The New York Times today released a 35-page internal report, “Journalism that stands apart,” as a follow up to its widely read 2014 Innovation Report. The Innovation Report was a blistering take on the Times’ digital shortcomings. The new report is the result of a year-long project by seven journalists led by David Leonhardt called the 2020 Group, which grew out of the Times’ stated goal of doubling digital revenue by 2020. The overarching take: Progress has been made, but much more has to be done.
Whereas the 2014 Innovation Report was concerned with using social media to spread stories and getting the editorial and business sides to acknowledge each other, the 2017 report largely focuses on ways to improve the daily Times journalism and drive subscription growth. “The way we work must change,” it reads.
Another key difference: the Innovation Report was leaked, whereas this one was made for public consumption. Its release was coordinated with a memo from top editorial leaders Dean Baquet and Joe Kahn, that addressed many of the elements in the report, including spending $5 million to cover Trump; changes (including cuts) to editing jobs; the addition of more visual journalism and launch of an innovation team. Here’s our take on what the report said and what it means:
The Times is still too stodgy
What they said: The Times produces 200 pieces of journalism a day, including “some of the best work published anywhere.” But too many of the stories “lack significant impact or audience,” are too similar to what’s already out there, have “little urgency” or feel “alien to younger readers.” As one staffer said in a newsroom survey, “I’m a reporter and I have almost never spoken to a video person.” The report called for stories to be more visual and use more journalistic forms such as its digital daily briefings.
Translation: The Times has long identified itself as the paper of record, but it needs to do a better job reaching the young readers that it depends on for subscription growth and who are highly sought after by advertisers. Bottom line: the Times is acknowledging that readers are in control and that it must adapt.
The Times needs more subscription revenue
What they said: The Times underscored that its subscription business sets it apart from other media organizations, pointing out that it brought in $500 million from readers in digital revenue last year but also needs to grow substantially beyond that to continue succeeding.
Translation: The Times increasingly sees its competition as not just other stalwarts like The Washington Post and Guardian, but BuzzFeed, which also appeared prominently in the 2014 report.
Expect more service journalism
What they said: The Times has taken a few steps in the direction of doing more service journalism, including recently buying product-recommendation site The Wirecutter, but is “far from reaching its potential here.”
Translation: The Times may see itself as one of the world’s premier news organizations, but like all publishers, it needs to get more value out of its expensive newsroom, with initiatives like Smarter Living, a homepage section that resurfaces articles from the Times’ archives.
What they said: The report said the staff has benefited from training, but still needs more digital chops as well as diversity in top positions. “We do not now have the right mix of skills in the newsroom to carry out the ambitious plan for change.” The editors’ memo said a senior editor would be appointed to lead recruitment.
Translation: Haven’t we heard this before? This sounds a lot like the Times’ admission two years ago that it lags in digital talent, an admission that the Times isn’t always the destination that it once was for journalistic stars.
New metrics are needed
What they said: The Times is on the path to creating an alternative to pageviews that measures an article’s value to attracting readers. But, the report said, “The newsroom needs a clearer understanding that pageviews, while a meaningful yardstick, do not equal success.”
Translation: The Times, like many other news outlets, is increasingly aware that the scale-based model of online news can lead to pageviews but not necessarily value, but a new standard for measuring and buying media hasn’t emerged.
Separation of print, digital
What they said: Last year, the Times created a print hub to consolidate functions of the daily print production process. But the way the newsroom is organized, important beats are spread out across desks, diluting the impact of their work. The report called for the hub to become more autonomous, to help the print product be the best it can be and free the digital side to make progress.
Translation: After years of mashing up print and digital, a number of news organizations have evolved to the point where they realize that each has its distinct needs and skill requirements.