrough COVID infections and waning vaccine immunity, and complacency about inflation. Leonhardt writes that he has “tried to absorb the lesson of COVID’s uncertainty,” in particular, emphasizing it more in his recent work.
  • Last year, the Devil Strip, a local-news cooperative in Akron, Ohio, that won plaudits for its community-ownership model, abruptly shuttered without consulting its co-owners or staff. Three remaining members of the board tried to save it, but they’ve now abandoned that effort, citing the coop’s greater-than-expected debt as well as cumbersome bylaws that greatly limit the board’s power to make decisions. WKSU’s Kabir Bhatia has more.
  • Martin Scott, Kate Wright, and Mel Bunce, researchers in the UK, assessed whether the volume of news coverage about humanitarian crises overseas affects how governments distribute aid. They found, after interviewing thirty policymakers in sixteen countries, that it does, regardless of actual need—though the media’s influence extends more to ad-hoc budgets than annual aid allocations, which often involve greater sums of money.
  • For CJR, Yiannis Baboulias spotlights the state of press freedom in Greece, where a crime reporter was recently killed and journalists are facing surveillance and other official threats. Late last year, Ingeborg Beugel—a Dutch journalist who had covered Greece for decades and recently angered Kyriakos Mitsotakis, the prime minister—left the country after the Dutch embassy advised that it would be unsafe for her to stay.
  • Baktash Abtin, a dissident poet and documentary-maker in Iran, has died after contracting COVID-19 in prison, where he was serving a six-year sentence for “anti-government propaganda.” Iranian authorities have denied that Abtin, who had been furloughed and transferred to a private hospital, was mistreated, but the rights group PEN America said that his death was “aided and abetted” by the government.
  • And David Sassoli, the president of the European Union’s Parliament, also died today, at the age of sixty-five. Before Sassoli went into politics, he worked as a newspaper journalist in Italy and then as an evening-news anchor for RAI, the national broadcaster, where he also served as deputy director. “His celebrity status,” AFP reports, “catapulted him from Italian television screens to a new career at the European parliament.”

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Jon Allsop is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in the New York Review of Books, Foreign Policy, and The Nation, among other outlets. He writes CJR’s newsletter The Media Today. Find him on Twitter @Jon_Allsop.