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Show Them the Money

The business of writing about business can be mighty profitable these days.

Reporter Aldo Svaldi is currently a sought-after commodity -- but it wasn't always this way.

A graduate of the University of Missouri, Svaldi began his journalism career proper in a challenging locale: He interned at a publication in Saudi Arabia during the Gulf War, experiencing a genuine baptism by fire as a fledgling war correspondent. But when he returned to the States in 1991, the economy was in a recession from which scribes weren't exempt. "I must have sent something like forty resumés out and was just constantly being turned down," Svaldi recalls. "There were lots of hiring freezes." Nonetheless, he kept at it, and after six months he was christened as research director at the Denver Business Journal. Over the next seven years at the Journal, where he eventually moved up to a business-writing position, he found himself becoming increasingly popular; opportunities to go elsewhere abounded, and in March he hooked up with Energy Insight, an online publication in Boulder associated with Financial Times. His reasons for making the switch weren't complicated. As he points out, "The benefits were good and the pay was very generous. Counting a signing bonus, it was about 50 percent higher than what I was making."

Svaldi's story has been repeated again and again over the past year or so, in the Denver area and beyond. Online outfits and new media-oriented business magazines have expanded at a supersonic pace. To fill the positions created by this growth, these operations are routinely going after employees at more traditional publications, with packages characterized by big-bucks salaries and, on occasion, stock options. As a result, reporters who never expected to make much more than a living wage are finding themselves doing far better -- and the rapidity of their departures has created no end of headaches for editors whose sections are being cherry-picked.

The region hit hardest by this phenomenon may be California's Bay Area, which is among the nation's high-tech meccas; a March article in the American Journalism Review pointed out that the San Jose Mercury News lost eleven staffers to Internet ventures in 1999 alone. But the Denver dailies have also been feeling the pinch. "I've been here since July 26, and I've already hired five people -- and I still have one more opening to fill," says Denver Post business editor Al Lewis. Meanwhile, Rocky Mountain News business editor Rob Reuteman has experienced a similar slew of defections, including Lewis, who'd worked under Reuteman at the Rocky, and Kris Hudson, who moved to the Post several weeks ago. But even more onetime News hands can be found at Interactive Week, a thriving Ziff Davis mag (its readership has quadrupled since its 1994 debut) that lured them with remuneration that's said to be in the $80,000-per-annum range and permission to do their jobs from home. Business writer Rebecca Cantwell, who'd been with the paper for thirteen years, was the first to go, and in recent months she's been joined by business types Richard Williamson and Dana Coffield, as well as Bill Scanlon and Dan Luzadder, who had previously concentrated on other areas of reporting. In short, Interactive Week's Denver presence has the News written all over it.

Of the aforementioned group, Scanlon didn't return calls, and Luzadder referred all questions to Cantwell, who, like Coffield, responded only with a brief e-mail describing her reasons for making the switch. "When Interactive Week contacted me late last year," the cyber-Cantwell notes, "I decided to move to the nation's leading business publication about the Internet, seeing the change as a way to continue my professional growth and write for a national audience about what I believe is among the most important stories in the world -- without having to leave my native Colorado." Coffield seconds that emotion: "When Interactive Week came calling, it was hard not to consider the dramatic lifestyle changes moving to the magazine made possible. I received a really substantial salary increase, and I work from home."

To hold on to reporters, dailies must come up with enticements of their own, but they have plenty of limitations. For instance, union agreements make it difficult to offer a business journalist more dough than someone with comparable experience in another specialty area, even if the former is in much higher demand (although Lewis thinks both papers may soon be using so-called merit pay to keep business writers happy). As a result, the stay-don't-go pitches generally emphasize the volatility of the Internet as opposed to the safety of newspapers -- the subject of a November 9 San Francisco Chronicle piece headlined "Journalists Like Security of Old Media After Being Burned at Dot-Coms." Lewis cites Denver Sidewalk, a Web-only enterprise that attracted daily vets, including Post food expert Bill St. John and News music critic Mark Brown, by virtue of its connection with the Microsoft empire. Yet it collapsed in 1999 after just a couple of years. "Working at a newspaper is almost a recession-proof job," he goes on. "The Post will be here no matter what happens to the economy -- and if the economy goes south, we'll have people to write about it. I don't know if you can say the same about some of these broadband businesses or Internet publications."

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