NY Times Innovation report highlights and lowlights
H I G H L I G H T S & L O W L I G H T S
O F T H E N E W Y O R K T I M E S
I N N O VAT I O N S T R AT E G Y, 2 0 1 4
C O M M E N TA RY B Y S T E V E O U T I N G • H T T P : / / M E D I A D I S R U P T U S . C O M
A P R E S C R I P T I O N F O R N E W S PA P E R S
D I S A P P O I N T I N G R E A L I T Y C H E C K :
S TAT E O F T H E N Y T I M E S A N D D I G I TA L
The news industry is privileged to get a look at an important document — one
that probably wasn’t meant to be distributed widely in unabridged form. A team
of “some of the most forward thinking minds” in the New York Times newsroom
recently produced a frank assessment of where the company is at as it attempts to
transition from a print-focused to a digital-first media enterprise.
Their Innovation 2014 report is sobering: How could the news organization that
most media watchers believed was at the top of the class of newspapers in making
the digital transition still be so off base? … But the report also is wonderful! Its
recommendations should guide many news organizations in the years ahead.
On the following slides, I’ve pulled some key excerpts from the report and
accompanied them with my thoughts.
Steve Outing Media futurist, digital-news consultant, journalist | Boulder CO, USA
P R O B L E M ( PA G E 2 3 ) :
W R I T E T H E N E W S & T H E Y M AY N O T C O M E
Most of us in the news business look to the New York Times as the leader, the one
organization with the resources to not only produce the highest-quality journalism,
but also to show the way to less well-heeled news organizations when it comes to
adapting to the digital transformation of media. That digital audience
development is weak at NYT — and therefore probably at most lesser newspaper
companies — helps explain why newspaper websites traditionally have trouble
getting visitors to use their sites for more than just a few minutes per month.
P R O B L E M ( PA G E 4 1 ) :
FA I L U R E O N S T R U C T U R E D D ATA
This is a major oversight which has been neglected for years! Even a decade ago,
news organizations were being advised to add important metadata to all of their
content. As smartphones got into more people’s hands, it also was apparent that
geo-tagging as much content as possible was critical for news organizations in
order to deliver geographically relevant news. If even the NY Times is flubbing this
in 2014 … just, wow. That’s sad.
P R O B L E M ( PA G E 4 3 ) :
T O O P R O U D T O P R O M O T E ?
The report indicates that this type of problem is largely the result of reluctance of
the NYT newsroom to interact and work closely with other departments on the
“business” side of the company — departments that could, if fully allowed,
increase visibility of NYT editorial content in a big way!
P R O B L E M ( PA G E 4 5 ) :
D Y S F U N C T I O N A L S O C I A L - M E D I A S T R AT E G Y
This is a rookie mistake. It’s not what you’d expect from arguably the world’s best
newspaper. As is made clear throughout the report, a newsroom culture that still
largely venerates the print edition of the Times over all things digital led to
newsroom leaders underrating the importance of basic digital-publishing tenets
such as having a strong social-media strategy. It’s easy to see, then, why digital-
native news sites like HuffingtonPost and Buzzfeed now have larger audiences
than the New York Times; those sites excel at taking advantage of social media.
P R O B L E M ( PA G E 4 9 ) :
A N U N W I L L I N G N E S S T O E N G A G E
This has been a blind spot for NYT for as long as I can remember. The thinking:
Let’s not let the world-class quality of Times staff content be sullied by allowing
lesser-quality user content to appear on the same website (even if it is made
abundantly clear where the outside words come from). A better way to
approach“user content” is, as suggested by the report authors, to leverage an
above-average, intelligent audience and make the digital NY Times the home of
the BEST user contributions and discussions to be found anywhere. I, for one,
would LOVE to discover an intelligent, news-oriented interactive community. (You
won’t find that on CNN.com, or ABCNews.com, or …)
P R O B L E M ( PA G E 5 2 ) :
W H E R E A R E T H E W O R D S O F T H E E X P E R T S ?
Yes! Yes! Yes! … I think about all the academics doing groundbreaking research,
much of it of interest to an intelligent readership, but who write in dense academic
style to an audience of fellow academics, often only in the dozens, perhaps
hundreds. Open up to these experts, and other researchers in government and
business, by offering an opportunity for them to write in plain English and explain
their work, their findings, their ideas, in ways that are understandable to a large
audience of jargon-impaired readers who would love to know about — and
discuss — research at the bleeding edge. Some of us would love to hear directly
from, say, star athletes, rather than from a journalist parsing the athlete’s words.
And we’d appreciate the opportunity, via the media brand, to communicate and
engage with such non-journalist experts.
P R O B L E M ( PA G E 5 8 ) :
I G N O R A N C E O F T H E PA C E O F C H A N G E
This is the crux of the problem not just at the New York Times, but at most other
newspaper companies (indeed, at most news enterprises on any platform). If
there’s one thing that news companies should instill in the brains of their managers
and workforce (and that journalism educators need to beat into the heads of
students with a 2 x 4, metaphorically speaking!), it’s that the future will continue to
bring change at an increasingly accelerating pace. When one challenge is done,
be ready to take on the next one that just appeared with the release of some new
technology breakthrough. Can newspapers companies do this? I have doubts.
P R O B L E M ( PA G E 6 0 ) :
B R E A K D O W N T H I S WA L L !
This reminds me of when, many years ago, I worked in the Design & Infographics
department of a major newspaper. Our work was important, and I think
appreciated by most editors, but the newsroom still had a long way to go in terms
of working closely and efficiently with us. Last-minute rush jobs; not being
included in editorial planning other than for major projects; etc. … It’s the same
dynamic here, where “new” departments which are critical to a news operation in
the digital age are not yet afforded access to nor given the respect of the
newsroom, which still maintains a culture of being the “crown jewels” of the
operation. That’s got to stop, or more newspapers will die or become irrelevant.
P R O B L E M ( PA G E 6 4 ) :
C O M M U N I C AT O R S D O N ’ T C O M M U N I C AT E
“Houston, we have a problem. …” This is simply old ways of thinking, which have
outlived their relevance, hanging on. Cultural change is needed, and obviously
since it’s still a problem, super-strong leadership will be required. Funny, isn’t it,
how news organizations often are among the worst at internal communication?!
P R O B L E M ( PA G E 6 8 ) :
D E V E L O P E R S C A N ’ T J O I N T H E C L U B ? !
[Sound of commentator banging head against wall.] … Developers should be
partners with the newsroom; they should be PART of the newsroom, working
alongside reporters, editors, graphics and design folks, photographers. Take a
clue from the Knight-Mozilla Fellowships program, which embeds talented
developers with an interest in news into host newsrooms for 10 months. … The
anecdote above probably explains why this story appeared today, about digital
talent losses at the NY Times, from Quartz: “Here’s what left of the team trying to
‘save the New York Times.’”
P R O B L E M ( PA G E 7 2 ) :
F E E D I N G T H E B E A S T & P U T T I N G O F F F U T U R E
This is why I’m pessimistic that very many newspaper companies will survive the
coming years (unless they’re so bold as to kill their print editions). Without all
newsroom leaders and managers thinking ahead, needed cultural change is all but
impossible. Staff dedicated to future strategy can’t do it alone; this is for everyone.
P R O B L E M ( PA G E 8 1 ) :
T H I N K I N G S H O R T T E R M = FA I L
It’s a bit surprising to find such an obvious statement in a report to the leaders of
the New York Times. It’s great advice, of course; it was great advice five years ago,
and even earlier. The report’s authors have made the case for going “digital first.”
If NYT management doesn’t take it seriously this time, and ACT, then we can
watch the NYT brand decline as the operation suffers from continuing declines in
print revenues; and lack of digital-centric strategy will mean that digital revenues
won’t grow as fast as necessary for a high-quality news entity like NYT to survive.
P R O B L E M ( PA G E 8 6 ) :
S O M E H O W, P R I N T ’ S P O W E R H A N G S O N
Great advice! But can (publisher) Arthur Sulzberger Jr. and (executive editor) Dean
Baquet (finally!) be bold enough to turn minds in their newsroom to digital first?
It’s rare that incumbents can pull off such a cultural turnaround. A raise-hell kind of
outsider at the top might have a better chance — but then, John Paton, CEO of
Digital First Media, is that kind of leader, and his prospects appear dubious.
P R O B L E M ( PA G E S 8 8 - 8 9 ) :
D I G I TA L TA L E N T D R A I N
Good grief! It’s a shock to realize that what many of us believed to be one of the
best places to work if you are a journalist with serious digital skills falls so short.
Advice to other news publishers: Don’t emulate the Times! If you find a digital
talent with excellent journalism ability, offer that person a high salary, gobs of
responsibility, and a free parking spot!
P R O B L E M ( PA G E 9 1 ) :
R E A L LY ? Y O U H AV E N ’ T G O T T H I S Y E T ?
This has been said so many times, over so many years, as advice to newspaper
executives. It’s come from internal digital managers, and from media pundits and
analysts. Can you believe that we’re still having this conversation?