A CliffNotes-style guide to The New York Times Innovation report

The internal Innovation report by The New York Times leaked widely and has been reported on, mainly in how it reflected the internal politics that led so the departure of Jill Abramson from the paper. It has also been heralded as document of importance in the industry. Given the nature of the document I decided to do page-by-page commentary on the report (so that you don’t have to read all 96 pages). I read it once first of all to get an overall picture of it and then made notes on a page-by-page basis as I read it a second time in more depth. Below are the notes that I made on the second pass through the document:

Page 3 – The memo starts by outlining its faith in the quality of the journalism at The New York Times. I think that this may be their first flaw as later they compare themselves unfavourably to outlets such as Yahoo! News which implies general news coverage is a commoditised product and The New York Times isn’t providing enough analysis of sufficient value to share.

Page 4 – This is an executive summary of recommendations, most of which are quite prosaic. Develop the audience, strengthen the news room through working with other parts of the business and develop a newsroom strategy team. First up, developing the audience focuses on growth; there isn’t a mention about the quality of the audience – which would matter to advertisers. Strengthening the newsroom as described shows a willingness to bend the journalism / sales Chinese wall to breaking point.

Page 5 – A graph of what I presume is monthly unique visitors under the headline of “…But Many Competitors Are Growing Faster” calls out Huffington Post and Buzzfeed as competitors who are outstripping The New York Times in reader traffic. There are no qualifying demographics for this; in the print space would The New York Times compare itself with The New York Post? Both are newspapers but both have different demographics.

Page 6 and 7 – “Our Proposals, In Brief” basically reiterates pages 4 and 5.

Page 8 – “Our Mission (And How It Evolved)” explains the methodology behind the report. Having read it, there were a couple of knowledge sources that didn’t seem to have been tapped, but that would have been useful.  Interviewing some of the media agencies to get their takes on media consumption trends, looking at external data sources such as comScore, Nielsen Net Ratings and academia such as the MIT Media Lab, Annenberg Journalism School and the Berkman Center for Internet & Society to peer further into the future.

Page 12 – the start of the “Growing Our Audience’ section starts with a users guide to the report which basically explains the filters they used in writing and presenting the report in order to dumb it down for the readership.

Page 14-15 – contrast moves in the news media industry with moves at The New York Times.  The three big NYT moves were:

  • Redesigning nytimes.com
  • Ravaging and rebranding The International Herald Tribune as The International New York Times (this alone would have precipitated a need for a redesign or reengineering of the nytimes.com).  The report itself calls The International New York Times a launch
  • The rollout of native advertising described as a ‘new world’ giving it a romantic heroic quality rather than it having been demanded by media buyers and becoming the norm

The New York Times is facing the classic disruptee problem, trying to re-orientate itself for the digital age whilst change churns around it. The report treads lightly rather than scaring the bejesus out of its readership  (who are likely part of the problem and need to get on board with a radical attitude adjustment and become part of the solution).

Page 17-18 is interesting as the document sets out “A Competitor Cheat Sheet”:

  • Buzzfeed
  • Circa
  • ESPN
  • First Look Media
  • Flipboard
  • Vox
  • Yahoo! News

Here was a few of my takeaways from that list:

Circa and Flipboard are aggregators with a bit of smarts behind them. These are disrupting the editorial process. I would argue that this goes back further than Circa to email newsletters like Dave Farber’s Interesting People or conferences on The WeLL. Neither of these are new and a news room should have recognised and evolved with this years ago.

ESPN is particularly interesting as this is a traditional media company that has embraced digital particularly well, highlighting a failure of imagination and gumption in management.

I think that First Look Media is less about the disruption of news media by digital technology and more about younger consumers being hungry for a reboot of news journalism. This is the reason why Shane Smith and company have moved style and culture magazine VICE successfully into news journalism; showing up major news organisations on their coverage of North Korea and the situation in Ukraine.

Again there is no questions about whether these companies have the right type of audiences, merely the size of the audiences attracted.

Finally a good piece of news for Marissa Mayer at Yahoo!. At least The New York Times thinks that her efforts are delivering business difference, I was surprised to see Yahoo! cited as a competitor news source due to the brand positioning. Yahoo! has been experimenting with original news on-and-off for the best part of a decade such as The Hot Zone which featured reportage from journalist Kevin Sites back in 2005/6.

Page 23 – highlights three graphs under the heading “Tough Trends”. In contrast to the soft soap language that accompanies the charts the data is displayed in a manner to ‘cut to the chase’ and it is important to bear this mind when reading a chart.

Home page visitors had almost halved over three years. This could be due to changing usage patterns has The New York Times introduced its paywalls. Overall page views showed a less aggressive rate of decline. Time spent on the site dropped by a third which I suspect again is a function of the digital paywall The New York Times introduced. I try and only pick my 10 articles a month carefully to maximise the utility of it.

It was also interesting to see a drop in mobile readership using the iPhone app.

Page 24 – there was one quote that stood out for me:

“The hardest part for me has been the realisation that you don’t automatically get an audience,” said 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 makes the editor’s cut – gets into the paper – you’re going to find an audience”

I think that this rationale is based on a logical fallacy, that if a paper is put into the hands of a reader it will be devoured cover-to-cover. I would flicking though a paper analogous to skimming past links without clicking.

Digital now makes this more apparent which is where Gibson had her satori that content needs to be promoted to an audience on digital platforms.

The authors of the report split their view of competitors into content and delivery mechanisms:

But BuzzFeed, Huffington Post and USA Today are not succeeding simply because of lists, quizzes, celebrity photos and sports coverage. They are succeeding because of their sophisticated social, search and community-building tools and strategies, and often in spite of their content.

I think that this division is particularly interesting. Firstly, content is complementary to and indivisible from search and social strategies that these people may have. Secondly, the last bit of the quote dismisses the ‘snackable’ nature of these content formats, when in reality this might be part of their success.

Page 25 – features a bit of future gazing on how with the right contextual information available, content could be serviced just-in-time to a mobile device from the paper’s news section, alongside archive content like restaurant reviews etc. There is also an ongoing challenge in managing that data to keep the context fresh and relevant – for instance knowing restaurants close or move location.

Page 26 – “Our Proposals, In Brief”. I am shocked that the current technology used by the paper to support it’s newspaper seems to not used to tag or structure the vast amount of data published to date.

Page 27 – is an explanation of ‘deep linking’ without mentioning that terminology once. The concern about readers not going to a home page or a section page is interesting, these are print paradigms put into pixels; yet on page 26 the authors had pointed out that one of the paper’s CMS limitations was that it was structured to reflected just this kind of print view.

Page 28 -30 – talks about using curation to highlight older relevant content that can be used to provide context for a newer piece or timely collection. This raises the lifetime value of archive content because of the increased option for ad inventory to be viewed. I know this might sound obvious, bit it was obviously a revelation for the authors.

Page 31-32 is a basic schooling in the scientific method  of experimentation – presumably to inspire innovation in the report readership.

Page 33-35 look at how clustering coverage around common interest collections can increase readership

Page 36 “Balancing Act: One-offs vs. Replicability” compares and contrasts The New York Times blockbuster approach to big digital projects versus competitors who build tools that they can use again and again; in order to maximise technical investment. An example of this would be Quartz’ Chartbuilder.

Page 39-40 – The New York Times reimplemented a function to allow readers to follow columnists. Some of the data on the page would make me question the value of a prominent journalist in terms of the amount of loyalty and fan base that they can build. This is basically advocating that the journalists cultivate fame and a fan base. It would have been interesting to explore a bit more the dynamic between the newspaper brand and the journalist brand.

Page 41 – talks about structured data and tagging. What I am surprised didn’t come up was the topic of folksonomies which could have been an answer to the ‘tag famine’ that they paper seems to suffer from. For instance, no tag for Benghazi despite the fact this was a story that would run-and-run.

Page 43-44 – “Promotion” talks about social. Here’s what it says about email newsletters:

Other competitors, like The Atlantic and Politico are also using emails as direct channels to readers. This basic tool has become one of the most popular and efficient ways to cut through all the noise of the social web and reach readers directly.

The New York Times already does use email marketing. This us and them view of journalists and the audience lacks subtlety. It neglects to take into account that some of their readers are tastemakers or curators that their friends tap into. Influencing people who can propagate content links even further is a relatively easy win. RSS seems to be the Rodney Dangerfield in this picture getting no respect. Whilst there aren’t prolific RSS usage amongst the masses, it is often used by curators and as pipework for aggregators like Feedly or Flipboard.

Page 45 – what becomes apparent is that linkages such as social sharing analytics isn’t being used to drive editorial decisions. The twitter metric of engaged fans in a chart that compares The New York Times to other media outlets is interesting. What does ‘engaged fans’ mean in this content?

Page 49-54 – “Connecting” is about The New York Times getting closer to the reader as a corporate brand:

  • User-generated content
  • Expand Op-Eds
  • Events
  • Using reader data to know them better

Page 55-59 – “Strenghtening Our Newsroom”. I was gobsmacked reading this section. The New York Times seemed to be way behind peers like The Telegraph in terms of using data for the news room. Secondly, they have a consumer insight group yet didn’t have this expertise to help drive editorial decisions as a proxy reader’s champion.

Page 60-70 – discuss what the authors call reader experience. This touches on content but also goes into how the content is manifested and the user experience. In a world where data journalism is freely bandied around, I can’t understand the gulf here. Back when I used to work at Yahoo! tweaking user experience was a major part of the creation process across the Yahoo! network properties.

Page 71-74 – The New York Times editorial team don’t seem to network with peers and keep abreast of industry developments. They hadn’t been thinking about how to change news reporting to remain current and relevant.

Page 75-77 – is a simple explanation of the ‘fast failure’ model of innovation.

Page 78-80 – outlines the cultural challenges that the editorial team need to scale in order to be able to change the organisation. A lot of this mirrors what reporters would have written about businesses in mature economies adapting to change. Integrity seems to have been interpreted institutionally has embracing a luddite philosophy.

Page 81-87 – “Digital First” isn’t exactly a new concept it has been the clarion cry of news media groups for years.  It is concerning that they even have to have a boxout defining what is means to be digital first on page 82.

Page 88 -90 “In Their Own Words: Digital Departures” looks as the reason why digital journalist have been leaving the paper. These outtakes from what amounted to be exit interviews reflected the need for a flatter structure and more agile business.

Page 91 – One quote said it all for me when they talked about talent “Winning The Talent Wars”:

We need makers, entrepreneurs, reader advocates and zeitgeist watchers.

How can you have a news organisation that is that lacking in curiosity amongst it’s journalists that the above statement needs to be said?

More information
The leaked New York Times innovation report is one of the key documents of this media age | Nieman Journalism Lab
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