A Review of the New York Times Innovation Report

The general area in which I work as a project manager is “technology.” That’s a pretty broad term, though. In reality, my special focus has long been digital media with concentrations in online publishing and social media. This being the case, it shouldn’t be difficult to understand why I found the recently-leaked New York Times Innovation Report to be an engrossing read.

Created by a task force of 10 people, this well-organized report tells the brutally-honest truth about the current state of affairs at the New York Times and provides intriguing insight into what its competitors are doing. Written for internal circulation only, this document found its way to the public in fairly short order. It’s hard to believe they ever thought something this revealing could remain private.

96 pages can be daunting, but if this is a topic that interests you I highly recommend you check out the full report at the bottom of this post. Otherwise, you can settle for my views. What follows are highlights taken from the report, all of which probably reflect my personal interests and biases. Anything in quotes is taken directly from the report, of course. Everything else is my own interpretation.

It is also important to note that although I know a few people who work at the New York Times, none of them were on this task force, and I didn’t see them listed as interviewees either.

The innovation report starts out on a positive note: “The New York Times is winning at journalism.” Emphasis is made on the fact that no one is criticizing the quality of journalism at the Times. It then goes on to say they are falling behind in “the art and science of getting our journalism to readers.” In other words, the Times is producing high-quality content, but failing in getting it in front of those who might be interested in seeing it.

The Task

“This report reflects a critical shift from the original mission. Though the initial assumption was that we would emerge with ideas for a stand-alone product — such as NYT Now — our reporting showed us that the more urgent need was to focus on the core of The New York Times.”

Originally tasked create a new product, the committee discovered that the company’s problems ran far deeper…straight to the core of projects and operations. Looking around the publishing world they realized that there has been a dramatic push to “digital first.” In times past it was enough for a print company to have a website (digital “bolted-on”). This is no longer adequate, and a shift of mindset has taken place that envisions digital media companies also offering a print option. Disruption

“Disruption is a predictable pattern across many industries in which fledgling companies use new technology to offer cheaper and inferior alternatives to products sold by established players (think Toyota taking on Detroit decades ago.”

This definition of “disruption” seemed a bit off to me until I thought it through. Established companies can offer quality, but newer, hungrier start-ups can do something new and on the cheap that is very attractive to users. As revenue or investment money flows in, the product can be improved and truly compete with or overcome the big companies in a specific area. The example of Kodak was provided, as it first had to compete with low-quality digital cameras, and then it and the digital camera manufacturers had to compete with mobile phones.

Audience Development

“The Times produces more than 300 URLs every day.”

This report acknowledges that the Times is struggling to engage with its audience. In the past in was enough for a reporter to get a story into print. He or she could rest assured that it would be circulated out to subscribers and newsstands. The audience would find the story. This is no longer the case. Only 1/3 of NYTimes readers ever visit the home page. It’s become necessary that reporters themselves engage with readers on social media, drawing them in. In order to help coordinate and facilitate this type of effort, the report calls for hiring a “head of Audience Development.”

Younger readers expect stories to find them, rather than the other way around. NYTimes had an email notification tool to let readers know about stories on favorite topics. It was hard to find and a pain to sign up to use, but had 338,000 users. “Some technically savvy readers are so eager not to miss stories that they have even written code so that certain stories are sent to them automatically.”

Evergreen Content

“As of the printing of this report, we have 14,723,933 articles, dating back to 1851, that can be resurfaced in useful or timely ways.”

A journal like the New York Times has an immense amount of content to draw on. This could be a significant advantage, but only if it is used wisely. Referred to as “evergreen,” content that always has value can be repackaged and re-purposed without compromising journalistic quality. A prime example of this is Nicholas Kristof’s “Inside the Brothels” story collection, with at least one article dating back to 1996. What amounted to a list of older content on a single topic circulated widely on social media just because it was good reporting that had been repackaged well.

Templates & Iteration

“We have a tendency to pour resources into big one-time projects and work through the one-time fixes needed to create them, and overlook the less glamorous work of creating tools, templates and permanent fixes that cumulatively can have a bigger impact by saving our digital journalists time and elevating the whole report. We greatly undervalue replicability.”

The New York Times has an admirable reputation for perfectionism in telling a news story. This certainly should be maintained. At the same time, the company appears to fall down when it comes to testing out new technologies and platforms, as well as making useful tools. This is something I saw to some extent at both Condé Nast and Scholastic. Often I was asked to carry forward a significant project, but no thought was seemingly given to how the end product could be used for other company efforts. It was always a delight to discover that something we wanted to do had been done before, and that well-commented code was available to recycle. With Wired.com this was sometimes the case, and it was reassuring to hear the tech lead say “we’ve done something like that before…I’ll take a look.” At Scholastic I left just as efforts were underway to clarify what tech solutions would be considered standard going forward, reducing and hopefully eventually removing the tangled jungle of competing and sometimes conflicting technologies.

The basic stance of the report in response to all this, as I understood it, was to maintain excellence in journalism, but utilize a “minimum viable product” approach in technology. Launch something “good enough” with really great content, then iterate on the technology based on feedback. In essence: Get something out there, get feedback and make improvements.

Social Media

“Our Twitter account is run by the newsroom. Our Facebook account is run by the business side.”

This part baffled me. Isn’t there a social media and/or community management team at the Times? How can two social media platforms be managed by two different parts of the company? What’s worse is that later in the report we’re given to understand that business and newsroom barely communicate with each other.

The Great Wall

“It is hard to believe that only seven years ago, The New York Times housed its digital and print operations in separate buildings.”
“The vast majority of developers on the eighth floor we spoke with believed they were not allowed to set foot in the newsroom, creating a sense of distance and even alienation from a product they are instrumental in creating.”

It is a common problem in older print media companies that tech is kept away from content producers. At Condé Nast I worked on 6th Avenue between 45th & 46th street, but if I was going to meet with people from one of the brands I had to walk over to 4 Times Square. With Wired it was a little different, since the bulk of the team was in San Francisco, and developers there were in the same space as writers. When I left Condé Nast in mid-2013 the company was experimenting with co-locating people from tech with the brands. At Scholastic I worked on one side of the street and crossed the street to meet with business unit representatives. When I left there in December 2013 we’d heard that my team would be relocated into the main office. So, in both cases, the problem had been recognized and steps were being taken to address.

Per this NYTimes report, however, merely removing the physical separation does not end the psychological divide. It tells the story of one tech leader attempting to be added to a newsroom email list, only to be told there was a “church/state divide” that wouldn’t permit his inclusion. He is said to have left the company not long after.

Conclusion Though The New York Times Innovation Report was not intended for the general public, I don’t feel bad about reading it. It’s a little embarrassing for the Times, but I didn’t see anything that I’d consider a crippling secret. Further, the suggested strategy is just common sense, given the situation described and facts involved. It would have been nice to have seen some evaluation of the paywall (perhaps there was comment, but I didn’t see it), an annoyance that turned me away from being a daily reader. There’s quite a bit of meat in this report, and so it’s likely I’ll be referring to it again in the next few month.

The Full New York Times Innovation Report

See Also:

Originally published at www.adamgonnerman.com on May 20, 2014.

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