Why The New York Times Newsroom is in Trouble

The problem is not the top brass or the digital guerrilla but the print army

All the fuss around NYT’s fired executive editor cannot distract our attention from a more important issue.

The New York Times real problem, like the majority of newspapers around the world, is that they are trying to become multimedia news organizations but the “print” army still rules the show.

Think about this:

The New York Times has the biggest newsroom in the world with more than 1,100 journalists supposed to be “the best of the best.”

The best editors (yes, yes, and the most rude and demanding in the industry.)

The best reporters.

The best foreign correspondents.

The best columnists.

The best photojournalists.

The best infographists.

… and the best digital team in the newspaper world.

It is making money because you and I will pay for their first class print and digital content.

Everyday it is producing more than 300 outstanding and sometimes unique stories.

It is read by the ruling class, and all the “wannabes” of this world.

Then, a publisher called “Pinch” Sulzberger, son of “Punch”, confronts an amazing and complex new challenge:

  • A financial crisis that forces him to seek investment from Mexican Carlos Slim, the richest business man in the world.
  • An “internet bubble” that explodes when the company was planning to spin-off its digital operation and make millions of dollars in the market, a plan that had to be abruptly stopped.
  • The firing of many digital gurus and troops while forgetting about a dual publishing strategy: one for older print readers, and another for younger digital ones.
  • Sell the old Times Square headquarters for a small sum and move the paper to a new, futuristic and very expensive Renzo Pianno building near Penn Station.
  • Within these new, fantastic facilities, the toleration of newsroom editors and reporters continuing to work like in the old facilities: in silos.
  • Print journalists dominating the new space by a proportion of, let’s say 8 to 2, with digital teams working in separate areas while trying to avoid isolation by the print kings.
  • The toleration of print journalists acting as if the internet never existed: the big daily meeting still revolves around tomorrow’s “Page One” and not even the increasingly irrelevant digital homepages
  • Realize that the “200+ digital guerrillas” are ignored inside the paper while outside its fancy building a worldwide audience generates tens of millions visits and 800,000 of that audience pay for web and mobile content.
  • Accept that digital mavericks have begun to produce great multimedia pieces such as the award-winning hit “Snowfall”.
  • And finally, read a candid internal report lead by the son of “Pinch” that says: “we need to be more innovative and change faster or we are dead,” a report that evoked a “Spot on!” response from British CEO Mark Thompson when asked of his opinion by Publisher Pinch

Then ‘Pinch’ asked the now ex-executive editor Jill Abramson her thoughts and her response probably was: we need more people, extra people, for print and online.

And that was the moment.

The moment to realize that Jill had asked for a digital managing editor next to her.

A Digital Tsar.

When what the paper really needed was an editorial leader able to lead the digital revolution at full speed, not just to add new, isolated and unintegrated digital soldiers.

In other words, a modern and innovative newsroom where 80% of the journalists work for web and mobile first, and 20% for a new and slimmer print paper.

And that’s what Lionel Barber is trying to do in London with the Financial Times.

In summary: the crisis at The New York Times was delayed because the “200+ digital guerrillas” were the largest team in the newspaper world, sailing under the most respected brand in the industry… but isolated from the main print operation, a large army that wants to have their signatures on tomorrow’s “Page One.” My feeling is that this is the time to “fire” the current publisher, have his “innovative” son lead the digital revolution and, very soon, appoint a new “digital native” executive editor.

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