The New York Times innovation report and the strategic impact of digital innovation on business

 

It can be challenging for organisations to adapt to new digital trends and innovation, especially in businesses that are part of industries with long histories of entrenched working methods or practices. It’s something that we work with clients on here at Brilliant Noise, and it’s one of the most interesting parts of my job.

For some, the challenge is a positive one to be embraced and viewed as an opportunity to grow both themselves and their businesses. Yet for others, it represents something to be feared and rejected, a potential threat to the status quo they’ve grown so comfortable with.

In May 2014, the culmination of a tumultuous period in the New York Times newsroom came to a head with the leaking of a damning, insightful, revelatory and superlative-shattering internal document outlining the huge cultural changes still required to transform even industries as supposedly digitally agile as that of news gathering and journalism.

What the report tells us

To say the the report has made waves in the worlds of journalism and digital would be an understatement. As Joshua Benton at NiemanLab says, “I’ve spoken with multiple digital-savvy Times staffers in recent days who described the report with words like “transformative” and “incredibly important” and “a big big moment for the future of the Times.” One admitted crying while reading it because it surfaced so many issues about Times culture that digital types have been struggling to overcome for years.”

In this post, I pull apart some interesting bits of the report and highlight the elements that resonate most with me. You can read the full report on Scribd, but be warned: at 97 PDF pages, it’s an absolute monster of a read.

The report sketches out a bleak – with flashes of determined optimism – picture of the New York Times newsroom. Four eye-catching graphs show key trends in terms of traffic and engagement on the NYT website (unless otherwise stated, all charts and data taken from the report linked above).

The first three graphs, while not setting the world alight, are at least not in rapid decline.

Page Views

Page views have been relatively consistent, hovering at five million plus.

1b

Dwell time on-site fluctuates but never craters.

1c

iPhone app users fluctuate too, with some large spikes, but showing positive trend towards the end of the X axis. But all three of these graphs are below the levels of the year before.

1d

The most stark and alarming graph is the one that shows visits to the NYT home page: over two years, the number of visitors has halved from ~160m to ~80m. “The need is urgent,” states the report, “Our home page has been our main tool for getting our journalism to readers, but its impact is waning. Only a third of our readers ever visit it. And those who do visit are spending less time: page views and minutes spent per reader dropped by double-digit percentages last year.”

The report sums up the challenge the NYT faces as follows:

“Perhaps because the path forward is not clear and requires very different skills, we are putting less effort into reaching readers’ digital doorsteps than we ever did in reaching their physical doorsteps.

“This effort to reach more readers — known as Audience Development — is where our competitors are pushing ahead of us.”

It is this stark awareness that the paper has lost touch with its core audience which characterises the opening section of the report.

What is the NYT trying to do about it? The report puts forward this high-level process:

Audience progression

It is a fundamental need to transform more non-readers and others into NYT loyalists that is the imperative behind the report. Without a readership, the NYT – both print and digital – is a lame duck waiting to be eaten by Buzzfeed, First Look Media, The Huffington Post, FiveThirtyEight and countless others.

The solution, according to the report, consists of three key areas:

  • Discovery“Improving technology provides us with more and better tools to ensure that we get our work in front of the right readers at the right place and at the right time. But we still ask too much of readers — they must navigate a website and apps that are modelled on our print structure. We need to think more about resurfacing evergreen content, organising and packaging our work in more useful ways and pushing relevant content to readers. And to power these efforts, we should invest more in the unglamorous but essential work of tagging and structuring data.”
  • Promotion“We need to be better advocates of our own work. This means creating newsroom structures to make sure our most important work has maximum readership and impact. And it means identifying and sharing best practices at the ground level, and encouraging reporters and editors to promote their stories. In addition, we must take the process of optimisation, for search and social, more seriously and ensure we are updating our tools and workflow along with our changing needs.”
  • Connection“Our readers are perhaps our greatest untapped re- source. Deepening our connection with them both online and offline is critical in a world where content so often reaches its broadest audience on the backs of other readers. And many readers have come to expect a two-way relationship with us, so they can engage with our journalism and our journalists. This means the newsroom as a whole must take the reins in pursuing user-generated content, events and other forms of engagement in a way that reflects our standards and values.”

Key insights

  • Speed and innovation could help the NYT catch up. Being able to prototype and rapidly scale new technologies or ways of curating and creating content would allow the publication to beat other publications to the punch. Right now, the report points out, The Huffington Post outperforms the NYT’s traffic by aggregating its own content.
  • Today’s is not the only content. This also highlights that the NYT is stuck in the mindset of one consumption pattern: the idea of newspaper content translated online, resulting in read-once-and-throw-away content. Creating for longevity, being able to repackage old content into new collections or forms and taking advantage of user-generated content would create greater value for its audience.
  • Needs a taxonomy. A proper taxonomy would help these efforts, but it would be a major project. By having logically tagged and structured data, it makes content easier to find for the user, and easier to archive and reference for its staff. “Without better tagging,” the report states, “we are hamstrung in our ability to allow readers to follow developing stories.” In one example, “Just adding structured data […] immediately increased traffic to our recipes from search engines by 52 percent.”
  • More of the NYT’s own staff should be promoting and advocating their own content. Utilising these networks that have grown around writers and contributors would increase the reach of the content.
  • Innovation is needed operationally. Specifically focusing on innovation, Joshua Benton at NiemanLab notes that “Interestingly, the report mentions that what readers see as innovation at the Times — graphics and interactives — is not reflected internally, in terms of workflow, organisation, strategy, and recruitment.”
  • The culture of technology and integrating innovation into the editorial teams is nonexistent. “The report also describes a developer who quit after being denied a request to have developers attend brown bag lunches along with editorial staffers. This sort of rejection can make recruitment of top developers and designers a challenge,” highlights Benton. “According to the report, there is a sense at the Times that Reader Experience staffers and newsroom staffers are not supposed to communicate.” Some of the quotes from departing staffers make for glum reading:“When it takes 20 months to build one thing, your skill set becomes less about innovation and more about navigating bureaucracy. That means the longer you stay, the more you’re doubling down on staying even longer. But if there’s no leadership role to aspire to, staying too long becomes risky.”“The BuzzFeeds of the world have strong central leadership with clear digital visions not tied down by fiefdoms and legacy products.”“I felt stifled by the hierarchy of the organisation; meetings predicated upon meetings that did not lead to resolution or clear next steps.”
  • More strategy required. “We’ve abdicated completely the role of strategy. We just don’t do strategy. The newsroom is really being dragged behind the galloping horse of the business side,” said one editor quoted in the report.

It is with this that the second half section of the report opens up with three proposals for changing the newsroom:

  • “Collaborate with business-side unites focused on reader experience.
  • “Create a newsroom strategy team.
  • “Map a strategy to make the newsroom a truly digital-first organisation.

And three final sections on “how to get there”:

  • De-emphasise print.
  • Assess digital needs.
  • Explore more serious steps.

Ultimately, this means “aggressively questioning many of our print-based traditions and their demands on our time, and determining which can be abandoned to free up resources for digital work.” The NYT remains a newspaper with a website attached, rather than a synergistic digital media organisation like its contemporaries at The Guardian.

As these charts show, while the revenue primarily comes from print, the audience does not:

Most revenue still comes from print...

...but print accounts for a small percentage of readers

Outcomes

While at times this blog post might have sounded like I was the highlighting negative parts of the report, this is because there are huge challenges at the NYT and barriers to it becoming the digital-first, innovative business that it clearly wants to be.

The talent at the NYT is amazing and its digital content can be superb (think ‘Snow Fall’). But the lack of strategy and vision for digital within the business means that the people who are most likely to drive the paper forwards (both in terms of innovation and business) are the ones who are least likely to be involved in the key decision making processes.

The mistake the NYT made was it became more obsessed with the news than with what its audience wanted from it. Kudos to it for recognising this and writing such an incredibly important document as the innovation report.

But it should be a strategic lesson to all other organisations – both large and small – of what can happen when a sustainable and progressive vision for dealing with a changing business landscape drifts, and teams become fragmented.

Having a clear digital transformation and leadership strategy is fundamental to the sustained success of any business. It’s no longer an option to avoid “doing” digital – it’s where your audience is, and where your business needs to be.

Image credit: alecperkins via Flickr