We finally got a chance to read through the 96-page “Innovation” report commissioned by the management of The New York Times and leaked last week in the wake of the firing of Executive Editor Jill Abramson on Tuesday. Joshua Benton at Nieman Journalism Lab has already called the report “one of the most remarkable documents” he’s seen in his tenure, and detailed coverage has appeared on BuzzFeed, Mashable and numerous other outlets. We won’t go into detail on excerpts (Nieman’s coverage is the most exhaustive we saw) but thought it was worth sharing a few issues that stuck with us.
In a nutshell, the report makes a powerful case for a complete restructuring of the way the Times approaches its “paper of record” role. The extent of the criticisms contained therein will shock the many people who have come to believe that the Times is the standard-bearer for “digital-first” journalism among traditional media outlets, but there’s plenty of data and examples to support these conclusion.
Twenty years into the commercial Web, little has really changed about the culture at the Old Gray Lady, even as digital and print editorial operations have merged, the report says. Stories are filed late in the day in accordance with traditional print deadlines. Ambitious features are scheduled for Sundays, when print readership is largest but online readership dwindles. Mobile apps are organized by print sections. Traditional reporting skills dominate hiring and promotion decisions and a byline on Page One of the print edition is still considered the gold standard of success.
This is despite the fact that – as the report documents on page 81 – print readers are the smallest audience the Times has. Mobile and desktop readers together dwarf the print audience by a factor of 10. A dying medium still holds sway at the most prominent journalism institution in the U.S.
A few themes run throughout the document that we found noteworthy:
Audience Is Earned
One of the most compelling quotes we read was from Janine Gibson, editor-in-chief of The Guardian’s website. “For someone with a print background, you’re accustomed to the fact that if it… gets into the paper you’re going to find an audience,” she said. “It’s entirely the other way around as a digital journalist. The realization that [the audience is] not going to just come and read it has been transformative.”
This observation underlies some of the core recommendations of the report, which are that the newsroom needs to work much more collaboratively with design and promotion than it has traditionally. In most newsrooms, journalists work in a cocoon and throw finished products over the wall to designers and publicists for packaging and promotion. However, user experience has become critical to success. That’s because readers themselves are becoming the primary traffic-drivers. In other words, great journalism that isn’t easy to access and share doesn’t get very far.
The report has some internal traffic metrics that dramatize what most Web publishers have probably known for a while: Traffic to websites in general and homepages in particular is declining while content is increasingly being consumed through aggregators and mobile devices. The internal data also validates what has been speculated for a couple of years: Readers are now the dominant revenue source, making up 52% of 2013 sales compared to 43% from advertising.
With readers increasingly in control, the report recommends a step that still draws gasps from journalism veterans: Eliminate the wall between the newsroom and the business. “Increased collaboration, done right, does not present any threat to our values of journalistic independence,” the authors declare, recognizing what digital first publishers discovered a decade ago.
The Wall is still very much in place at The New York Times. Popular innovations like a searchable recipe database and the ability to follow stories of interest have come out of product and design groups rather than the editorial side. The Times does a good job of researching its audience, the authors say, but the newsroom has shown little interest in participating in surveys and focus groups. Designers complain that they are treated like second-class citizens. Editors who want to collaborate with colleagues outside the newsroom have to do so on the sly. Researchers said the vast majority of developers at the Times believe they aren’t even allowed to set foot in the newsroom.
Barriers between editorial and business functions are an expensive luxury that media organizations can no longer afford. What the Innovation report makes clear is that the business side contributes far more to the reader experience online than it ever did in print.
Platforms Matter More Than Packages
The Times enjoyed plenty of well-deserved praise for “Snow Fall,” a mesmerizing visual feature it published in late 2012. As beautiful as that package was, the fact that it hasn’t been repeated in 18 months points to the problem of putting resources behind what the report calls “labor-intensive one-offs”.
Snow Fall is cited repeatedly as an example of what the Times is capable of but fails to achieve in its daily operations because it fails to attend to the nuts and bolts of digital media. “Our competitors, particularly digital-native ones, treat platform innovation as a core function,” the authors write. They point in particular to BuzzFeed, which has equipped its editors with a wide palette of interactive storytelling tools, as a better model. While the results aren’t necessarily elegant, they are repeatable, and that’s more important.
In contrast, the Times has failed even to carry out a consistent approach to tagging, a well-established technique for categorizing content in a way that makes it easy to reuse. This has often-unforseen ripple effects. For example, the lack of tags has frustrated efforts to create a useful recipe database, hampered search engine visibility, prevented the paper from automating sale of its photos and limited its ability to target content by geography.
We Are All Publicists
Some of the report’s harshest criticism is aimed at the Times’ reluctance to promote its own work. The legacy of great journalism has become, in many ways, a handicap. Editors believe that journalism alone will carry the paper while competitors invest aggressively in promotion, data analysis and systems to move quickly and double down on success.
Publications like The Guardian, Huffington Post and The Atlantic expect staffers not only to promote their own work but to know how to write headlines that maximize sharing potential. Huffington Post won’t publish a story unless it has a photo, a search-optimized headline, a tweet and a Facebook post.
In contrast, the Times editors didn’t notify publicists of their acclaimed Invisible Child series on New York’s homeless children until it was too late to do any advance work. The reporter failed to even tweet about the feature for two days.
While the Times has millions of collective Twitter followers through its branded and individual accounts, the paper generates less than 10% of its digital traffic from social media. In contrast, BuzzFeed generates six times as much from those sources, the report notes. That’s because social promotion is considered an afterthought. For example, the Twitter feed run by the newsroom is used mainly for reporting rather than for audience development.
The report also criticizes Times management for doing too little to connect with readers. While competitors like Huffington Post and Medium have prospered by making their publishing brands a platform for anyone who wants to contribute, the Times still rejects dozens of op-ed submisions from thought leaders every day. The enormously popular TED Talks, which charge up to $7,500 per ticket, could have been a Times invention, but the paper has failed to market even its relatively modest Times Talks series. “One of our biggest concerns is that the Times will start a real conference program,” says a TED executive quoted in the report.
Gaping Hole on the Business Question
The most glaring shortcoming of the Innovation report is its lack of any creative ideas for solving the revenue problem. This may have been by design, since the team had no representatives from the business side. However, a small chart on page 81 shows the extent of this problem. Print still accounts for 75% of advertising revenues and 82% of circulation revenues. That adds up to $1.4 billion from the print side of the house compared to just $320 million online.
No one has figured out how to bring those numbers closer together, and in an environment of continually expanding inventory and declining CPMs, it’s unlikely anyone will. Marc Andreessen has proposed that publishers need to think differently about their businesses, seeking out much larger audiences with low-priced products. That sounds like a reasonable course, but the Times’ report makes it clear that BuzzFeed, Upworthy, Business Insider, and HuffPo are getting there much more quickly than the Old Gray Lady.
We’re impressed that the management of the Times was willing to commit resources to a project that was bound to return unflattering results and likely to be leaked. Now that the findings are there for all to see, it’s a question of whether management can follow through on them. Assuming that most newspapers are well behind the times in digital integration, it’s a fair bet that a lot of publishers will take cues from this research.
- The leaked New York Times innovation report is one of the key documents of this media age
- The New York Times’ digital challenges, in 5 charts
- What Brands Can Learn from the Bombshell New York Times Innovation Report
- Changing The Times