Inside the Media Hiring Bubble

mediamoveschart Inside the Media Hiring Bubble“I didn’t feel like I was being interviewed for a job,” said the AP’s Ron Fournier, about the lunch that would lead to his becoming the next editor of National Journal.

“It was not a job interview,” said The New Republic‘s Michelle Cottle, about meeting Tina Brown for coffee before agreeing to go to work for her at Newsweek.

“It wasn’t an afterthought, exactly, but …” said GQ‘s Joel Lovell, about the job offer from Hugo Lindgren at The New York Times Magazine. The two friends had been talking about how to reinvent the title so much that when they made it official, the moment was a bit of an anticlimax.

Three major media moves of 2010; three courtships best described as “meh.” Can’t a sought-after journalist at least eke out a fancy meal these days?

“The days of going to the Four Seasons and wooing someone are over,” Mr. Lovell said via cell phone from a coffee shop in Brooklyn, where he was nursing a nasty bout of pneumonia.

“Instead you do it over email, or you meet somebody at some crappier restaurant, or over a beer rather than a $300 bottle of wine.”

The expense account days are long gone, it’s true. But what the blizzard of media hirings that closed out 2010 proves is that for the select few publications that have the money to expand, it is a hirer’s market. The media-jobs thaw that The Observer first noted in April has reached a stage that might best be described as like poaching fish in a barrel. Editors like Ms. Brown, Mr. Lindgren and Matt Winkler of Bloomberg News are getting the talent they want, when they want it, and with little foreplay. They are raiding dilapidated shops like The Washington Post–which lost Howard Kurtz, Robin Givhan and Blake Gopnik to Ms. Brown in recent months–as well as powerhouses like New York, where Mr. Lindgren plucked away Sam Anderson and Adam Sternbergh in the quiet days before Christmas.

These are sharp hires. Ms. Brown, for instance, is zeroing in on a particular kind of storytelling reporter with Washington chops; Mr. Lindgren, who needs to make the Times Magazine a Sunday must-read again, has cherry-picked some of the best culture journalists in the game.

Others have hired with a broader mandate. In November, Rupert Murdoch’s The Daily cruised through the Manhattan media world like a great baleen whale, taking into its maw a staggering percentage of the city’s up-and-coming journalists, plus big names like Sasha Frere-Jones, Richard Johnson and Reihan Salam. Mr. Winkler has continued adding to the Bloomberg rolls and was able to entice David Shipley, who had a plum job as op-ed page editor of The Times, with an even plummier position starting up the news service’s opinion section.

The Observer, which loves a good hard-to-get tale, spent the holiday break ringing up the Christmas crop of transfers, asking if any had received the kind of treatment that Jeffrey Goldberg, then at The New Yorker, saw in 2007–when Atlantic owner David Bradley, frustrated that Mr. Goldberg had spurned entreaty after entreaty, finally resorted to the nuclear option. He brought two ponies to the Goldberg homestead for the writer’s daughters to play with, a sort of reverse-Godfather move that he could not in the end refuse.

Three years and one recession later, Ms. Cottle told The Observer that livestock did not factor in her decision to leave The New Republic. “I am extremely boring,” she said in her Southern lilt. “No one has to throw ponies at me. No one has to promise I get all white food in my office and wash my hair with Evian. I’m a print journalist. I’m used to a fair amount of abuse.”

Ms. Givhan did manage to extract a sushi lunch from Ms. Brown’s deputy, Edward Felsenthal, in New York. But all it really took to pluck the Pulitzer Prize winner from The Post was a cup of coffee. “I’d never met her before,” Ms. Givhan said, about sipping with Ms. Brown at the Hay-Adams hotel in early December. “Mostly it was just a mini story-brainstorming session, and I just found it incredibly energizing.” Ms. Givhan, who had already been thinking of leaving The Post, wrote Ms. Brown an exhilarated email afterward, and in a matter of days she was on board.

Mr. Kurtz, who wrote about Mr. Bradley’s ponies in his Post media column in 2007, has now seen both sides of the talent-wooing game. After becoming Ms. Brown’s bureau chief in Washington, he has run interference on her D.C. hires. “I would’ve been happy just to write for The Daily Beast, but the tipping point was the notion of becoming an editor and a bureau chief and having a voice in the site’s development,” he told The Observer.

Mr. Kurtz and Mr. Fournier–whose National Journal went on a delirious hiring spree over the summer–demurred from the view that this moment is entirely a buyers’ market, especially in Washington. It’s true that the best talent still commands high prices and excellent terms. And of course, a writer or editor jumping to a new publication necessarily creates a vacancy at her old desk–a ripple effect that will create an aftermarket extending into the spring.

“If you want to be an editor somewhere, and you’re talented, now is an incredibly great time. It’s so weird because it’s coming so quickly on the heels of an incredibly bad time–it wasn’t that long ago that we were thinking nobody would ever be hired again,” said Mr. Lovell.

nsummers@observer.com | @nicksumm

Correction: The chart accompanying this story lists The New Yorker as having lost Mr. Frere-Jones. Despite his new position at The Daily, he will continue writing for the magazine.

MediaMovesChart 1 Inside the Media Hiring Bubble