Thursday, July 31, 2014

How The New York Times lost the internet, and how it plans to win it back

Concurrent to the dramatic firing of top editor Jill Abramson, the New York Times has been in the news thanks to the leaking of a 96-page Innovation Report that offers a scathing internal assessment of the paper's digital strategy. It is the most thorough look at the insides of the most important newspaper in the country that we have ever seen. What's more, in keeping with the high standards of the New York Times it's simply an excellent piece of reporting and analysis.

What's the report's basic critique of the Times?

The report identifies a number of operational shortcomings of The New York Times' digital operation, mostly related to things like optimization of content for search and the packaging and dissemination of content on social media. Beyond that, it offers three key structural critiques of the way the paper operates:

  • A dysfunctional internal organization that mis-places the "wall" between business and newsroom operations — church and state in Times talk — in a way that hurts digital.
  • A print-first mentality that continues to be dominated by thinking about the first page of the print paper ("Page One").
  • An editorial leadership team that's so busy managing the daily news cycle that they don't have time to think about broader strategic issues.

Why is the Times worried?

The report details a number of troubling digital trends for the New York Times, namely declining traffic to the home page and declining time on site even as Buzzfeed has grown rapidly to overtake the Times in total audience. In essence, as digital behavior has become more driven by social media the Times' traditional strategy of relying on the strength of its brand to encourage people to go find the news they want is failing.

Who wrote the report? Why does it matter?

The report was written by an eight-person team led by Arthur Gregg Sulzberger, a reporter with the Times who also happens to be the son of the current publisher and the grandson of the previous publisher. The report is significant in large part due to his involvement. The Times is a family-controlled business and Sulzberger is the heir apparent. Nepotistic management structures have their downsides, but this is a situation where they can be advantageous.

In a conventional large, established organization it would be impossible for a relatively junior member of the staff to deliver this much "real talk" to the bosses and rank-and-file staff would be unlikely to cooperate in a serious way with this kind of endeavor. But Sulzberger isn't going to be fired no matter what he says, and he has a larger stake than anyone in the long-term future of the Times so the incentives are aligned for a rigorous assessment — and possibly even real follow-through.

What does the report say about the business/editorial wall?

The Times has traditionally maintained a wall between business operations and editorial operations, metaphorically described inside the institution as the separation of church and state. The purpose of this is to ensure that advertising imperatives do not undermine editorial integrity, and also to allow business staffers to truthfully tell advertisers that they cannot be held responsible for editorial content. As the Times moved into the digital world, many aspects of the digital operation — including the Design, Technology, Consumer Insight, R&D, and Product groups — were considered part of "the business side" of the Times and thus walled off from regular interaction with the newsroom.

The report tells the story of a developer being forbidden from attending a newsroom brown bag lunch on church/state grounds, and offers much evidence that journalists and technologists consider excessive interaction and collaboration to be "inappropriate" in a way that hampers the development of compelling products.

What's Page One? What's digital first?

The first page of the print edition of the newspaper is known as Page One with capital letters. The report details the extent to which Page One is the heart of the daily routine of the newsroom, with the most important editorial meeting also being called Page One, and reporters and editorial groups assessing themselves largely in terms of their ability to score Page One stories. This remains the case even though digital is not just the future of the New York Times but largely its present. The Times' digital audience dwarfs its print subscriber base, but the editorial workflow is built around Page One and the newspaper.

The report urges a "digital first" strategy and emphasizes that this means more than literally putting a story on the internet before it appears in a print newspaper. Digital first is a state of mind in which the job of the newsroom is to deliver an excellent digital product, which a relatively small team would then repackage as a daily print product. Today it's largely the reverse. Deadlines are structured around the pace of print, incentives are structured around Page One, and then teams of producers build a website out of what's really a print workflow.

Where does the report fall short?

For a generally no-holds-barred examination of an institution, the innovation report is a bit oddly complacent about the Times' journalism. It asserts at various points that it is the best journalism in the world, but doesn't seriously try to scrutinize this claim. Certainly if you judge the Times' output the way you would judge a newspaper — as a comprehensive bundle of everything you need to know about everything — it is the best bundle in the world.

But in a disaggregated digital landscape, tougher questions need to be asked. Is the Times' coverage of the Mets better than Amazin Avenue's? Is the Times' coverage of politics better than Politico? Is the Times' coverage of business better than the FT's? The challenge of producing "the best" digital journalism is considerably more far-reaching than taking the best print journalism and packaging it in a digitally savvy way. The unbundling of content has real implications for what it means to be the best — implications that the report seems somewhat blind to. The Times is best-in-breed in some of the categories it covers, but that's certainly not the case in all of them.

Is the report self-undermining in any hilarious ways?

Yes! For starters, the report has been a huge hit on the internet. But instead of being a huge hit on the New York Times' website, it was a huge hit on Buzzfeed. Imagine a world in which instead of producing a painstakingly designed 91-page print document that was then photocopied and leaked to Buzzfeed, the content was packaged as a digital feature published by the Times itself.

The bottom line

Managing disruptive technological change is really hard. Not only — or even mostly or even partially — because the people in charge don't "get it." As the Innovation Report notes, the Times currently derives 75 percent of its revenue from its print operation. Under the circumstances, shifting to a digital-first mentality is genuinely difficult. The good news for the Times is that in addition to its extraordinarily strong brand and currently profitable business it has an extremely clear-eyed look at the nature of that challenge.

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