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The New York Times has to think like a tech startup, NYT digital editors say

For editors Sam Dolnick and Clifford Levy, that means trying, sometimes failing and bringing once-separated departments together.

New York Times editors Sam Dolnick, left, and Clifford Levy, right.
Courtesy The New York Times

The New York Times is 164 years old. But the people figuring out its digital strategy agree it can’t cling to the past.

"The New York Times tradition is not to fail," Assistant Masthead Editor Clifford Levy said on the latest episode of Recode Media. "But I don’t think, in this new era, we can hew to that kind of tradition. We have to be willing to try new things, and if they fail, that’s fine."

Levy and Associate Editor Sam Dolnick — a potential heir to the NYT as a member of the Ochs-Sulzberger family, which has owned the paper since 1896 — spoke with Recode Managing Editor Edmund Lee about how the Times is adapting to the times. They said an overarching theme of their work is finding a voice for digital journalism that blends original reporting with expertise "to help you lead a better life."

"It’s not ‘What do you think the investigative story we should do is?’" Dolnick said of listening to the NYT’s audience. "It’s ‘How can we make your life better?’ You’re a busy person who’s got 20 minutes on the way to work, but you want to know what happened at the Democratic Convention last night. ... It’s figuring out how to insert our journalism into your life in the most helpful way."

One of the paper’s best-known digital forays, the cheap-and-later-free mobile app NYT Now, was shelved in August, after this interview was recorded. Levy, one of the app’s leaders, said many of its most popular features have been migrated into the main New York Times mobile app, and that the process of iterating on NYT Now taught the company’s disparate departments how to work together.

"It was a whole new model for developing a product at the Times, something akin to what’s done in Silicon Valley," Levy said. "There, it’s typical. For the Times, it was really different to get this cross-disciplinary team to develop this product that was intensely focused on what readers wanted."

On the new podcast, Levy and Dolnick also share the behind-the-scenes story of how the Times dove into virtual reality, mailing out more than one million Google Cardboard headsets to its Sunday print newspaper subscribers in late 2015. Dolnick said the NYT VR initiative reflected the Times’ ability to leverage its own scale and old-school experience.

"We were going to use our 19th-century infrastructure, our trucks and our printing plants, to leapfrog into the 21st century," he recalled. "We called Google. This was a big deal, even for them. To print 1.1 million headsets was a big ask. They were in because the New York Times said that we wanted to do this."

"They didn’t quite realize at the time that ‘The New York Times’ was me and Jake [Silverstein] and Andy Wright in a conference room," he added.

You can listen to Recode Media in the audio player above, or subscribe on iTunes, Google Play Music, TuneIn and Stitcher.

If you like this show, you should also sample our other podcasts:

  • Recode Decode, hosted by Kara Swisher is a weekly show featuring in-depth interviews with the movers and shakers in tech and media every Monday. You can subscribe on iTunes, Google Play Music, TuneIn and Stitcher.
  • Too Embarrassed to Ask, hosted by Kara Swisher and The Verge's Lauren Goode, answers all of the tech questions sent in by our readers and listeners. You can hear new episodes every Friday on iTunes, Google Play Music, TuneIn and Stitcher.
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