NY Times Innovation Report applies to ad agencies, too

Leaked document shares Times’ struggle with digital transformation; similar challenges confront ad agencies.

This post was originally published on Creativity_Unbound.

The New York Times overvalues journalistic skills for digital hires and undervalues digital skills for journalism hires.

Most ad agencies overvalue traditional creative skills for digital hires and undervalue digital skills for creative hires.

The NY Times places too much emphasis on the front page and the home page.

Most ad agencies place too much emphasis on television and traditional messages.

At the NY Times, social media is an afterthought.

At most ad agencies social media is an afterthought.

By now you’ve probably read about the NYT Innovation Report, which leaked to the public last Friday. The 91-page internal review delivers a thorough and, some would say, scathing assessment of the Times failure to become a truly digital organization.

I actually read all 91 pages and found it a perfect summation of why so many traditional media organizations of all kinds — magazines, newspapers, PR firms, ad agencies — fail when it comes to re-inventing themselves for a time when readers control when, where and on what devices they access and filter content.

Compared to its more forward thinking and faster moving competitors, the Wall Street Journal and The Guardian, the Times, despite innovations like NYT Now and a paywall that seems to work, still operates under the belief that if you produce high quality journalism, readers will come to you. As a result, it still runs like a printed newspaper.

Reporters file their polished stories at the end of the day when most people pay attention in the morning. Mobile apps are organized similar to print sections, rather than by location or context. Social media and digital distribution remain afterthoughts in how stories get told and distributed. Too much emphasis gets placed on the homepage, which no longer carries the weight and importance it once did. Bad tagging makes it impossible to find archival articles on everything from recipes to Benghazi. (I’ve always been astounded at how rarely Google searches list NY Times articles, even when the newspaper has written the definitive story.) The best pieces run on Sunday, a day that traditionally attracts the most newspaper readers, but the least number of digital readers. The list goes on.

Put another way:

The New York Times thinks like a printed newspaper that also has a portfolio of digital properties rather than like a digital news organization that happens to put out a newspaper.

Most ad agencies think like traditional shops that do digital rather than like digital shops that also makes commercials.

Anyone who has struggled with transforming their company for the digital age has dealt with similar challenges. The corporate operations, reporting structures, departmental organization and decision making that worked in the pre-digital era tend to be ineffective in the digital age — detrimental at best, deadly at worst.

Look at the Times. User experience lives on the business side, not the editorial side. Same goes for design, tech, insight, R&D and product. That basically means that developers and designers have little say or influence in content or how it gets delivered. Can you actually separate the two today?

Quality is determined only by the length and depth of a story. Yes Snowfall is a remarkable piece of journalism beautifully presented. But it eats up a disproportionate amount of design, graphics and social resources. Meanwhile much of the Times graphics don’t work on mobile.

And the entire staff is so inept at promoting its own content across the web that when digital media repackage NY Times content they often generate more traffic and inbound links for their repurposed Times references than the Times gets for the original stories. The same can be said when it comes to archival content, a resource the daily newspaper pays little attention to. A perfect example is this Gawker piece on 12 Years a Slave, referencing the 161-year-old NY Times story on Solomon Northrup. A New York Times piece goes viral, but the credit and traffic go to Gawker.

The result of this too slow transformation ranges from missed opportunities, to diminishing readership, to the more troubling exodus of the best digital talent who get tired of fighting an uphill battle all the time. No doubt you’ve seen that, too.

To their credit, the team that took six months to evaluate the Gray Lady’s state of digitalness didn’t just find fault, they offered plenty of suggestions (I’ve added theagency interpretation) including:

Create greater synergy between editorial and the business side (UX and developers.)
Create greater synergy between creative and developers.
Collect much better data on how readers engage with Times’ digital content.
Collect better data on how customers engage with a brand’s digital content.
Develop a long-term newsroom strategy to better understand changing technology and reader behavior.
Develop a long-term creative department strategy to better understand changing technology and user behavior.
Think digital content first, print second.
Think digital experience first, tv and messages second.
Stop putting all the money into one-time projects like Snowfall and develop more formats and replicable templates.
Stop putting all the money into over produced tv projects and develop more ways to create fast and dirty content.
Hire a more collaborative mindset.
Hire a more collaborative mindset.
Experiment more.
Experiment more.

If you haven’t read the report yet, I suggest that you do. Unless, of course, you have a hard time looking in the mirror.