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The New York Times is the LeBron James of the news business

LeBron James meets fans in Guangzhou, China on July 22, 2014.
LeBron James meets fans in Guangzhou, China on July 22, 2014.
ChinaFotoPress/ChinaFotoPress via Getty Images

Michael Calderone points out something fascinating about the New York Times: despite several rounds of layoffs since the recession started in 2008, the headcount in the newsroom hasn't been shrinking. Calderone reports that the Times has 1330 editorial staffers today, about as many as it had in 2008.

The reason? After each round of layoffs, the Times hired new editorial staffers to replace the ones who had left. Generally, the old workers were highly-paid print veterans, while the new hires tend to have expertise in digital and multimedia reporting. In other words, the Times newsroom isn't shrinking, it's just changing.

Notably, that's not how things have gone at most other papers. For example, the headcount in the Washington Post newsroom has fallen from 900 in the mid-2000s to 650 today — even after Jeff Bezos's recent hiring spree. Things are even worse at smaller papers like the Cleveland Plain Dealer. A single round of layoffs there in 2013 reduced its editorial staff by a third, from 168 to 110. No one expects those losses to be made up by digital hires down the road.

What we're witnessing is the media version of the superstar effect. In 2013 the two richest basketball players, LeBron James and Kobe Bryant, each made almost twice as much money ($72.3 million and $61.5 million, respectively) as any other basketball player (Derrick Rose is number 3 with earnings of $36.6 million). Earnings are similarly skewed in golf, tennis, and soccer. Being the top athlete in a sport is dramatically more lucrative than being number 3, and vastly more lucrative than being number 10 or number 30.

The superstar effect has gotten more powerful as technology has increased the market for famous athletes. LeBron James is a celebrity in China, something that wasn't true of top American athletes in the 1960s. His global fame increases his earning power.

The same process is at work in the news business. Before the internet, the Cleveland Plain Dealer benefitted from being the biggest newspaper in the Cleveland metropolitan area. It was smaller than the New York Times, of course, but it could earn a tidy profit dominating its home market.

The internet has increasingly brought newspapers into direct competition with each other, as well as with other types of media companies. As the market has expanded, being the most famous newspaper in the country — the LeBron James of news — has become a bigger and bigger advantage.

In contrast, being the biggest news organization in the Cleveland metropolitan area has become less and less valuable, since a lot of Cleveland readers might prefer to read the New York Times or the Washington Post instead. So the gap between the news industry's 1 percent and everybody else has grown.

The Washington Post occupies a middle position. It's more famous than most American newspapers and that fame has helped it reach more people online than it ever could have reached in print. The paper's robust digital ad revenues have cushioned the blow of newsprint's decline more than it has for smaller papers. Yet the Post is the Derrick Rose of news, not the LeBron James of news. So while it's weathered newsprint's decline better than most of its peers, it hasn't benefitted from the nationalization of news as much as the grey lady.

Disclosure: I worked at the Washington Post from May 2013 to February 2014.

Correction: This article originally stated that the Times and the Post had 1330 and 650 reporters, respectively. In fact, these were the figures for the entire newsroom, not just reporters.

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