Tough times at ‘Columbia Journalism Review’ as an editor departs, others are laid off, and funding looks shaky

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In media, there are big fish and little fish. Which is why the appointment of Cyndi Stivers as editor-in-chief of AOL.com didn't create a lot of noise about what would happen to the publication she was leaving, the Columbia Journalism Review, of which she'd served as editor-in-chief for less than two years.

The magazine is an acknowledged authority on the journalism business. Its specialization notwithstanding, it's among the most important reads in the industry. And it's having a rough time right now.

As news of Stivers' hiring at the giant web portal spread within media circles on Thursday, CJR's longtime executive editor, Mike Hoyt, who'd run the editorial side of the magazine for years before Stivers was hired above him in late 2011, was in the process of being laid off, Capital has learned.

And he's not the only one: Justin Peters, CJR's editor-at-large, also was informed yesterday that he and Hoyt would be out of jobs as of the end of June, when Nick Lemann passes the baton to his fellow New Yorker writer Steve Coll as dean of the Columbia Journalism School, which has published CJR since 1961. (Peters did not respond to emails seeking comment.)

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Two other newsroom employees, Dean Starkman, who edits The Audit, CJR's blog covering the business press, and Curtis Brainard, who edits The Observatory, a blog about the science press, were given the option either to be laid off or to have their schedules reduced to half-time, sources said. They did not respond to requests for comment.

Reached by phone Thursday, Hoyt declined to comment beyond saying: "I loved working there. We did some great work and I'm sorry to go, but I wish them the best."

Hoyt's 10-year executive editorship of CJR, a bimonthly title with a daily companion website, was the longest in the magazine's 52-year history.

Overall, the 64-year-old's career at CJR has spanned more than 26 years. That he won't make it to 27 can be chalked up to the financial travails of a venerable media brand striving for reinvention during a changing of the guard as its parent institution.

The layoffs were characterized to Capital as a precautionary measure, based on projections of how much money CJR is expected to raise in the coming fiscal year to pay back the annual budget the Journalism School fronts it.

For the past 10 years, under the chairmanship of Victor Navasky, a professor at the Journalism School and a former editor of The Nation, CJR has met its yearly fundraising targets, Navasky said.

With just two months left in fiscal year 2013, however, it appears CJR will fall short of its latest goal, said Lemann.

"This year was not as good as past years," said Lemann, who has two months left in his deanship. "I'm trying to protect fiscal year 2014 from being as short."

Historically, CJR has raised money through a combination of advertising, subscriptions, grants and foundation funding, with an increasing reliance on the latter two sources due to industrywide struggles with traditional advertising models.

In 2010, a board of overseers was created to bring in additional revenue from individual donors, which is what led to the appointment of Stivers as editor-in-chief.

The board's chairman, Neil Barsky, an ex-hedge-funder and 1984 Columbia Journalism School graduate who directed this year's documentary about the mayorality of Ed Koch, put up the money for CJR to hire an editor-in-chief, a position "we would have loved to have had for many years," Navasky told Capital. (The executive editor had previously been the highest-ranking position on the masthead.)

Barsky "was very honorable about not pushing for anybody in that process," Navasky added.

Hoyt was initially in the running, but in the end, the search narrowed on two candidates: Stivers and Steven Waldman, a co-founder of the website Beliefnet, visiting scholar at the Journalism School and senior advisor to the chairman of the Federal Communications Commission.

Waldman turned down an offer, according to three sources with knowledge of the process, because he wanted to focus on launching a company called Brooklyn Daily Bridge Media, which his LinkedIn profile describes as "developing digital media businesses in Brooklyn." Waldman declined to comment.

And so in November of 2011, the job went to Stivers, an adjunct in the Journalism School's magazine program, former managing editor of EW.com and founding editor of Time Out New York.

As Stivers began to put her stamp on CJR, Hoyt became less and less involved in conceiving features and shaping the direction of the magazine, devoting much of his time instead to a new online project for coverage of politics and policy news.

Stivers, meanwhile, took the magazine in a new direction. Its slogan was modified from "Strong Press, Strong Democracy" to "The Future of Media is Here," a change that's been reflected in packages on topics such as business-model experimentation and how millennials get their news. She also tore up the front of the book, making it more graphic and visual, while overhauling the website and its back-end.

Given the extent to which Hoyt's role in the core magazine operation had been diminished and the type of paycheck that his seniority presumably drew, it's not surprising that he was among those targeted in the effort to reduce CJR's budget.

It's also unclear who was involved in the discussions about letting Hoyt and the others go, though Lemann was the one who informed them about the decision, sources said. Asked about this, Navasky and Stivers deferred to Lemann, who declined to comment on individual personnel matters. He adamantly refused to specify CJR's budget.

"CJR has to have a relationship between its revenues and its expenses," said Lemann. "For the fiscal year that's currently ending, the revenues didn't come in where we wanted them to, so we're having to take measures to reduce the expenses. We're trying to create a situation where it's possible, or even likely, that CJR's operational deficit will be minimal in fiscal year 2014."

In so doing, Lemann is essentially clearing the deck for his successor, Coll, who will be responsible for CJR in his role as Columbia Journalism School's new dean. Insiders who spoke with Capital off the record sounded sanguine about future fund-raising potential and the progress executive publisher Stephanie Sandberg has been making on that front.

As for the timing of Stivers' exit, one person with knowledge of her plans said she gave notice weeks ago after accepting the AOL job. She told Adweek the offer from AOL was unexpected.

Lemann said he would probably appoint an interim editor before his time as dean is up, but that the search for a permanent replacement would be up to Navasky and Coll.