Scott Monty

 

The New York Times is a-chagning

This week, an internal report on the digital health of the New York Times was leaked. While many may write this off as an analysis of modern journalism or media companies, there are themes that may be more broadly applicable than scanning the headlines might make you believe.

Put another way, how much of the New York Times internal digital report could apply to communications and marketing professionals within companies?

Joshua Benton, editor of the Nieman Journalism Lab at Harvard, called it "one of the most remarkable documents I’ve seen" in his years running the Lab.

The deep problems are cultural, according to a Buzzfeed exclusive (quotes below in red), as the digital team is slowed by "a cadre of editors who remain unfamiliar with the web." Indeed, according to some staffers interviewed by Benton, the report "surfaced so many issues about Times culture that digital types have been struggling to overcome for years."

It's not our intention to completely dissect the report; if you'd like to read it when you have time (highly recommended for any digital professional), please do so. But we hope to pull out the salient points that can apply more broadly to the companies you may be working for today.




Taken directly from the document above, the company's goals are stated in such a way that they might apply to a number of businesses or industries: Strategy for Growth, Speed and Agility, Unlocking the Power of Data, and One NYT.

Clearly, these are four major challenges and opportunities that are common to most businesses today. Let's take a closer look at some of the challenges as identified by the team in their document. For our purposes, we'll be drawing parallels between the newsroom and communications staff, and the business side and marketing staff.

The report is divided into two sections: Audience Development and Strengthening Our Newsroom. The first is a core part of the newsroom team (journalists), while the other is a more broad effort that includes imperatives for business units and the newsroom alike.

Audience Development

This section starts out with a recounting of the Times' original distribution process: from printers to trucks to kids on bicycles and news racks, it's the story of "the most sophisticated consumer-outreach operations in history." But it's not enough to rest on that history, as the Internet is getting more crowded, content is difficult to find, and mobile is becoming increasingly important.

The report defines audience development as "the work of expanding our loyal and engaged audience," and breaks it into discovery, promotion and connection. While this is a central role for the newsroom, audience development is the responsibility of every individual.

In helping to define the changes afoot in the industry - particularly that there is no central, all-encompassing destination any longer, the report includes a quote from Janine Gibson, editor-in-chief of The Guardian's website:
The hardest part for me has been the realization that you don't automatically get an audience...that you have to go find your audience - they're not going to just come and read it - has been transformative."
Social networks like Twitter and Facebook are becoming more of the norm for story discovery. Even text, email and phone alerts have been worked into various news organizations. It's just as important to pay attention to each of these as it is to focus on Page One or a homepage online.

Discovery

It is not enough to assume that people will find your content. Whether you're the New York Times, Coca-Cola, an insurance company or a small business owner. If they do happen to make their way to your page, it's equally as important to think of their ability to navigate and find what they need with the least hassle. Design for the web, not for print.

With more then 300 URLs produced every single day and over 14 million articles that date back to 1851, the Times is a goldmine of content. But can you find what you're looking for? The Times thinks it can help by surfacing evergreen content on a regular basis. As Henry Blodget, founder and CEO of Business Insider said to the Times,
You have a huge advantage. You have a tremendous amount of high quality content that you have a perpetual license to."
While the focus of the newsroom may be on current events and stories, sometimes it's important to provide context to what's happening. And evergreen content can help do just that.

Flipboard and Pinterest have been helpful in the Times' assessment of another important concept of discovery: packaging. By bundling stories together in magazines or boards, we're able to curate content into collections for readers and consumers. If you package stories for readers or customers, you provide value by making the process of discovery that much easier for them.

Personalization is an opportunity to put content out in new and smarter ways. Whether it's how the stories are delivered to them, showing them a suggested article based on what they just read, localized stories or offers based on their IP address, etc. And by giving consumers/readers a chance to follow the stories, authors or feeds of the content they care about, you give them the chance to personalize their experience themselves.

Finally, the staff realized that they need to invest more in some of the guts of the operations: the tagging and structuring of data, so search results are more robust and that adhere not to the Times Index, but to Google's and others'.

For anyone involved in content creation and management, these tenets should be universal. Whether you're in the news business, the entertainment industry or selling shoes, the principles remain the same.

Promotion

This should be a wake-up call for anyone managing content:
At the Times, we generally like to let our work speak for itself. We're not ones to brag. Our competitors are doing a better job of getting their journalism in front of new readers through aggressive story promotion. They regard this as a core function of reporters and editors, and they react with amazement that the same is not true here."
I've often heard the argument that the story should stand on its own or the brand should be the star, but as you'll see in the next section ("Connection"), people want a two-way relationship, and there's no way to do that without interacting with a human being.

The competition has teams dedicated to promotion inside their newsrooms, expect their teams to be fluent in social media and expect them to promote their own work and mine traffic numbers to look for best practices. And much of this happens in real-time: it's not about throwing out a link and walking away. The best teams help "desks take steps to draw more traffic and to keep visitors on the site longer."

The Times is taking a dual approach: institutional promotion, in which the official accounts on Twitter and Facebook are responsible for promoting content, and front-line promotion, whereby editors and reporters take initiative for advancing their work publicly.

Connection

The Times has identified its single most underutilized resource: its audience. This could likely be said of many brands as well.

Nor is it an easy task:
Of all of the tasks we discuss in this report, the challenge of connecting with and engaging readers - which extends from online comments to conferences - has been the most difficult."
As the Times struggles to grapple with this, they've come to realize that transparency may play a role in making a deeper connection with their audience: "pulling back the curtain and providing readers a bit more insight into how we do our work."

Evidently, their reporters and columnists are happy to connect with readers, but are doing so on other sites or platforms to talk about the behind-the-scenes approach, rather than on Times properties. This leads to a fracturing of attention and platforms.

Additional opportunities under this section include user-generated content and events, where the voices of readers can be more clearly heard and where the Times team can have better interactions with them.

Strengthening Our Newsroom

Another quick history lesson from the Times: the print and digital teams were housed in separate buildings until just seven years ago. And while the institution has been known for quality of its journalism and the support system in place for journalists, the digital side has not kept pace.

In this bastion of venerable tradition, it is refreshing and eye-opening to see the Times acknowledge:
To become more of a digital-first newsroom, we have to look hard at our traditions and push ourselves in ways that make us uncomfortable."
This is exactly what brands need to do if they espouse a newsroom mentality. The traditional roles of communicators and marketers may not fit with the way the world is changing. And making tweaks here and there is not going to suffice. Wholesale change is needed.

The Times proposes: better collaboration between newsroom and business sides, the creation of a newsroom strategy team, and mapping a strategy for digital-first.

Collaborate with Business Side

This is probably the most controversial of the sections, as traditionalists will gasp at the thought of journalism mixing with advertising. But it's been happening for years, albeit under different names or executions, and for purposes related to reader benefit, not one influencing the other. The NYT admits in the report:
The wall dividing the newsroom and business side has served The Times well for decades, allowing one side to focus on readers and the other to focus on advertisers."

Now, the newsroom and business side are both focused on readers and any deviation from that strategy will not fit with the view of the Times. In fact, one of the elements that led to the firing of executive editor Jill Abramson was that she opposed native advertising.

Not that there's any danger of advertising influencing journalism; the report indicates that no one interviewed "ever suggested tinkering with the journalistic values and integrity that make the Times the greatest journalistic institution in the world," and that the advertising arm "should remain walled off."

Here's the thing that many of us miss when thinking of "The Wall," "Church and State," or "Communications and Marketing" - readers/customer don't care. They don't discern a difference between which department is surfacing and sharing content or ideas. To them, it's one entity. So enough of the squabbling over who "owns" what. The "One NYT" vision (or similar ones at any number of other companies)  should make that clear.

The Buzzfeed piece noted:
The paper’s Twitter account is run by the newsroom. Its Facebook account is run by the paper’s business side.
More broadly, the newsroom has "abdicated completely the role of strategy," a masthead editor is quoted, speaking of their digital strategy.
Here's where better collaboration and shared goals would come into play. More often than not, I hear from colleagues who say that their communications teams have given up on digital/social strategy because of the budgets that marketing departments wield. Done well, it shouldn't be an either/or position, but a collaboration.

In addition, the report noted that developers, designers and product managers are on the business side at the Times (sidebar from the report: "the perception that their roles were 'on a different side' was a source of confusion"), while at competitors, they are part of the newsroom or report to both teams.
These colleagues have specialized skills that most editors simply do not possess and they are trained in the processes of turning ideas into successes."

Designers seem particularly ostracized and in need of connection to the newsroom:
...newsroom editors needed to be more engaged when designers are wrestling with major questions about our digital future, like experimenting with personalization, rethinking how we organize our content, and even changing the architecture of stories to meet new needs."
 The recommendations that are guiding the way at the Times should serve as a recipe for any brand trying to tackle a newsroom/content culture:

  1. Clarify which reader experience units should be interacting with the newsroom.
  2. Ensure the newsroom is working collaboratively with reader experience.
  3. Hire collaboratively and encourage employees to move freely between the newsroom and reader experience.
  4. Communicate the new message for collaboration broadly.


Strategy team

The NYT recognizes that most of the newsroom leaders are too focused on delivering content, so there's little focus on the overall strategy.
"...strategy is becoming such a pressing need at this juncture that it should become a permanent newsroom function, with dedicated staff."
By creating a small advisory team to watch the competition and give feedback on readers' habits, the newsroom team could be kept informed of developments outside of their purview and the approach could be kept fresh. Interestingly, the backgrounds of those selected is to include journalism, technology, user experience, product and analytics.

The strategy group will have a leader who will report to a single person in the newsroom who is senior enough to implement the recommendations from the team. Ideally, the team will serve as a grooming ground for future leaders and will foster the culture of collaboration that is so urgently needed.

When you think of those who are responsible for content in your organization, how much of your communications or marketing team is focused on the creation and delivery of content versus the strategic, experimental and analytical work to help drive the strategy? Are you a slave to your content demands and constantly trying to meet your metrics? It may be time to step back and look at the bigger picture.

Old-school goals and metrics have driven the focus at the Times:
including a sense that the Times will simply serve as a destination — leading to a neglect of social promotion. One factor is an obsessive focus on the front page of the print paper, with reporters evaluated in their annual reviews on how many times they’ve made A1."
How many of you are judged on traffic to your company's home page / shopping site or by how many top stories you've generated via pitches to major reporters? Or that you have colleagues that seem to be blissfully ignorant of how the digital space is evolving?

Summarized, the responsibilities of the strategy team are:

  1. Build a strong team
  2. Tracking the media landscape
  3. Assessing needs and setting priorities
  4. Running experiments and sharing results


Digital First

While it can be argued that the digital progress at the Times has been extraordinary, it's incredibly informative to know that they're still being held back by their traditional processes and thinking: filing stories by print schedules, organizing apps according to print sections, traditional skills being prioritized in hiring.

They admit:
The continued profitability of this newspaper has bought us time. But that head start is eroding. Several billionaires have pledged parts of their fortunes to creating digital newsrooms. Start-ups, backed by venture capital, are redefining digital media. And traditional competitors, have moved aggressively to remake themselves as "digital first."
In defining what digital first means, they note that it's more than simply publishing to the Web before print; it's an all-encompassing strategy. And the transition "requires rethinking staffing, structure and work processes from top to bottom."

To date, changes have been incremental and there has been a great deal of frustration internally. While having an "integrated" newsroom was a step, some argued that it isn't enough: "We need to become a digital newsroom, a small subset of which produces a print product."

Think of that with respect to your own teams and the priorities placed on traditional placements or advertising. We'll wager you could replace "Snowfall" below with any successful initiative or campaign:
While we receive accolades for our digital efforts like Snowfall, we nevertheless are at risk of becoming known as a place that does not fully understand, reward, and celebrate digital skills.”

The challenge presently is that the leadership lacks the ability to effectively evaluate talent: journalistic skills are overvalued for digital hires and digital skills are undervalued for journalistic hires. And the complaints of the digital employees are well known:
...their expertise isn't put to good use, [they] have few growth opportunities and believe their bosses do not understand their skills."
Those who recently left the Times did not see opportunities for growth, as newly open positions were more frequently given to traditional journalists; there seemed to be no career path for digital types. Without more digitally savvy members of the senior leadership team, there is trouble understanding the potential or new career paths for digital team members, and the digital staffers are forced to accept a more traditional role or path.

There is a danger, according to the report, of continuing the time-honored succession process of leaders. They admit struggling "to groom our digital journalists for leadership, in part because we don't know how to use their skills," and they move traditional journalists into leadership roles - including digital leadership roles. There simply doesn't seem to be any room for helping their digital talent succeed.
This pattern of promotion risks, among other things, sending the message that the only way to move up in the company is through traditional journalism, even on digital career paths."

Putting in place leadership that understands digital, its role and its future, will ensure that the fossilized hiring patterns are kept more fluid.

Beyond cultural and leadership change, it is likely that the very structure of the organization will need to change. An editor of a competing publication said,
You can't take new talent and put them in old structures where they are second-class citizens. That' is not real change. You must change the structure of power."
But anything that's built will likely be built for a snapshot in time, rather than built for the ages. Strategy, products, platforms, audience development an analytics are key elements to any newsroom.

Wanted: Makers, Entrepreneurs, Reader Advocates and Zeitgeist Watchers

The company also acknowledged the need to win at talent wars with a tally of skillsets that any business would be fortunate to have in its communications and marketing team members:
The only way to ensure that [we keep] pace is to build a newsroom with a deeper and broader mix of digital talents: technologists, user experience designers, product managers, data analysts and, most of all, digitally inclined reporters and editors."
...we want makers, who build tools to streamline our newsgathering; entrepreneurs, who know what it takes to launch new digital efforts; reader advocates, who ensure that we are designing useful products that meet our subscribers' changing needs; and zeitgeist watchers, who have a sixth sense for the shifting technology and behavior. Most of all, we need those rare - and sought after - talents who can check off many of those boxes."

How the Times plans to focus on its digital first imperative:

  • De-emphasize print
    • Shift away from Page One, creating additional measures of success
    • Ask editors to read more like readers
    • Rethink the competition
    • Make digital a key part of evaluations
  • Assess digital needs
    • Assess capabilities of each group
    • Make the newsroom flexible and responsive to the developing industry
    • Add digital specialists to staffing committee
    • Maintain a list of the best digital talent and court them
    • Acknowledge that digital talent is in high demand and be prepared to accommodate that with more money, persuasion and freedom
    • Find ways to empower current digital staff
    • Let employees transfer between newsroom and operational units
    • Identify rising stars, show them they're appreciated, help develop their careers
    • Make a star hire
  • Explore more serious steps
    • Task force on digital-first excellence
    • Digital fellowship program to attract new talent

Conclusion

On the one hand, it may seem jarring that so venerable an institution as the Grey Lady is undergoing such self-scrutiny. However, the fact that they're taking the time to assess and address the issues themselves - and quite deeply, we might add - is encouraging.

While the Times may not have all of the answers, we think that they raise the appropriate questions and chart a course that is bold and different, rather than the tweaks here and there. Will it be successful? On behalf of journalism and brand newsrooms, we certainly hope so. The Times is a leader and will be viewed as such for a long time.

Brands should pay close attention and give the report a full read. While we live in the era of tl;dr, it's essential reading for anyone who thinks of himself or herself as a digital leader.


Image credit: Alex Perkins (Flickr)
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