Why UK media executives are heading west

Posted by Richard Sambrook


This originally appeared as an article in the Media Guardian

As football clubs get ready to shuffle managers, it’s already a busy transfer season for British media executives – topped by last week’s confirmation that Deborah Turness is moving from ITN to become the first female president of a US news division at NBC.

She’s the latest in a line of British luminaries to fly west. Mark Thompson is at the New York Times, Jon Williams swapped the BBC for ABC News as foreign editor. Others, like Emily Bell at Columbia University and Colin Myler at the New York Daily News, are well-established. It seems New York has developed a taste for British editors.

Of course, good people will always look for good opportunities. But there are several reasons why we are likely to see more editorial talent crossing borders and media. Technology is bringing print and broadcast closer together and the differences in editorial cultures across platforms or countries are eroding. As major news companies seek to secure their future in a disruptive environment, people who understand how to succeed, creatively or in business terms, are at a premium. All those caught up in the last few months of job changes have strong track records of consistent success behind them.

The economic downturn means many media organisations have stripped away roles and levels of management, flattening structures. This may make short-term business sense but it cuts off career progression for good people who may then look elsewhere for promotion or who seek sideways moves to increase their professional experience.

All media is now global, which means organisations need leaders with a global perspective and experience. For many news companies the growth opportunity lies in international rather than domestic markets. The British, for many reasons, have always had a more international outlook, not just focusing on the US and UK. Globalisation also means a global market for talent.

Then there is the growing need to creatively refresh leadership teams. Precisely because there has been less movement in the past between organisations, and the disruption created by digital technology continues apace, there is a premium on fresh confidence, energy and ideas. Besides, once you’ve achieved success in the UK, the US market’s scale makes it the obvious place to look for greater opportunities. If you’re looking for space to grow, America promises far more than the UK.Predictably the transatlantic transfer market works from east to west, with little return traffic from New York to London.

American news is different. It’s still respectable for a start. US journalism has its scandals and critics but is still regarded as a profession, not a trade. And while budgets may be shrinking, it is from a different level. I remember one American colleague bemoaning the cheap standards of their new offices and being surprised to still find oak panelling, thick carpets and multiple assistants.

And in TV they have anchors (not presenters), who wield real power and influence and have to be nurtured like rare orchids. They may be the single biggest factor in determining commercial success, which is what even imported editors are expected to deliver swiftly. Fortunately, the UK market may be much smaller but it is also highly competitive and breeds editorial leaders more than ready to take on a fight.

But there are risks. Thompson’s bumpy flight path to land at the New York Times had something to do with questions about his knowledge of the Savile issues but also pointed to potential tissue rejection for a British broadcaster arriving to run a US print institution.

What’s clear, however, is that while newsrooms contract and careers in the ranks look uncertain, if you have the talent and the track record the opportunities may be greater than ever. Just look west.