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Oct. 24, 2013, 11:15 a.m.

The newsonomics of David Pogue and the Pujols Effect

Is the economic power of star journalists growing or shrinking? Depends on the news organization.

Divorces can be such fun, especially media divorces.

This week, David Pogue and The New York Times split after 13 years. Last month, The Wall Street Journal couldn’t renew their vows with Walt Mossberg and Kara Swisher. Over the past year, Nate Silver’s bid adieu to the Times and Andrew Sullivan severed his relationship with The Daily Beast, just months before Tina Brown did likewise.

The terms of disendearment are never announced, and everybody wishes everybody luck in their new ventures.

What’s the value of media personality these days, and how is that value changing? There are always personality differences, miscommunications, and feelings of unshared gain (or sacrifice), as in all relationships. These more recent splits, though, may tell us about the new value of personality power in the digital media world — as well as its limits.

The Pogue parting is no big surprise. His far-flung business activities posed potential conflict after potential conflict; then-Times public editor Clark Hoyt’s 2009 column on Pogue served only as a public iceberg tip for concerns long simmering in the newsroom. Pogue’s own earlier statement, taken out of context, he points out — “I am not a reporter, I have never been to journalism school” — certainly didn’t help, as Gawker, among others, ridiculed that stance as disingenuous.

David Pogue is a wonderfully successful personal tech writer, probably more show biz than news biz, and now he’s taking his talents to Yahoo, where, according to CEO Marissa Mayer, he “will lead a major expansion of consumer tech coverage.” Pogue gets more money and presumably less interference with his ventures, which include TV (PBS Nova specials, CBS Sunday Morning stories), books (Missing Manual book series), and magazines (a Scientific American column. A Broadway composer, you can check him out singing Tom Lehrer-like parody (“I Write the Code”) on YouTube. Pogue’s been multi-platform since before there was multi-platform.

Across town, The Wall Street Journal had developed its own multi-platform success. Since its launch in 2007, AllThingsD has moved comfortably from web to mobile, a top-three go-to site about digital deal-making, and back into the terrestrial world. The annual D conference is prototypical of the new events businesses now being jump-started by big and small publishers alike (“The newsonomics of the new Chattanooga Choo-Choo”).

Let’s consider the business case of star power. It’s morphed some since I first wrote about it three years ago (“The newsonomics of journalistic star power”) because of the changing economics of the business. Then it was institutions like Bloomberg and the National Journal making their moves, poaching higher-end talent like Fareed Zakaria and Howard Fineman.

Why invest in such talent? Certainly, there’s the barker factor. David Pogue, Marissa Mayer believes, will bring new readers into the Yahoo tech tent. More audience is, of course, the goal. But in 2013, audience growth is less valuable than it used to be. With the digital ad flatness that almost everyone other than Google, Facebook, and Twitter are seeing (Yahoo itself was down 7 percent in display ad revenue in Q3), the tie between audience growth and ad return is weakened. These days, the money is in matching audience to ad, as programmatic buying and other ad technologies transform the business. (Marketplace covered this issue well in its Pogue-related coverage; AllThingsD’s revenue plusses and minuses were best covered by Bloomberg’s Ed Lee.)

So how much, financially, is a David Pogue or a Nate Silver worth The New York Times?

The value equation has two parts. First, media can count the direct revenue driven by a contributor’s posts, columns, videos, or event appearances. Then there’s the elusive — but very real — brand-building. Personalities do help build brands.

The bigger the brand, though, the more value the brand may confer on the personality, as compared to the reverse. As we try to disentangle the value of Andrew Sullivan’s pay model from the value of his previous employers, we see that he’s both proving out a new model and showing us the limits of it. Both the Beast and The Atlantic, his previous home, conferred a fair amount of brand authority on him.

It’s an elusive relationship, as hard to achieve in media as marriage: “The sweet spot is the combo where both benefit from and feed off each other,” sums up Justin Smith, the new CEO of Bloomberg Media and former Atlantic Media president.

What we may seeing in the Pogue departure, as well as the AllThingsD split, is a new media company assessment of that brand value, as those companies struggle with lesser, ad-depleted revenue value.

Call it the Pujols Effect. The St. Louis Cardinals, tonight entering Game 2 in their fourth World Series in 10 years, changed up their own personality/brand mix a half-decade ago. They opted to develop new talent from within their farm system rather than signing or re-signing ultra-priced talent. They let their star Albert Pujols go in the last off-season. The Los Angeles Angels (yes, of Anaheim) signed up the 31-year-old for 10 years at a cool quarter of a billion dollars. Short story: He got injured, the Angels tanked, and the Cards, relying on younger, cheaper talent, proved to be one of the top two teams in baseball. Today’s verdict: The Cards are geniuses. (Even if they lost 8-1 at Fenway last night.)

In the Times’ and Journal’s decision making, we can see a media corollary of the Pujols Effect: Refuse to pay what Yahoo or ESPN will pay a Pogue or a Silver, and invest those precious dollars in less sexy development. That investment may include video or analytics at the Times. At the Journal, editor Gerry Baker has talked about hiring 20 new staffers to produce the kind of content AllThingsD staffers have been writing.

At the Journal, News Corp owns all the AllThingsD assets — site name, events business, archives — and that’s not a trivial foundation. At the Times, tech coverage from Silicon Valley to New York has been well staffed up in recent years. They both know they’ll find stiff competition in the overcrowded tech coverage marketplace. (At the same time, such in-depth product-review sites as The Wirecutter make the kind of quick in-and-out coverage that a Pogue or a Mossberg provides less relevant to an increasing share of the tech-buying population.)

For other media, the brand-building may be — or seem — more worth it. Whatever Marissa is paying David is far less than the $1.1 billion she paid (or overpaid) for Tumblr, and the deal can be seen the same way: as part of her efforts to rebuild the tarnished Yahoo brand. You can make similar cases for some of the potential Walt-and-Kara bidders out there: NBCUniversal, Bloomberg, Condé Nast, Cox Enterprises, AOL’s TechCrunch, and The Washington Post Company. Of course, the question is what the buyers are buying: how much of the staff will stay together and who will be picked off by other media, including News Corp itself.

For both the Times and the Journal, the question still hangs in the air: how to complement its traditional, journalistic report with the kind of voice and skills that the Swishers, Mossbergs, and Pogues bring.

The Times, for one, needs as many draws as it can get. While its staff of more than 1,100 produces an impressive report — now rewarded by all those digital-only and all-access subscribers — it needs more ways to satisfy its paying audience. It first licensed “outsiders” when it published the Freakonomics blog in 2007, a franchise that has since moved on. Surprisingly, the Times has signed up few higher-profile outsiders to plump up its products since. Pogue wasn’t exactly an outsider, but he was on the edge.

So one question we’ve got to ask: What is a Timesman in the digital age? Can the Times figure out how to widen its content offering while maintaining its core values? It lost Nate Silver to ESPN. While his parting caused much more concern at the Times — his serious-minded analysis stands apart from the populist and internally unpopular Pogue — there’s a real question of how well the Times can grow beyond its glorious roots, signing up and keeping unorthodox talents.

One such talent is David Carr. Looking, sounding, and often writing little like a traditional Timesman, Carr, like his partner in media intrigue Brian Stelter, has added a fresh voice to coverage. I talked with Carr about this fine line of how much value an institution like the Times confers on its talent and how much that talent confers back on the brand. Carr, who’s covered Hollywood on and off, over the years uses a cinematic metaphor.

I like that people pay attention to what I write, but I never get confused about the fact that if my last name were not New York Times, far fewer would care what I thought.

The affiliation with the Times, the context of it, gives normal humans a kind of superpower. It’s sort of like being Batman in the movies. No matter who wears the outfit — including Ben Affleck — they are Batman. Take away the costume, and they shrink back to life size. In a lot of cases, people pay for the New York Times for its breadth, not any one thing, and it is the Venn diagram intersect between the personal and organizational brand that creates something powerful that readers are willing to pay for.

In other words, know your place, in all senses of that phrase.

That’s a difficult fit for some, those with egos and talents big enough to be Timespeople but willing to understand their place in the hierarchy. That suggests the Times’ ability to find the right fits going forward will continue to be tough.

One company that seems to have figured out the new playbook is ESPN. Over the years, it has poached many of the best newspaper sports columnists, placing them in those boxes on talk show screens, putting their columns up and using them as analysts. The names are impressive, and there are lots of them. If two or three take a hike tomorrow, ESPN’s deep bench strength means the multi-platform pioneer would hardly miss a beat. Replaceability — and that deep bench — will be hallmarks of the successful multi-platform media companies to come.

Photo of David Pogue by Ed Schipul used under a Creative Commons license.

POSTED     Oct. 24, 2013, 11:15 a.m.
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