Craig Smith, NYT Foreign Correspondent, Leaving to Start Financial News Service in China

The New York Times is losing another hardy solider. Craig Smith, a longtime veteran of the paper who’s held positions all over the globe, announced his resignation. He’ll help start a financial news service in conjunction with China’s leading business magazine.

Times foreign editor Susan Chira sent the following note:

Craig Smith is leaving The Times, creating an opening in the Tokyo bureau, which covers both Japan and Korea.

Craig Smith, who was en route to Tokyo, has resigned to take up an exciting new opportunity creating a financial news service in China, in partnership with China’s leading business magazine. Craig, an elegant writer and nuanced thinker, graced our pages for many years from his bases in Paris and Shanghai, wandering around the world from Iraq to Israel to Kyrgyzstan and covering the battle of the banlieues in France and more. His stories were always original and striking. We will miss him and wish him well.

After the jump, Smith offers his own explanation for his job move.

“As we all know, the media industry — the newspaper industry in particular — is going through a painful restructuring toward a future that has yet to be defined. We all know that the future is digital media, but figuring out what form that future will take requires money, something the traditional media companies have less and less of these days.

“I grew up at a time when there were limited national media outlets: 3 television networks, two major news weeklies and three, maybe four, local newspapers with national influence. There were no truly national newspapers and no international media outlets. Senior journalists with any of those few existing major outlets had, by default, tremendous influence on public opinion and public policy. To be the New York Times correspondent in China, for example, meant that you were one of a handful of voices informing the American public about events in that vast country. With the position came power and prestige.

“I became a journalist in the afterglow of those golden years, even as the industry was changing around me. The selection process for those few slots in what is now called, often derisively, mainstream media, remained as rigorous as ever — perhaps even more so because I was part of the post Watergate rush into newspaper journalism.

“But having won a series of those coveted slots, I look around to realize that the once exalted heights of mainstream media have been reached by a chattering hoard of journalists and quasi-journalists working independently or for the dozens of media outlets that have sprung up in the wake of the rolling Internet boom. There was never a shortage of talent, of sharp minds and glib pens. What made mainstream media jobs so special was that there were so few.

“Journalism was, and remains, a meritocracy, but it is one laced with a good dose of serendipity. As with America’s elite universities, the fact that there are a limited number of attractive journalism jobs in mainstream media companies does not mean that there are an equally limited number of talented potential journalists. Failing to secure a promising job, the most talented simply use their talents elsewhere.

“That has changed. While it is popular within mainstream media to discount the quality of journalism and quasi-journalism now appearing online, I am continually impressed with the writing and analysis that can be found there. The result is that the voice given to a New York Times correspondent, for example, has to compete with a growing clamor of other voices. The influence the job once afforded has been greatly diluted. I believe the dilution has only begun.

“As a counter-offensive, some journalists have tried to brand themselves in order to be heard above the crowd. But even that strategy has its limitations in this day of celebrity surplus. A coincidence to the branding effort has been the formation of virtual communities through specialist outlets: New York Times restaurant critics may no longer be nationally known as they once were, but they now enjoy an Internet-based fandom thanks to media-watching sites and blogs.

“Still, all of this took some of the shine off my career as a foreign correspondent for the Times. Consequent changes in the job were also making it less attractive — to compete in the new media environment, stories are getting shorter and correspondents are being asked to double as wire service reporters in order to keep the Times’ Web site up to date. Meanwhile, the compensation, always lagging other industries, is slipping further and further behind.

“Yet, the transition facing media today need not be painful or anxiety provoking. It depends on whether you are riding the wave or waiting for it to crash over you.

“My options included eventually returning to New York to work as an editor and become part of the restructuring team. But given the economic environment, that avenue seemed fraught with anxiety and the risk of ultimate disappointment.

“There are two places in the world today that have extraordinary concentrations of capital: the Middle East, thanks to surging oil prices, and Asia, thanks to the rise of China’s economy. Both have become active in new media.

“I am fortunate to have spent much of my career in China and to speak passable Mandarin. I have many contacts on the mainland and in Hong Kong. Among those contacts are people who are also thinking about the transition facing the media industry, who are looking for the opportunities that this transition will create and who have significant pools of available capital. They are not saddled with the burden of an ‘old media’ organization, which makes trying new things so cumbersome.

“When a group of these people got together to tackle the challenge and asked me to join, I was eager to get on board.

“That’s not to say that leaving the Times was easy for me. It was an emotionally wrenching decision. I love the Times, the paper, the people, the institution, the work. Tokyo would have been fun and fascinating. Korea is a story yet to be well told. In the end, the opportunity to do something new appeared too compelling to turn down. The Times’ editors and publisher were understanding and supportive and left open the possibility of my return.”