Internal innovation report says the New York Times needs to up its digital game or else

The New York Times is seen by many as the acme of traditional media success, which isn’t surprising — after all, it has hundreds of thousands of digital subscribers who are paying the paper $150 million or so a year, and it has launched some interesting new apps and services like The Upshot and NYT Premier. But to her credit, editor Jill Abramson is not satisfied, so she commissioned an “innovation report” led by Arthur Gregg Sulzberger, scion of the paper’s controlling shareholder, the Sulzberger family, to tell her what it needs to do differently.

As a piece in Capital New York describes it, the original ambit of the Sulzberger team, launched last July, was to be a kind of skunk-works that would come up with digital projects. But partway through the process, Sulzberger suggested the thesis needed to be broadened, and that it should look at what the paper as a whole needs to be doing strategically in order to succeed.

In a memo to staff, Abramson said that the paper has “always wanted the hallmark of our time to be leading our transition to a digital first newsroom. We are tantalizingly close, but as this report points out, there are urgent challenges still facing us.” The NYT editor noted in particular that simply creating great journalism isn’t enough any more — that the Times needs to do a better job of owning the conversation around that journalism as well:

“Publishing, in today’s crowded environment, includes taking responsibility for and assuming ownership of the impact of our quality journalism… that means training all of our journalists in how to use social media to report and amplify their stories. It means our most senior editors must plan and implement a rollout plan for our most important pieces. From the moment a story is published, we should host the conversation about it.”

The competitive threat is intensifying

And what sort of moves does the report recommend? Among other things, it suggests that the newspaper needs a senior executive team that focuses specifically on audience engagement and development, as well as one focused on analytics, pointing out that “generations of editors had to guess what readers wanted; this is the first one with the ability to know if their guesses are correct.” In some ways, it’s a little depressing that one of the most prominent media entities in the U.S. doesn’t already have these things, but at least it wants to rectify that.

New York Times building logo, photo by Rani Molla

New York Times building logo, photo by Rani Molla

The Abramson memo is blunt about the competitive threat that the paper’s inaction on these fronts has created: she says the Sulzberger report found that “our competitors are often taking our stories and advantaging themselves with our content on their platforms, even developing paid apps from stories that were ours originally” — something that is likely a reference to aggregation apps like Inside and Circa. She also said the newsroom needs to create “greater cooperation and harmonizing with our business side colleagues” around many of these challenges.

In the report, Sulzberger and his team note that the media sphere is becoming more and more competitive, especially on the digital side, with new ventures like Vox, as well as the expansion of platforms like Facebook and LinkedIn:

“Start-ups like Vox and First Look Media, backed by venture capital and personal fortunes, are creating newsrooms custom-built for the digital world. BuzzFeed, Facebook and LinkedIn are pushing deeper into the journalism business by hiring editors and unveiling new products aimed at newsreaders. Traditional competitors like The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, The Financial Times and The Guardian are moving aggressively to remake themselves as digital first.”

No one is guaranteed an audience any more

The Sulzberger report also points out a key fact of the digital-media world: namely, that you and your content are not guaranteed an audience, regardless of what your name is or who you work for. It quotes former Guardian US editor Janine Gibson: “For someone with a print background, you’re accustomed to the fact that if it makes the editor’s cut… you’re going to find an audience. It’s entirely the other way around as a digital journalist. The realization that you have to go find your audience — they’re not going to just come and read it — has been transformative.”

In the end, the major challenge facing the NYT is the same one that faces virtually every mainstream media entity: Can a traditional news outlet change not just the way it works but the actual newsroom and management culture that has persisted for decades, and focus enough energy on being digital first to make it work — while still being run by executives who rose to power within that traditional culture? Can the leopard change his or her spots?

Fans of disruption guru and author Clay Christensen argue that attempts to blend a traditional newsroom and print-based management with a digital-first culture are almost inevitably doomed to fail, because the print side of the organization is unlikely to engage in what amounts to its own disruption. That’s why companies like Digital First Media have been so adamant about putting non-print executives in charge (although that hasn’t always worked out so well).

It’s going to take a lot more than some re-shuffling of executive deck chairs, or the creation of “audience engagement teams” to make a real difference at the New York Times, or anywhere else for that matter. But at least it is a start.

Post and thumbnail images courtesy of Getty Images / Mario Tama and Rani Molla