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The Washington Post headquarters in Washington, D.C. (Photo: Daniel X. O'Neil/Wikimedia Commons)

Requiem for ‘The Washington Post’

• February 05, 2014 • 2:19 PM

The Washington Post headquarters in Washington, D.C. (Photo: Daniel X. O'Neil/Wikimedia Commons)

Superstar journalists appear to be leaving in droves. Big deal. All is well as long as the Post—or any other firm or place—continues to refine raw talent.

The Washington Post is dying. That’s funny. A few months ago, I threw dirt on the New York Times. The best journalism talent is leaving, brain drain! Not exactly. Ryan Avent unveils “churnalism” geography:

There is also an important spatial component to journo-churning. The knock-on job changes have overwhelmingly occurred in just two metropolitan markets: New York and Washington. The media industries in New York and Washington are classic economic clusters, illustrating the productivity benefits of agglomeration. Media firms in those cities obviously benefit from what you might call supply-chain connections, related to the need to cover other major industries, including finance and government, which are concentrated in those metropoles. But there are other factors which strongly underpin the media clusters in those cities.

One is what economists commonly call knowledge spillovers. Vox Media, which is behind a string of media projects including the forthcoming venture from Mr Klein and which is headquartered in Washington, has an office in New York, as do other new media firms like Gawker Media. (Correction: This post initially said that Vox was headquartered in New York.) These firms are learning from each other as they build their businesses: learning how best to organise their businesses, construct technology platforms, market themselves, and so on. Quite often this mutual learning is not exactly good-natured, but results instead from poaching talent from competitors. That’s all in the game; it is a key way in which knowledge spreads across Silicon Valley tech firms, as well. And one is reminded of Alfred Marshall’s statement that the mysteries of various trades are “in the air” in local clusters when one reads Mr Klein’s discussion of the circumstances that led to his departure from the Post. Mr Klein says his interest in founding a new publication developed in conversations with other journalists and Washingtonians, including Mr Yglesias. These do not sound like structured business meetings, but instead the sort of batting around of ideas over beers that is an archetypal feature of entrepreneurial founding myths.

So what does all this have to do with churn? Well, another advantage of metropolitan clusters is in the deep labour markets that result. Skilled workers build information networks that generate better employment matches, and within the deep markets of the cluster it becomes easier to change from job to job, further boosting productivity and earnings. Some work suggests that big, expensive cities are ideal for this sort of matching. High-skill workers select into expensive cities. That may improve matches between high productivity firms and workers, leading to even greater realised productivity and wages. That, in turn, is one of the dynamics behind rising inequality in nominal wages—and quite possibly in real wages, as well.

Free the talent! Avent describes the churn within the labor market. A better example is Silicon Valley and all those Fairchildren. Churn, not density, between firms spurs innovation.

Churn, not density, between places also spurs innovation. No sidewalk ballet required. Conversely: If no one left your super-dense city and no one moved in, innovation would suffer. Migration is economic development. Encouraging a local graduate to stay makes everyone poorer. Walkability and density are of little consequence.

What does that mean for a newspaper such as The Washington Post hemorrhaging superstar journalists? All is well as long as the firm or place continues to refine raw talent. Young cub reporters take jobs at the Post in an effort to become the next Ezra Klein. That’s why college graduates continue to brave awfully expensive New York. They want the talent refinery unavailable everyplace else.

What if Vox Media plays the Post‘s game? Klein might have a better eye for journalism talent and how to develop it. I doubt that is the case. Otherwise he wouldn’t bother poaching.

Jim Russell

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