Goliath still fighting

What The New York Times implemented from its leaked Innovation report


In the end, any recommendation or strategic document is just as good as its implementation. It has been exactly 365 days since the New York Times Innovation report has been published (and a little time later leaked to its competitor). So out of curiosity I set out on a quest to amass all the efforts the paper has put in place in that time.

Why is this important? Let’s set aside the facts that 10 people worked on the report on and off for 6 months, on the request of the executive editor of a 163-year-old organization, gathering insights from internal and competitor sources on the always hot topic of digital transformation. More important is the company’s promised dedication to act on the report, saying “we have embraced it and promised to act on many of its recommendations” and the shared memo of executive editor Abramson and managing editor Baquet:

“The masthead embraces the committee’s key recommendations.”

What was recommended

I won’t scrutinize (more on that later) or summarize the report — God knows there are already more than enough digests of it out there. But I do want to highlight its main recommendations, so, in case you haven’t read it, you know what should have happened in the year. The report calls for:

  1. helping users with the discovery of content, through resurfacing evergreen content, better packaging and re-packaging archive articles, and through personalization;
  2. promotion of the content through institutional, and front-line (editorial) efforts;
  3. better connection with audiences through user generated content and events;
  4. focusing on creating a better reader experience through more closely connecting the newsroom with digital design, tech, R&D, product and insights teams;
  5. creating a newsroom strategy team, focusing on editorial vision;
  6. go digital first through de-emphasizing print;
  7. plus fostering a systematic approach to experiments, modernizing tagging efforts, and getting to know readers through data collection.

What was delivered

Astonishingly… quite a lot. With no insider information, I relied solely on web search, combing through last years mentions of the New York Times. And knowing how fast (real slow) big organizations move, I would give it 5.5 points out of 7 mentioned above. Here’s the breakdown:

  1. Improving discovery was mentioned in relationship with the company’s improved CMS system, calling out its ability to auto-suggest related content from archive to the editors. Unlike at other organisations, there is also a heavy SEO focus, with “SEO ambassadors” from the audience development team, which brings us to our next point.
  2. One of the biggest steps forward was the creation of this 20+ strong “audience development team”, headed by the newly created role of assistant managing editor for outreach. The team is in charge of “expanding our audience and deepening its engagement with our great journalism”. A great point they make is about not chasing clicks, but focusing on brand and loyalty, and developing reader habits — these are especially important due to their subscription model which relies on returning visitors. The team is the “institutional” part, but also helps with the “front-line” promotion. Not by telling journalists that “ your job now includes tweeting”, rather through cooperation and enablement. Social has generally expanded, well beyond twitter, with numerous niche Instagram channels launched, as well as the primary channel of New York Times, “tailored toward intimate interaction with our audience in ways that amplify our news report”. They also added their second Pinterest channel. More importantly, there is real strategy behind their efforts, with designing for reader flows from one content piece to the next, creating content specifically for social, and better coordinating different channels. While social is deemed important for reaching the future NYT subscriber, it seems not everybody is happily tweeting away.
  3. I found no reference to new reader-involving events, but the paper made great steps in user generated content. They invited their readers to post photos about the blizzard-that-wasn't. They did mess things up a bit by not linking to users Instagram accounts, “just” using their full names, and also by not letting users know they made the cover of New York Times. But apparently, users didn't mind.
  4. While creating a better reader experience is not directly called out anywhere, but partly (and positively) tearing down the wall between editorial and digital specialists is well portrayed by executive editor Dean Baquet saying he “doesn't see specialists in product development and technology as business-side people in the traditional sense”, rather “as something like Switzerland,” neither business nor editorial. Wow, that was strangely put.
  5. Creating a newsroom strategy team that can focus on a long term vision was a major recommendation of the report on the internal side of things. And it was the leader of the report, A.G. Sulzberger (the son of NYT’s publisher) who was appointed into the new role of senior editor for strategy. Their mandate, to “aggressively search for the trends and developments in the industry” and “build a joint newsroom-editorial page audience development operation that can pull all the levers and build readership”. Almost quoted from the report, so spot on implementation!
  6. The other great step forward is around going digital first. Without doubt the biggest step was first softly than explicitly steering focus away from “page one”, and steering more towards pitching stories for the best position for that given story on any platform and channel. This is HUGE for a company that has a documentary about it titled “Page One”. But there are various other efforts too. The leader of the previously mentioned audience development team is a digital native, a founding editor of The Huffington Post. And the content management system, also mentioned above, is also a key to going digital first, as it is planned to replace create-for-print-first technical operations, and replace with a joint digital-print approach.
  7. Fostering experimentation was not specifically mentioned in any news, though there are hopes editors will get comfortable with a/b testing. But tagging was called out, as a key part of the CMS, with automatic metadata suggestion using automated algorithms. Oh, and they also seem to have a digital taxonomy team, though that may not be a new effort. And while “getting to know readers better” also wasn't emphasized, and some even missing listening efforts, the CMS will integrate metrics, something apparently quite new to the editorial team.

But is this the right way?

To return to our starting sentence, an implementation can only be as good as the strategy. And the report was not perfect, by far. While some called it a “key document of this media age”, others called it a “disaster”. Harsh. But, let’s be honest, there are serious gaps in the report. Hardly any mention of the target audience, and their relationship with the sought-after digital transformation. Or its effects on the brand. Or how that transformation should be different for a subscription-based company versus a free one. Also, no calculations or finances whatsoever. And no clear roadmap. But as a now former employee said, “there wasn't anything new in there”, but things that should have been said were “said out loud”. And sometimes that is enough.

But let the numbers talk. There are some serious content out there on NYT’s past year, and I’m not really a numbers guy, so I suggest you read the pros. But the overall picture doesn't look bad, with millions of first-time readers being pulled in, 150% increase in Facebook referrals within 5 months, etc.

In closing

If we want to scrutinize (I said I’d come back to this), we must admit that this is a digital effort that pivoted from its original goal, and then was printed on paper, for a company that had a documentary about it titled “Page One”, a company that still isn't on Google‘s or Bing‘s first two results pages for its own Innovation report, and when discussing said Innovation report links to it’s own competitor.

But in reality, I think any strategic document should be happy with this level of implementation. A tremendous number of steps have been taken in a good direction. Only time will tell if this is the best direction, and if these are all the necessary steps. Or if the arrogance of New York Times was too big a mistake.

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