How Disruptors with Nothing to Lose Paved the Way Online for Old Media Stars Like Howard Kurtz

Who should Howard Kurtz thank for his new job at The Daily Beast? Tina Brown, his new boss? Barry Diller, the head of the site’s parent company?

How about Josh Marshall, who over 10 years has built a small liberal political blog into a self-sustaining network of news and opinion sites?

How about the proprietors of hyperlocal news sites, who devoted 12-hour-days to their self-funded sites, hoping that if they could find the right mix of content, they could figure out a way to support it?

Or the hundreds of fresh-faced college grads who, when presented with a virtual lockout at newspapers around the country, figured they could do worse than to gamble on a little-known website that didn’t exist when they were in high school?

Tuesday’s news was about how Kurtz was leaving one of the most venerable papers in the country for a two-year-old website — yet another example of old media losing talent to new media.

But if you take the long view, you see that this trail has already been blazed. Rather than being a story of how online media has taken something from legacy media, this is a story of how online media is now mature enough, editorially and financially, that people like Kurtz or Howard Fineman consider it a real option.

Kurtz’s move isn’t risky or edgy; it’s well-reasoned and practical — which says more about the state of online media than it does about his own career path.

Nothing to lose

In “The Innovator’s Dilemma,” Clayton M. Christensen writes that the people who shake up an industry are the ones who have the least to lose. They’re willing to try techniques or technology ignored by industry stalwarts. And in doing so, those upstarts sometimes end up undermining the existing industry.

At some point, those stalwarts realize that they’re not in the industry they thought they were in. You thought you were in the railroad business? You’re in the transportation business. You thought you worked in newspapers? You work in media.

People like Marshall disrupted the news business by capitalizing on the Web’s low barrier to publishing, building a community around his content, and redefining online media.

I think we can trace this change in the media industry by tracing the shift in the types of people who have been attracted to online media startups and thrived — from visionaries like Marshall to media figures like Kurtz.

The Web’s Oregon Trail

In this first stage — along with the people who “got” the Web — I would put the people who, for one reason or another, hadn’t found their place in media.

Perhaps they didn’t share the values of legacy news organizations. Maybe they didn’t have the right credentials. Maybe they didn’t look like others in journalism. Maybe they consciously were trying to reshape media, and they had never wanted to be part of those creaky behemoths.

The Web was the place where these people could figure this out.

When the economy crashed and worsened the structural challenges at news orgs, these people were joined by the laid-off and bought-out — the second stage.

When the Rocky Mountain News closed, a group of staffers tried publishing news on their own, and then on an investor-backed site. (The investor-backed site, INDenver Times, is still around, but the journalists and the investors parted ways early on.) A couple sites sprang up in Seattle after Hearst shut down the print edition of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer and shrank the staff.

Hundreds, perhaps thousands, more journalists took similar paths. Some of them had been able to ignore the changes in media because they were still employed. Even if they contributed to their websites, the organizations were still organized around and dependent on their presses.

As these journalists looked around them for the next job, they realized that the choice had been made for them — if they wanted to do journalism, they would have to figure out how to do it online.

In the third stage are young people — those with bachelor’s and master’s degrees — who before the Web (and before the recession) would’ve walked the well-worn career paths of journalists before them. (This started happening before the layoffs, but that’s when it became dire.)

The good and the lucky among them have been able to get traditional media jobs. Others saw the limited opportunity, the mixed signals about what the companies sought, and the antiquated business model and decided they may as well push into the underbrush to see what was growing there.

The next stage is made up of the established journalists who joined online startups such as California Watch, The Bay Citizen, Chicago News Cooperative and Texas Tribune. (Perhaps this stage started with the people who launched Politico and ProPublica.)

My colleague Mallary Tenore found that many of the new employees at Texas Tribune had left jobs with other major news outlets in Texas to join this new nonprofit news site. They were young and on the upswing of their careers. They had options; they just decided that the Tribune was a better one. So did their bosses, veterans who also left publications to do journalism online.

The new is old

This brings us to the people who seem like they’d have the most to lose by leaving established media companies with stellar brands, people like Kurtz and Fineman.

But what does Kurtz really stand to lose? Perhaps some income; we don’t know if he’ll make more or less money at The Daily Beast. But he won’t lose his TV show on CNN. He won’t lose his 40,000 Twitter followers. He’ll keep his extensive list of contacts. And his fans (many of whom probably just Googled his name and clicked one of the first links) will be able to find him just as easily.

Most of the things that would’ve made someone like him reticent to make this move five years ago — even two years ago — are gone. It looks like you can make money online, though it involves many different types of revenue. Branding is more important.

In his farewell note to his colleagues at the Post
, Kurtz said his move shouldn’t be read as a sign of the decline of the Post or of newspapers.

“Still, there’s an awful lot of energy and excitement in the Web world,” he wrote. “I could not have imagined doing this five years ago, as a guy who just plain likes paper. So a significant shift is underway. Somehow, I became a trending topic on Twitter — and without even popping off, Rick Sanchez-style.”

In an interview with TBD, Kurtz said that an online media company may be a better place to try something new. “It’s a smaller battleship than the Washington Post.”

For now, at least, the ocean is big enough to support both ships.

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