The New York Times has produced an internal piece of research aimed at better understanding how to transition its business to a digital world.
I think it’s a fascinating insight into the disruption caused by the internet on the news industry and it highlights how the legacy of one the most successful newspapers in the world can be a double-edged sword.
I want to clarify that I am not a journalist and never will be.
I am simply very interested in the newspaper industry having grown up reading news on paper and seeing how the world has changed in the intervening thirty years.
Here’s the leaked report.
1. Popularity matters
One of the primary factors driving the genesis of this project was the declining traffic that the homepage (and the site in general) of the New York Times was getting.
It wasn’t a problem with the quality of the journalism. It was a problem with declining revenues as fewer people were choosing to read news produced by the New York Times (in print or in digital form).
The main competitors that the investigation looked at were not traditional competitors. Some did not exist 5 years ago. Yet they are very popular in capturing people’s attention and seen as examples to learn from.
A 163 years old learning from a 2 years old!!!
2. Editorial decisions are increasingly driven by business objectives
In the ‘old’ days the editors decided what got published using their judgment and experience. Relatively little feedback was available on readers’ appreciation or otherwise of the content printed on paper.
In this brave new world we know exactly how many people ‘liked’ or ‘shared’ a specific piece of content. We are able to see how many times it has been viewed and what advertising revenue it has generated.
The editor now has to decide whether to keep publishing stories about a subject which clearly does not arouse readers and a ‘trivial’ (by traditional journalism standard) list article about cats that generates X-times the readership and advertising revenue.
Interesting times to be a New York Times editor….
3. Legacy is an advantage
The New York Times possesses an unparalleled library of content that should be much better used.
Interviews with its competitors revealed that many upstarts deeply envy the quantity of content available to the New York Times.
Evergreen content can be re-packaged in new formats in order to create extra traffic. Upstarts will have to produce new content every day for a long time before they are in the same position as the New York Times.
4. Legacy is a disadvantage
Like many other companies in industries that face rapid change, the New York Times finds that old habits and traditions are difficult to shed.
“It’s always been like this” is a very unhelpful mantra when your industry has change in the last 5 years more than it did in the last 150.
5. A newspaper is as much a tech company as it is a publishing one
A significant portion of innovation within the industry relates to the use of technology. This is not limited to social media and it encompasses aspects like newsgathering, content production and management.
The important aspect about the technology in this context is its ability to speed up the whole newswriting process.
Gone are the days when the deadline was dependent on the printing presses. The news cycle has accelerated and within hours news companies can publish several items related to one story.
6. Iteration is key
A lot of the success of the younger companies is related to their ability (and willingness) to fail fast and learn from failure.
Try something. Does it work?
Yes, do more of it.
No, stop doing it.
This is the same approach used in Silicon Valley and used by the “lean” movement.
The New York Times and its decades of “content has to be perfect and correct before it is published” are at a distinct disadvantage when trying to adapt to a new way of creating nd publishing content and assessing the success of initiatives.
7. Journalists need to be marketers
The skill set that made a journalist great in pre-internet era is no longer adequate.
Now a journalist needs to be able to write engaging content AND actively look after its marketing on social media.
Gone are the days when the appearance of an article on a newspaper was enough to guarantee (more or less) its visibility.
Even on major newspapers website, an article can sink without a trace if no marketing is applied to it, before and after publication.
The new media companies like Gawker actively incentive writers to publish content that gets shared, liked and read. It might be an article worth of a Pulitzer prize but if no one reads it….
8. The article is more important than the newspaper
Readership is becoming so atomized that the ‘newspaper’ and its website as a whole are losing meaning.
Increasingly readers are reaching a piece of content through social media, more often than not on mobiles.
In this context we share articles rather than say to our friends “go and read the New York Times from cover to cover” (like some of us used to).
It feels like it’s both an exciting and a scary time to be a journalist at The New York Times or at any traditional publisher.
In summary, I think the lessons from the New York Time report can be applied to any business that publishes content on the web because….
YOU are a media company!