News Obsession Wordflow — Samuel Huron, via Flickr/Creative Commons

“Digital First” and all its Discontents

As I read through the glut of 2014 remembrances and retrospectives, I was surprised to see two major omissions: That time in May when two respected, award-winning journalists — both women — were unceremoniously forced out of major legacy media leadership roles: Natalie Nougayrède, the first woman to hold the mantle of editor in chief with France’s Le Monde, and Jill Abramson, the New York Times’ first ever female Executive Editor.

In both cases, accusations of mismanagement, personality clashes and institutionalized corporate sexism informed the chattering classes’ conversation, as everyone rushed to dissect how such talented people could have flamed out so quickly. Abramson had been in her role a little less than three years; Nougayrède, barely 15 months.

But what was lost between the heated exchanges, leaks and accusations was the fundamental challenge both editors faced: Re-envisioning and recreating two legacy media giants as 21st Century “digital first” news organizations.

Creating all-digital newsrooms isn’t easy and unless you get complete buy-in from your staff, you risk failure.

Since 1999 I’ve worked primarily on consumer-facing digital news websites. Independent (mostly) of the baggage of legacy media (print), it was my job to help build the platform, hire the staff and create credible news and content strategies to grow audience and advertisers.

Dogged by the dreaded CPM, UVs, PVs, the “link economy” and forever jousting with search engine algorithms, legacy and new media startups had to leverage partnerships with the big portals (AOL, Yahoo, MSN, etc.) or upstart aggregators and blogs like The Drudge Report or Ain’t It Cool News, to grow audience. It was a win-win: Traditional newspapers imparted gravitas on the portals’ news sections, and recognition by the upstarts made legacy brands seem less stodgy.

But then, between September, 2006 and July, 2007, a seismic shift occurred. Two events took place so profound that traditional media companies and startups have struggled to keep up ever since: Facebook opened up to the public and Apple released the first iPhone.

The news industry — already scrambling to monetize eyeballs on desktops — was caught with its pants down. While Craigslist had gutted the classifieds, newspapers and their web presence had always remained the gatekeepers of what was “news,” what with their expert reporters, editors, daily newsletters and home pages.

But the one-two punch of Social Media and Mobile changed all that.

Suddenly, editors and reporters had to completely rethink how they told stories, from idea inception, through reporting to the production of the final product, the news story needed to be tailored for multiple mediums — desktop, tablet and mobile — and for “shareability”.

The technological innovations — and limitations — of Mobile and Social Media added an almost three-dimensional value to online journalism. It wasn’t enough just to read it, now it had to seen and heard, and most importantly, Posted, Tweeted, Liked and Pinned.

Never has this been more clearly defined than in the pages of the Times’ own 2014 Innovation Report, a copy of which was leaked to BuzzFeed. For me, two things jump out from the report: Resistance from NY Times editorial members to work with the publishing side of the business and resistance to experimenting with how stories are told. Both these are telling.

Abramson and Nougayrède were pilloried for their management styles. Supporters argue the women’s performance would have been acceptable if they were men. From my view, this is all hearsay and circumstantial, but what I do know is that Abramson’s predecessors didn’t fair much better. Howell Raines, was also charged with making the Times “Digital First.” Maligned for his imperious manner, it was poor judgment regarding the Jayson Blair incident that was Raines’ undoing. That, and his inability to truly make the Times a native digital news organization. Bill Keller also failed.

“Digital First” doesn’t begin in the newsroom. That’s just one part of the equation. Without a true and direct partnership between the Product and Ad Sales, there’s no way “Digital First” can be successful.

It was the responsibility of Raines, Abramson and Nougayrède to help create that partnership and for all intents and purposes, they failed to do so. Journalists are by nature curious, headstrong and opinionated. Caving in to special interests or advertisers is an anathema, and well it should be. At the end of the day the great news organizations are only selling one thing: Credibility.

But great journalism can’t be created by good intentions alone: Someone has to pay for this stuff. And it costs money.

Abramson and Nougayrède needed to bring their newsrooms to the “Digital First” table and clearly and honestly work with the business side to create editorial solutions for advertising problems. “Digital First” should not come at the expense of ethical standards or the violation of “Church and State”, but it should come from the understanding that just as the medium on which journalism is presented has evolved, so too must the journalists’ understanding of the changes and challenges impacting the overall business.

This is not “selling out,” this is solving a problem.

Originally published at