A 96-page internal New York Times report, first obtained by BuzzFeed, gives a blistering critique of the newsroom’s struggles to adapt to the digital age and sets forth recommendations for going forward.
The paper’s innovation report comes to light the day after the Times ousted top editor Jill Abramson, replacing her with lieutenant Dean Baquet. Top brass said she was replaced because of newsroom management issues and not because of the report’s findings. Nonetheless, the internal document speaks to longstanding cultural and organizational shortcomings in the newsroom, especially on the digital front — all of which continued under Abramson’s tenure.
We speed-read the report so you don’t have to.
Quote: “We have always cared about the reach and impact of our work, but we haven’t done enough to crack that code in the digital era.”
Translation: Competitors from The Washington Post to First Look and Vox Media are thinking digital-first and adopting best practices to grow readership. The Times’ audience, meanwhile, is shrinking, not only on the Web but on smartphone its apps, a platform that seems to be growing for everyone else.
Meta moment: Special emphasis is placed on new, digital competitors; first on a “competitor cheat sheet” is BuzzFeed, the outlet that first obtained the document.
Quote: “I don’t yet know, if I had an idea, who I would go to in the newsroom with it.”
Translation: This comment from a staffer at the Times indicated how the paper’s defense of its editorial independence has come at the expense of growth and innovation.
Quote: “Collaborate with business-side units focused on reader experience.”
Translation: The report said while it’s not proposing a “wholesale reorganization,” it called for a new policy for the business side to help the newsroom excel digitally. The newsroom should, in effect, abandon the “church-state” metaphors referring to editorial independence, “which project an enduring need for division.” Another key recommendation was the creation of a newsroom strategy team that would advise the masthead on things like what competitors are up to and changing technology and reader behavior.
Quote: “We have watched the massive migration to social media even as we were redesigning our home page…it is essential to begin the work of questioning our print-centric traditions.”
Translation: There’s an unhealthy obsession with the front page and an adherence to old print habits at a time when readers are coming to the news through many side doors.
Revealing stat: The Times itself acknowledged that only one third of visitors to the site ever visit its home page.
Quote: “Our current approach overvalues journalistic skills for digital hires and undervalues digital skills for journalism hires.”
Translation: The Times admits it has had trouble keeping and attracting digital talent. It tried to recruit Michael Wertheim, the former head of promotion for Upworthy, for the chief audience development job, for example. But Wertheim turned it down, saying that for him to succeed, the newsroom would have to be fully committed.
You won’t believe what happened next: Recommendations also included making star hires and actually showing appreciation for digital stars in the newsroom.
Quote: “We are missing an opportunity to serve up content that’s relevant to their locations because we are not tagging stories with geographic coordinates.”
Translation: The Times admitted it’s lagged with many technology basics, which hampers stories’ discovery by readers — putting it well behind smaller outlets like the Boston Globe, The Washington Post and Circa.
Quote: “On Oscar night, The Times tweeted a 161-year-old story about Solomon Northrup, whose memoir was the basis for “12 Years a Slave.” After it started going viral on social media, Gawker pounced, and quickly fashioned a story based on excerpts from our piece. It ended up being one of their best-read items of the year. But little of that traffic came to us.”
Translation: The report contained blunt conversations with competitors from the Huffington Post to Gawker — and acknowledgements that the Times is often getting beaten by them — even, as in this case, on their own stories. The Times admitted that it falls short in promoting its most important work, like its signature “Invisible Child” series, and that others are far ahead in using search to optimize traffic.
Quote: “Evergreen content is appealing to readers if resurfaced in a way that is smart.”
Translation: The Times needs to wring more value out of its expensive editorial operation. One experiment found that collecting and presenting archived videos about love was a huge hit on Valentine’s Day. There were specific suggestions for ways to repurpose content that’s already run, like art and culture guides.
Quote: “The Times made a smart decision when it decided not to establish rules for using social media…”
Translation: A handful of journalists like Nick Kristoff and David Carr are good at social, but they’re the exception. The Times mentioned having Ashton Kutcher tweet its content as a big success, and recommended enlisting outsider influencers like Ashley Judd and Change.org to promote its content.
Really? Ashton Kutcher? There’s been no real guidance, either. The result has been a scattershot approach to promoting stories on social.
Quote: “Our events operation is improving but still has a long way to go to meet the standards of The New York Times.”
Translation: The Times has watched with envy as others like The Atlantic and The New Yorker have minted money from their events. The Times called for more events that involve its own journalists. The issue has become a matter of urgency as news organizations lean more and more on consumer revenue.