Untangling the Web

Why The New York Times should embrace expert content curation

JP Gomes
JP Gomes
Jan 18, 2016 · 10 min read

The motto “All the news that’s fit to print”, etched at the top of The New York Times’ front page since 1896, embodies the tragedy of the world’s most respected newspaper as a fading beacon in the massively overcrowded and fast changing media landscape of the 21st century.

In the digital battle for the attention of those formerly known as “readers”, the quality reporting and editorial judgment of the New York Times are suddenly no longer sufficient to guide its audience through a world full of noise and information. The perceived value of its journalism as an instrument that can help media consumers make informed decisions about their lives has been diluted in a sea of ubiquitous online, mobile content — ranging from poorly written amateur blogs to highly specialized articles by top world experts on any imaginable topic, but which are also increasingly readable and, mostly, free.

Shifting reader habits and innovative competitors have prompted a slow awakening in traditional media companies (if that differentiation still makes sense). While trying to retrofit a print-centric organization for the digital era might be enough to extend its survival, it won’t provide the NYT with the ability for resilience or power of disruption that is demanded for successfully competing in the current and future incarnations of the global media industry.

To guarantee its future relevance and secure an important strategic advantage, The New York Times must rethink the value of newsgathering and distribution through the lens of the user, while making the effort to fully understand what is the job that needs to be done in order to provide the value that actually meets current and upcoming readers’ needs.

Speculating on social, economic and technological contexts; competition in the media industry; and emerging user needs and frustrations, this article suggests a reframing of the Times’ value proposition by reducing its focus on newsgathering and shifting to a model of expert, dynamic curation of content in the wider information production and distribution landscape.

In other words, there is an opportunity out of the mess: helping untangle the web by combining news and social content into a narrative that provides maximum meaning with reduced effort for the reader can represent a path forward in shaping the future role of media in our lives.

THE NETWORKED INFORMATION ECONOMY: DISRUPTING THE LOGIC OF MASS MEDIA

The dominant role of mass media over the global production and distribution of information began to erode in the late 1990s, as the penetration of the internet began to gain strength across the world. As described by Yochai Benkler in his Wealth of Networks, the “networked information economy” removed the need for the huge capital investments that afforded mass media organizations their power over the communication of news and knowledge.

In fact, the democratization in the access to personal computers and to internet connections not only enabled a rapid and unprecedented decentralization in the production and distribution of information, but provided them an emerging logic:

The networked public sphere, as it is currently developing, suggests that it will have no obvious points of control or exertion of influence — either by fiat or by purchase. It seems to invert the mass-media model in that it is driven heavily by what dense clusters of users find intensely interesting and engaging, rather than by what large swathes of them find mildly interesting on average. And it promises to offer a platform for engaged citizens to cooperate and provide observations and opinions, and to serve as a watchdog over society on a peer-production model
— Yochai Benkler, The
Wealth of Networks

The media landscape was suddenly flooded with a wealth of sources of news and information around these “clusters of interest”, from music blogs ran by teenagers, to highly specialized forums and to outlets such as BuzzFeed, Vice and The Huffington Post, which in their collectiveness have challenged the indispensability of newspapers, magazines and TV networks.

Traditional mass media organizations slowly reacted to the changes in technology in an attempt to recapture control over the environment, initially by trying to reproduce their offline practices in the digital world. But, most importantly, most of them have failed to pursue a deep understanding of the huge transformations in user needs in this emerging networked information economy.

The New York Times, like everyone else in the traditional media industry, took the hit. As a result of these changes, its revenue declined from US$3.5 billion in 2000 to US$1.6 billion in 2014, with profits plummeting from US$696 million to US$92 million during the same period.

But, over the past couple of years, the organization worked to catch up with the best practices in the world of digital journalism and managed to do a lot. After conducting a deep survey of innovation trends and opportunities (which, ironically, was leaked by BuzzFeed), the Times established a Newsroom Strategy team, an Audience Development desk to improve Search Engine Optimization and promotion of Times content on social media and deepened its use of data to analyze performance of their stories and understand user habits.

Watch Times’ journalist Adam Ellick talk about the impact of the internal Innovation Report.

The Times R&D Lab, a group of engineers who investigate how tech trends can impact the future of media, has also done impressive work. Recently, their efforts led to the deployment of Virtual Reality features and their engineers have started experimenting with a new form of reader experiences called “permeable publishing”, where the reader interacts with the reporter by asking contextual questions while content.

But to what extent has innovation really achieved a strategic role within the Times?

COMPETING WITHIN NEW BOUNDARIES

Despite its most recent efforts, an analysis of the media scenario shows that The New York Times, at its core, still operates in a model that was built to compete within the boundaries of the traditional, fiercely centralized landscape of mass media. The expanding limits of production and distribution of information enabled by the networked economy creates a hypercompetitive ecosystem that requires mass media organization to drastically reorganize their strategy and operations according to these new rules of engagement.

Taking into consideration new reader habits, cutting edge strategies by innovative media companies and the increasing role of technology, the competitive analysis suggests that The New York Times’ current model lacks the ability to create significant levels of user lock-in. The examination suggests that the organization should rethink its newsgathering operation in order to create the necessary value to the user that is needed in order to compete in an overcrowded and extremely specialized landscape where competitors do not play by the same rules (see below).

  • Power to the readers

Readers have a plethora of choices at their disposal, which are mostly freely available and often offer coverage that is either deeper or faster than what The New York Times provides, making switching costs very low. That is true of most of its desks, where its broad approach does not necessarily produce the differentiation that is required to entice reader lock-in.

  • Top digital talent may be harder to seduce

The New York Times is still regarded as one of the world’s most prestigious media outlets and continues to attract highly talented reporters, editors and photographers. But when it comes to social media, innovative storytelling and technology, the traditional aura of the Times does not have the same appeal and may have more difficulty in securing top talent in those areas.

  • Hyperconnectivity, Hypercompetition

The Times finds itself in a hypercompetitive scenario, where it faces threats not only from the established mass media organizations, but also from an expanded landscape of information producers and distributors, such as blogs, social media, forums, academic articles, among others. Heavily concentrated in the past, the information environment is now increasingly decentralized. Other media companies, including legacy organizations, have quickly adapted to the technological changes and have been more successful in reorganizing the newsroom with a focus on user engagement, such as The Guardian and Vice Media.

  • Unexpected kids on the block

As reading habits quickly shift alongside changing technology, other services emerge and provide more value to the user in its quest for information and news outside the traditional media landscape. Substitutes include most notably social media, forums, mobile communication platforms (WhatsApp, Telegram, etc), blogs, among others, which can deliver more personalized content.

  • Hold on to you reputation, but don’t let it hold you back

Very low infrastructure costs enable new entrants to easily establish themselves in niche markets, utilizing, for example, free user generated content, high quality expert reporting and other content from around the web that foster more user engagement than traditional media. Even so, brand recognition and reputation still play an important role and take years to build, posing as a barrier to new entrants in the dispute for the attention of readers and their trust.

INVESTIGATING UNMET NEEDS

Rethinking the production and distribution of news and information from a reader-centric perspective requires focus on the problems that customers are trying to solve, the needs they seek to satisfy and the obstacles, frustrations and challenges they face.

For this purpose, this article focuses on a customer segment that is wider than the typical newspaper audience in order to reflect an expanded media landscape where users seek for a wide range of types of trustworthy information, not merely journalistic pieces. This new media landscape expands the focus of reader attention from the factual “what happened?” to more contextual questions (why does this matter? — this is something that the NYT R&D Lab is currently trying to address).

As an exercise, the table below lays out the needs, obstacles and expected benefits arising out of a typical user journey in search for consistent, reliable news and information online:

CUSTOMER JOBS

  • Making informed decisions about their lives
  • Knowing more about the things they care about
  • Feel their lifestyles are represented
  • Exchanging information with like-minded people
  • Finding the information they need

CUSTOMER PAINS

  • Sea of noise, choices and information makes it hard to navigate
  • It’s not always clear which information they can trust
  • It’s difficult to tell which information is more important
  • Discerning what information is actually useful can be time consuming
  • Mapping out where is the information they need is frustrating
  • Translating information from different languages might be difficult
  • Finding experts on different topics is not obvious
  • Keeping up with social media can be annoying

CUSTOMER GAINS

  • Saving time while looking for information
  • Customizing the search for information according to their preferences
  • Receiving the right information, at the right time, at the right location
  • Being found by the information, rather than finding it

WHERE TO PLAY AND HOW TO WIN: EXPLORING STRATEGIC OPPORTUNITIES IN EXPERT CONTENT CURATION

Out of the patterns that have arisen from the analyses presented in this article, the themes of decentralization and the friction it causes in a wider and crowded information landscape hint at the strategic opportunities that have the power to reshape the role of The New York Times in this new, networked information economy.

While the increasing decentralization completely eliminates any possibility of control over the information production landscape, it also creates an opportunity for solving an unmet user need for a smoother, curated experience in this extended media domain. With this insight, The New York Times is faced with two important realizations:

a) Engaging and expertly produced content outside its walls often provides more value to the reader than the stories produced by its own journalists;

b) But navigating this extended media landscape may also pose a challenge in terms of clarity, hierarchy and trust that can be time consuming and frustrating for the users to solve.

From this standpoint, The New York Times should consider reducing the focus of its newsgathering operation and applying its unique editorial capability to the expert curation of wider sources of online information that go beyond traditional journalism. In other words, The New York Times has the opportunity to create a new market by offering access to a platform that blends human curation and data-driven machine learning to organize, connect and reduce the friction of navigating through the web’s most engaging content.

Utilizing breaking news and general reporting as its backbone, the platform would count on Times’ editors news judgment and make use of data analysis in association with machine learning to determine related content from around the web based on the potential for user engagement.

With engagement levels as an initial criteria, editors would also evaluate the content’s pertinence and level of expertise offered to curate a digital report that delivers more value to the user. The content would also be filtered according to some level of reader personalization according to their interests (see figure below).

BUILDING A CURATED NARRATIVE

The choice of “engagement level” as a metric for determining the potential of third-party content lies on the notion that it is precisely what identifies the interests of the “dense clusters of users” described by Benkler. Also, according to the Times’ own data scientists, time spent and frequency (number of returns in a month) are important predictors of subscriptions and retention.

Breaking news would be mostly outsourced to newswires, Times journalists would refocus from factual reporting to pieces offering more context and analysis, which would also improve strategic differentiation of the service the organization provides. The mix of editorial judgment, engagement-based ranking and reframed reporting would constitute the Times’ “unfair advantadge”.

The platform should be especially focused on a mobile application, as readers shift from desktops to smartphones and tablets for their primary reading platforms. Also, it would help improve engagement among the Times’ younger audiences — although 40 percent of their mobile audience is under 35, they’re behind other age groups in terms of engagement.

TESTING THE CONCEPT

But the truth is we don’t actually know if these hypotheses hold any water. Building a newsletter as a minimum viable product that embodies the core assumptions of this “curated content platform” would be a simple and cost effective method to gain insight on user interactions and receive valuable feedback to fuel future iterations of the product.

For this purpose, the Times could concentrate on a specific subject or desk to develop a weekly newsletter that would include its own most recent reports on the topic, associated, for example, with related Quora threads, most favorited or retweeted links around the web and Medium articles with highest engagement levels.

After rolling out the experimental newsletter and extracting implicit data from user interactions with the product, a survey could be used to collect explicit data to determine to which extent the product is meeting user needs and what could be improved.


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Thoughts on Media

Hand-picked articles about journalism, media, and writing. Curated by @awwstn

JP Gomes

Written by

JP Gomes

Strategist//Journalist//Guitarist at @SexyFiMusic//Strategic Design grad student at @SDSParsons//Habitual Line Stepper//Brooklyn, NY.

Thoughts on Media

Hand-picked articles about journalism, media, and writing. Curated by @awwstn

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