A little over a year ago, The New York Times’ internal Innovation Report was leaked, offering a candid and troubling look at how one of the world’s greatest journalism brands is lagging digitally. The report highlighted the paper’s shortcomings in everything digital, from culture to talent and workflow. It recommended the creation of audience development, analytics and strategy teams, more collaboration with reader-focused departments on the business side, and digital hiring. Here are five areas where the paper has made progress — and still has work to do.
In probably the best single indicator of progress, the Times’ multiplatform digital (Web plus app) traffic grew 28 percent to 59 million uniques in April versus a year ago, according to comScore — not bad for a mature publication. Most of the increase came from people coming to the Times on mobile devices. While desktop traffic was essentially flat, mobile grew 52 percent to 35.8 million uniques. But turning that growth into paid subscriber revenue is harder. The Times is nearing its goal of 1 million digital subscribers, but subscription growth is flattening out, and other paid digital products (Opinion and NYTimes Now apps) haven’t caught on.
It’s not bad work for a year, said Ken Doctor, a media analyst and close Times watcher. “[They’ve had] significant increase in traffic. The monetization isn’t there yet. But you need the audience before you can get to monetization.”
The Times needs more digital talent and to rethink the hard church-state stance that has impeded cross-departmental collaboration. Here, it has moved fast to make good on those recommendations. Last summer, it put Arthur Gregg Sulzberger, a Times staffer (and son of Times publisher and chairman Arthur Sulzberger Jr.) who led the Innovation Report, in charge of strategy and Alexandra MacCallum in charge of audience development, which includes analytics. The paper also named former NPR digital exec Kinsey Wilson to head digital product and technology, reporting to the news and business sides. The Times also promoted Meredith Levien, its top ad salesperson and a friend to the editorial side, to chief revenue officer, with responsibility for consumer revenue.
The Innovation Report bemoaned the fact that only a third of the Times’ readers ever visit the homepage, and those that do are spending less time with it. The importance of the homepage goes back to the Times’ subscription-heavy business model: Homepage visitors are more likely to be turned into subscribers, if they’re not already. Here, there’s been some success: Even as mobile growth (usually associated with social traffic) has soared, MacCallum said the Times has stabilized the decline.
That homepage principle applies to social distribution. Central to MacCallum’s strategy is targeting people not just by age group, such as millennials, but interests, like arts and culture. To that end, the Times has also begun interest-targeting through Facebook, presenting stories on niche subjects to users who have indicated an interest in the given topic. The Times is also taking more advantage of outlets including Facebook’s Instant Articles, the Apple News app, Pinterest and Instagram to grow awareness. The Times is just getting going on some of these efforts (it has targeting tools that are set to come out this month), but it has shown some success: The paper had 16.3 million Facebook engagements (total likes, shares and comments) in May, more than double the year-ago level, according to social analytics firm Newswhip.
Hiring is one thing, but changing longstanding work processes at an institution hidebound by print traditions like the Times is perhaps the hardest to do. That has started to change. Growth editors have been embedded with newsroom desks. The Page One pitch meeting has become less print- and more digital-centric, and the Times will start giving its journalists access to their traffic stats.
MacCallum said her goal was once to have her team be obsolete in a year. But she said that may not be realistic in a newsroom of 1,300, where there’s still much to do to make social media processes part of the newsroom workflow. “It’s not a smooth-running part of every desk as I’d want it to be,” she said. “People are being asked to do more with fewer resources. Trying to make it as easy as possible is something our team needs to help with.”
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