Magazine article Editor & Publisher

Exodus of the Web People

Magazine article Editor & Publisher

Exodus of the Web People

Article excerpt

Tribune Interactive turnover a sign of the cybertimes?

Chicago's Tribune Co. is being hit hard by new-media employee defections, especially since the company announced the creation three months ago of Tribune Interactive (ti), an Internet division completely separate from the print operations. The latest loss, of a top editor, came Sept. 3.

More than 15% of Tribune's Internet staff of 120 have left this year, and more editorial departures could be coming, according to several former employees. These staffers say they left because the company is de- emphasizing writing and journalism, accompanied by an increased focus on promotions and profit.

TI ceo Jeff Scherb doesn't deny an emphasis on profitability, but says it won't come at the expense of good journalism. "We are what we are because of our journalism," he says. "It's our stock in trade. But we are also a business. We want it to be a path to making a profit. We're patient about getting there."

Many apparently aren't buying Scherb's line. A top editor, Howard Witt, left the company this week to take a job with Brill's Content in New York. The former associate managing editor declined to comment on the reasons for his departure, but other staffers say Witt was dissatisfied with the direction of the company.

"I don't want to cast [aspersions]," Witt says. "It won't do anybody any good." Instead, he wryly repeats this line when asked about his departure, "Tribune Interactive is a fine place, filled with fine people, and they have a fine future."

According to sources close to the operation, the director of interactive media, Owen Youngman, is also frustrated, but he says he's a "lifer" at Tribune Co. He acknowledges the friction between some staff and management, but says that TI's recent spinoff affording autonomy from the newspaper parent company will assuage at least some of the old-media concerns.

TI's turnover rate isn't the highest among newspaper Internet divisions, some of which sadly report turnovers pushing past 50%. And, nationwide, industries of all sorts are facing turnover rates in the teens, as a vibrant job market drives competition for good workers.

But the brain drain at one of the nation's top media companies vividly illustrates the difficulties faced by traditional media in this new-media era. TI's troubles are being duplicated from East Coast to West as newspapers struggle to make money off their cash-eating Web enterprises while retaining highly sought-after Web workers. Many have left ti for prime Internet jobs at the likes of Yahoo! and Broadcast.com, top companies that can lure away even happy employees.

Why they're leaving

Editor & Publisher interviewed several present and former Tribune Interactive employees who shed light on why at least 18 of the company's 120 employees have headed for the exits. Of the staffers who left this year, three were technical people, three were marketing/strategic, four were advertising, and eight were editorial, Witt says.

Present and former employees lay out these concerns about ti:

* Management is deeply entrenched in the old-media mindset.

* The group's losses, in the millions of dollars for 1998, put the company in the profit-making mode, and away from editorial focus, requiring editorial workers to be what one former employee describes as "whores" for the marketing department.

* Most of those hired for one job may soon be asked to switch gears in another position.

"Newspaper sites are trying to be like Silicon Valley portals and auctions and such," says John Caserta, former design director of the Chicago Tribune Internet Edition who left this summer to become a Web consultant in Italy. "Folks who want to do that kind of work might as well go work for companies that are doing that well and don't have to deal with legacy systems, old internal structures, little or no stock options, and other negatives from the newspaper. …

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