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Jan. 18, 2018, 1:14 p.m.

Media companies should open up an HQ2

If it’s good enough for Amazon, why not for news publishers? Trade in your New York rent for a wider, subway-phobic pool of talent.

Amazon has announced its list of 20 finalists to be the new home for its second headquarters, its HQ2. (Though 20 feels more like a longlist than a shortlist, to be honest.) For anyone hoping that Amazon would play urban revivalist and plunk its employees down in some down-on-its-heels third-tier burg, it’s a disappointing list of the usual major-league cities and suburbs.

(While the city that wins will obviously get a development boon, it seems borderline unfair to have raised the hopes of places that never had a chance. I love my home state of Louisiana, but I’m pretty sure the Lafayette–Baton Rouge corridor wasn’t going to be competitive no matter how good their PowerPoint was, barring a crawfish-specific ask in the RFP that I missed. I’m reminded of the time Tulsa tried to get the Summer Olympics: You want to applaud the chutzpah, but you also know some folks are wasting time at high hourly rates. Reminds me a bit of how The New York Times got 13,000 people to apply for a dream travel-writing job — and then picked a Yale grad who lives in Brooklyn and worked at New York magazine. But anyway.)

Apple also announced yesterday that it will open a new corporate campus somewhere in the United States, to be announced later this year. There must be something in the air, beyond even repatriation tax breaks.

Amazon and Apple are obviously operating from much more of a growth stance than most media companies are, but I’ve got a modest proposal for them: Follow Jeff Bezos’ and Tim Cook’s lead and open up an HQ2 of your own.

The shift from terrestrial distribution of news (newspaper trucks, TV signals) to digital has meant that an industry that was highly distributed geographically has become heavily concentrated in New York and Washington. (And, to a lesser extent, San Francisco and Los Angeles.) Of the digital job openings listed on JournalismJobs.com today, 54 percent are in New York or D.C. (Another 9 percent are in California.)

This raises a whole host of problems, for publishers, journalists, and audiences, all of which I’ve droned on about before. A major publisher picking up stakes and moving the whole operation from Midtown to Milwaukee seems unlikely. But maybe they could follow these tech giants’s example — keeping your main HQ at the industry’s center, but also setting up an HQ2…well, anywhere else.

Why might this be appealing?

New York is expensive as hell for your staff! The high cost of living in Manhattan or Brooklyn leads media companies to go in two directions. On one hand, for the most sought-after employees in key executive positions, you have to pay them a lot more than you would elsewhere in order to keep or attract them. On the other, you still pay your cheap young talent dirt — which means that you narrow your potential pool of young staffers to people who can find a way to live in New York on dirt. (Usually with the financial support of Mom and Dad — which helps concentrate your staff with well-off Ivy kids, which is its own problem. Geographic diversity can lead to class diversity, something national media sorely needs.) Both of these facts lead to higher staff turnover, missed opportunities, and far too many “Why I’m Leaving New York” essays than the culture was designed to handle.

— New York is expensive as hell for you! Have you looked at what you’re paying for rent lately? It’s not a small number. One major promise of digital media was the ability to build an outlet on an asset-light model: You don’t need to buy a printing press or a broadcast tower anymore! Just some servers! So given that, why saddle yourselves with huge multiyear leases downtown that are as much about preening for investors as about finding a place to put your rows of iMacs?

You are missing out on an enormous amount of talent. There are plenty of reasons one might not want to live in New York. Maybe you enjoy closets, or driving! Maybe you have family commitments that require you to live somewhere in the other 99.991977 percent of the American landmass. Maybe you just like cul-de-sacs, or good gumbo, or non-freezing winters. Many of the people in these situations are really talented journalists (or designers or developers), and if your jobs are all in New York, you’re either eliminating them from contention or requiring them to make a potentially miserable lifestyle choice to work for you. New York is such a singular place in America that, by placing your HQ2 nearly anywhere else, you’re opening up a big pool of potential talent.

Advertisers aren’t as important as they used to be. Among the reasons media companies want to be in New York is that’s where the advertisers and agencies are. It’s easier to schmooze them up close than it is from two time zones away. That’s understandable, and it’s a reason not to leave New York entirely. But the hard truth of this digital age is that advertising matters less and less to media companies every day. It’s not unimportant — but Facebook and Google’s Jonah-style swallowing of the digital advertising business has made everyone more aware of the need for revenue from readers and users. That shift is happening. Your advertisers are in Manhattan, but the vast majority of your potential subscribers or members are not. Maybe go meet them sometime?

— There’s a cultural opening. You may have heard that some people don’t trust the media anymore — that they think we’re a bunch of New York Ivy League elites who couldn’t see Trump coming and don’t understand the lives of most Americans. Well…maybe stop being that! Or at least stop making it such an obvious vector of attack. People trust journalists who they believe understand their lives more than those they see, accurately or not, as Acela-riding snobs and weekend artisanal cheese shoppers.

Your journalism will be better. The majority of attacks on the news produced by national journalists are unfair products of politically motivated smears and misconceptions about the diligent, civically important work that dedicated reporters do each and every day. But the post-Trump rush of journalists to West Virginia hollers and declining Ohio factory towns to find the “Real America” has, despite plenty of good intentions and a few positive moments, also included a lot of embarrassing moments where fellow Americans were viewed through the othering lens of bad foreign correspondence. It is undeniably true that being concentrated in two megarich East Coast metros leads to the production of a different corpus of journalism than would result from more geographic diversity. You’ll see different stories, meet different people, run in different circles.

Now, some portion of these goals can be met by being more open to remote work. And some media companies do embrace that idea, which lets people’s where-to-live decision detach from their where-to-work decision. That’s great! But many companies either reject the idea of remote work or reserve it for its biggest stars (who have the leverage to move to the country anyway) or for technologists who they feel can operate well at a distance. But some people don’t want the only alternative to a Manhattan high-rise to be their spare bedroom or the Starbucks downtown. People like having colleagues, and it’s hard for a spread-out collection of individual employees to serve as a significant counterweight to the culture of the New York office.

So don’t leave New York entirely. Keep your CEO there if he likes his commute from Montclair. But maybe think about offering some of your employees the chance to be somewhere else. Imagine The New York Times announcing it would be putting 100 staffers in some middle American city and asking for bids, Amazon-style. Or BuzzFeed declaring that it’ll start generating some portion of its LOLs from Kansas City next year. You’ve seen the kind of crazy tax deals cities offer big companies whenever they get a whiff of economic development — go get one! Let your writers move from a closet in Greenpoint to half an old Victorian in Louisville. The returns on your investment just might be worth it.

POSTED     Jan. 18, 2018, 1:14 p.m.
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