Is the future of the ‘New York Times’ built of Lego?

A leaked report reveals internal fears about its digital record, but there is much for other newspapers to envy

Dean Baquet, who has replaced Jill Abramson as executive editor of the New York Times, outside the company’s headquarters in New York. Photograph: Todd Heisler/New York Times service

Dean Baquet, who has replaced Jill Abramson as executive editor of the New York Times, outside the company’s headquarters in New York. Photograph: Todd Heisler/New York Times service

 

The New York Times, which employs 445 people in its technology department, thinks it might be too “print-centric”.

The New York Times, which last year collected $150 million (€110 million) in digital subscriptions (18 per cent of total circulation revenue) and $170 million in digital advertising revenue (a quarter of total ad sales), has been beating itself up for not being digital enough.

The New York Times, which employs an R&D team to develop “drones to shoot video” and platforms that will deliver morning headlines “on a bathroom mirror”, would quite like to get its act together on innovation.

The New York Times . . . I could go on, but a team of 10 “Grey Lady” staffers has already done so, for 96 pages, in an internal report that was leaked to BuzzFeed last week and should be in the PDF libraries of anyone who cares about the future of news media. In the Venn diagram of people who care about the future of news media and people who are employed by news media, the overlapping area is understandably large, which is why “have you read the New York Times thing?” is the question I have most often been asked in recent days.

I have read it, and my favourite bit comes in a section where the authors grudgingly concede that the company does employ some “digital stars”. One interactive news developer, they note, is “almost certainly the only Times employee who has built a nuclear fusion reactor with about $35,000 in spare parts”. As hobbies go, this ranks as impressive, especially as the sentence is enigmatically followed by “he also built Gucci’s website”. It’s enough to make journalists long for the good old days when sending a tweet with the word “BREAKING” in it was regarded, internally, as the height of digital sophistication.

The tone of the report is more battery-half-empty than battery-half-full, in ways that will trigger wry amusement among journalists who would love to have the NYT’s troubles. The authors, while stressing that the NYT is “winning at journalism”, document a litany of digital failures, most of which revolve around unwieldy distribution techniques, lacklustre promotion methods and a crushing sense that risk-aversion is the enemy within.

“When it takes 20 months to build one thing, your skillset becomes less about innovation and more about navigating bureaucracy,” one digital-focused former employee told the report team.

When there are senior executives predicting that print revenue will “fall off a cliff” rather than continue a steady decline, time is not on your side. It certainly wasn’t for Jill Abramson, unceremoniously ousted as executive editor last week.

If there is a sense that time is running out on the “business side”, then the NYT’s newsroom staff should be able to empathise. Time is never on journalists’ side. But one of the strengths of the report, hailed by Harvard’s Nieman Journalism Lab as “one of the key documents of this media age”, is that it pays almost as much attention to what the NYT should stop doing as it does to what it should.

Rather than simply ramming home the point that reporters and columnists should spend more time engaging with readers, it acknowledges that there is a trade-off between doing this and using the available hours to create more content. As greater priority is given to digital experimentation, there should be a withdrawal from print traditions. “Shift the newsroom’s centre of gravity away from Page One,” the authors bluntly recommend.

Above all, when the company has good ideas, they should be treated “with the urgency of a news scoop”, while mediocre efforts should be killed off to free up resources. The NYT faces a drop-off in digital traffic as a result of both the aggression of its competition and its own shortcomings. There is, as its report notes, no shortage of “aspirations”. But there is also a Google-esque sense that ideas will only get you so far – it’s doing, not thinking, that counts.

That’s why, when you get to the end of the leaked report, it seems like a bit of a cop-out when its recommendations include the creation of a “newsroom strategy team” and when it warns that there can’t be any definitive solutions in such a fast-evolving media market.

“The right structure for today won’t be the right structure for tomorrow,” the authors conclude, advising the New York Times Company to build its newsroom of the future not out of permanently fixed bricks, but out of Lego. They should probably ask the guy who made the nuclear fusion reactor to lend a hand.

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