What journalist leaves a gig at the BBC?
Two recognizable names in the BBC's much-lauded journalistic universe have announced plans to move this summer to other media operations. People leave jobs from time to time, of course, but the BBC is one of those institutions so highly regarded that it's often considered a career destination. Just for example, business journalist Peter Day retired after 28 years presenting the same program. A sportscaster there put in 50 years behind the microphone.
■ What makes this summer's departures so interesting is not just that they are happening, but where the journalists' new destinations will be. Katty Kay is going to Ozy Media, a digital-first media company. And Manuela Saragosa is leaving the BBC World Service after 22 years to become a podcasting boss at the Financial Times.
■ Talented people like Kay and Saragosa don't just leave high-status positions for lower-status ones. And that reveals quite a lot about the apparent pecking order of media institutions these days: Quality digital-based media outlets are now at least a lateral move from the august and revered BBC. That's really saying something.
■ Nielsen says that a majority of American adults consume radio, television, and Internet-based content every week, with an average of more than 30 hours per week on live or recorded TV. But smartphone applications are good for another 20 hours per week, more than any other mode of content delivery. But wait: If further research is to be believed, people are listening to 16 hours of online audio each week, and there's no reason to think the numbers are going to decline.
■ Historically, most journalists were institutionalists at heart -- people who went to work for institutions with which they could be associated for the long term. At The Economist, that approach runs so deep that the stories don't come with individual bylines. But the economics of mass media have gotten so bad that it seems nobody is safe from the threat of ruthless layoffs -- hundreds of people fired at a time, with reporters desperate to recruit deep-pocketed saviors before their institutions get sold off to slash-and-burn owners.
■ That economic turn may well signal the death knell for institutionalism, at least as a career path. Some individuals may still hang on to long careers, though few will hang on for more than 40 years like Bob Schieffer did at CBS. But most will be forced -- whether they like it or not -- to focus not on building reverence for their institutions, but on name recognition for themselves. That does have consequences, whether we like it or not. Legendary columnists like Mike Royko were once the only ones encouraged to personalize their stories. That's almost impossible to expect now, when virtually everyone who appears on television is also supposed to have a social-media presence (to draw "engagement" -- and viewers) and newspaper reporters are expected to report even the tiniest "scooplet" to encourage clicking and sharing.
■ Indeed, this new dynamic could go well -- if that means individual journalists and commentators invest heavily in better writing, clearer reporting, and more insightful questioning, doing their best to become trustworthy institutions in and of themselves. Every journalist is effectively now a freelancer. But it could also go badly, if the public decides it's just too hard to know who to trust anymore and abandon their own judgment as news consumers for being persuaded to digest whatever is the most enticing red meat that comes their way. People love sharing stories about other people, but not every story reduces to an impassioned anecdote from a reporter's personal life history.
■ We can be hopeful that the departure of credible, well-seasoned journalists from brand-name institutions means that our media marketplace has room for even more high-quality reporting. But we should also realize that media literacy is perhaps now more important than ever.