January 21, 2014 Last Updated 2:44 pm

Print media finds it hard to retain talent when lure is digital media

Lack of new opportunities, more than money, is what drives most out of traditional media

The latest high profile journalist to leave a leading newspaper is Ezra Klein, The Washington Post said today. Klein, along with Melissa Bell and Dylan Matthews, will be launching a new venture.

The move comes around a month after word broke that Klein had approached the Post’s publisher Katharine Weymouth and editor Marty Baron about possibly funding a new explanatory journalism. The price tag was supposedly $10 million. No surprise that the Post said no.

Leaving high profile positions at leading national newspapers appears to be getting an easier and easier choice to make. Nate Silver and David Pogue left the NYT for new frontiers, though both are heading off to established companies. The AllThingsD team also bolted a national newspaper brand, though that move involved the expiration of a contract.

In truth, many of these moves by journalists are less a reflection of dissatisfaction with their newspapers than the result of a lot of investment money floating about with nowhere in media to go. Few are willing to invest in print, so digital media ventures look awfully good places to park some money.

But that doesn’t mean these moves don’t hurt the print brands that are losing the talent. While Klein will get the headlines, the others leaving the Post are big contributors, too.

“Melissa has played a pivotal role in our digital strategy,” the Post said in its memo to staff with the news. “As director of platforms, Melissa worked with the embedded developers to introduce WordPress as a secondary CMS, allowing for much of the development experimentation we’ve seen over the last year. She took over blog strategy and worked to hone the number of blogs and strengthen existing brands.”

One can suppose that Klein was the personality that could raise the funds necessary to launch a new venture, but he knew who to bring along to make things happen.

Sadly, most newspaper executives do not have the experience outside their industry to know how to handle staff retention in a world where print no longer dominates. Staff movement will happen, it always does, but that does not mean that publishers can’t do anything about it.

When I think of all the moves I’ve made in my media career – and there have been more than a few of them – money always played a part, but it rarely was the motivating factor. For Klein, Bell and Matthews, it is doubtful that income was the sole reason to leave the Post. Instead, the lure is the ability to launch their own product, to lead their own teams, to do something the Post was not allowing them to do.

The Post, like the NYT, is hardly a media property launch machine. Caught in its old ways to thinking, the Post is struggling to imagine themselves being part of a world where new products are launched, shuttered and launched again as if it were in the restaurant business. But since the beginning of the Internet era, that is precisely what old media companies should have learned, that in order to succeed in digital media they need to be IN the digital media business – not merely dabble in it. This is partially why advertising has left and will not return to newspapers.

Whether the Post could have retained Klein is doubtful, he was a well-known personality before he joined the Post. But losing others because they needed to stretch their legs might have been avoided. If not in this situation, then in the other situations where valuable staffers are leaving their print media employers.

One reason to experiment with online, mobile and tablet publishing ventures at print properties is not just to see what will work, but who can lead, who has the entrepreneurial spirit necessary to succeed in digital media. Legacy media companies need to growth their next generation of leaders, instead they are seeing them walk out the door. The cost to attract new talent is always higher than the cost to retain it. And the cost of launching new digital ventures is usually less than later buying those ventures once they have already been launched.

As for The Washington Post itself, one should not see this latest defection as proof that the paper should be funding the next Politico. Agreeing to massive investments is not the same as launching one’s own efforts. Funding Klein to the tune of $10 million probably didn’t make much sense (though no one really knows the details of the proposal). But encouraging new launches internally, at a lower cost, makes a world of sense. The lesson here isn’t that the Post should have said “yes” to Klein, it is that they will continue to lose talent, as all newspapers are, unless they become attractive places for digital media professionals to work, and to grow.

Update: Almost on cue, the WaPo this afternoon announced that it had entered into an agreement with The Volokh Conspiracy, the popular law blog founded by Eugene Volokh, a law professor at UCLA.

Two things about this: it shows that papers continue to value digital properties that are outside of their own sphere, and that they would rather buy in than build. Both trends add cost, and add to turnover.