During an early 2010 photo shoot in the Greater Boston area, Better Homes and Gardens East Coast Editor Kristine Kennedy met Niraj Shah, the chief executive of Wayfair, an online home furnishings retailer. After taking pictures of Shah's house, Kennedy asked him about the business of selling home furniture. She also shared her experiences writing about it.
The timing was just right. The two established a professional connection just as Kennedy, 43, was considering leaving traditional media for a new field, one less shaken by declining advertising dollars. Kennedy kept in touch with Shah after the Wayfair feature was published that July, and he soon offered her a job as editorial director of the Boston-based home furnishing retailer's website. She now creates and manages content for the site's 11 million monthly viewers.
As traditional media companies continue to slash budgets and shed staff, many of their editors and writers are finding new opportunities directing content for retail, social networking and entertainment companies, among others. Unconventional players like Wayfair see content as a new way to connect with their customers and generate new revenue streams from advertising. Thus, they're hiring the very people that old-style media firms can no longer afford.
"Every company is a media company now," said Jay Rosen, a professor of journalism at New York University's Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute. "The big question is can any of them learn to give their editorial employees the freedom to tell like it is and speak the truth? I think it's unlikely, but it would be interesting if these companies learned that the real value of having editorial people comes from giving them editorial freedom.
"Otherwise, they are just becoming next-generation PR people."
Companies have long hired journalists for traditional public relations and marketing jobs. But the use of them to create and package what appears to be unbiased editorial content began with Robert Scoble, Microsoft's former in-house blogger, said Rosen. Scoble, who worked for Microsoft from 2003 to 2006, gained a following for his work there as well as on his own blog, Scobleizer. Now 46, he holds a journalism degree from West Valley Community College and gets paid to produce and manage content for Rackspace, the IT hosting company based in San Antonio.
"Right now I go around and interview start-up CEOs on video about their ideas and products," said Scoble. "When I was at Microsoft I interviewed everyone from the janitor to Bill Gates."
In a similar fashion, journalists and other media people are increasingly finding new comfort zones outside of media. In May, the luxury online retailer, Gilt Groupe, lured seasoned food writer and former Gourmet editor-in-chief Ruth Reichl to become editorial adviser of its new food and wine e-commerce site, Gilt Taste. The site now combines online commerce and content and employs several editors and paid freelance writers.
"It's journalism based on commerce as opposed to advertising," said Reichl, who started her career in media as a restaurant critic for New West magazine in 1973. Her role as editorial adviser is to maintain Gilt Taste's "quality control," including all contributions to the site. Unlike many magazines and newspapers, Gilt has invested in technology to make her job more effective, she said.
"When you work with traditional media companies most of them still don't have enough resources to grow online," said Reichl. "In traditional media it was always, 'Yeah, we'll get around to that in the next few years.' Here the response is, 'Oh yeah, we should do that.' It's a very different mindset, which completely thrills me."
At a growing rate, other companies have started to bring in journalists to manage their online content. In June, Fortune's digital managing editor, Daniel Roth, jumped to LinkedIn, the professional networking site, to oversee its newsfeed function as the company's first executive editor. (LinkedIn and Roth declined to speak about Roth's transition.)
In October, after the announcement of similar moves, including Kennedy's, Jim Macnie, a veteran music journalist, gave up his contributing writer gig at DownBeat Magazine to take over as editorial director of VEVO, the entertainment joint venture shared by Sony Music Entertainment, Universal Music Group and Abu Dhabi Media. (VEVO and Macnie were unavailable to speak about Macnie's transition.)
For Kennedy, the switch is a relief from working in an industry that has failed to capitalize on the ways the Internet has altered its revenue model. "It's so much fun to be able to build something from the ground up and work in an industry that is constantly expanding," said the Wayfair editorial director, who spent 17 years at Better Homes and Gardens magazine. "If you're a journalist in a sea of other journalists, you might not stand out as much and therefore not be able to get as much done."
Kennedy now oversees the use of photographs and blog posts to accompany Wayfair's 4.5 million products, with the goal of helping consumers become more knowledgeable about the items they purchase, she said. Since she joined Wayfair, her experience there has led to a better understanding of the business she covered for so many years. She also got a pay raise. She declined to say how much.
"More and more people are going to be buying and consuming online," said Kennedy. "I want to remain relevant in my industry and I need to have new experiences in order to do that. In that sense it's both fun and strategic."
She also plans to build her own staff, starting with four hires over the next month: a senior editor, an associate editor, an assistant editor and a style director to make sure the visuals on Wayfair's website fit with its editorial content.
"It's a good idea to join a company where your skill set is the exception and not the rule, because it can instantly make you more valuable," said Kennedy. "Besides, who in magazines is hiring editorial people right now?"
Write to Damian Ghigliotty at Damian.Ghigliotty@dowjones.com