A 96-page-long internal report on innovation within The New York Times has been obtained by BuzzFeed. It sets out the current and future challenges ahead in adapting to digital successfully and suggests solutions and workarounds. It's a report unlike anything we've seen in a long time, so we've highlighted 10 key points that demonstrate the way the NYT is thinking about innovation within its business.
Here are some of the key facts from the report, which is split into two chapters:
Chapter 1: Growing our audience
- Make developing our audience a core and urgent part of our mission
Chapter 2: Strenghtening our newsroom
- Collaborate with business-side units focused on reader experience
- Create a newsroom strategy team
- Map a strategy to make the newsroom a truly digital-first organisation
1. The paper is making enough money to offset the urgent need of digital transformation
From page seven:
"Some of our traditional competitors have aggressively reogranised around a digital-first rather than a print-first schedule. The health and profitability of our print paper means we don't yet need to follow them down this path. But it is essential to begin the work of questioning our print-centric traditions, conducting a comprehensive assessment of our digital needs, and imagining the newsroom of the future. This means reassessing everything from our roster of talent to our organisational structure to what we do and how we do it."
Analysis: It seems a little strange to be opening a report on innovation by reminding the NYT staff of the health of the print business and the fact it can offset digital transition just yet, but the Times did make the majority of its $1.57 billion revenues in 2013 from print and is obviously very aware of that.
2. The NYT knows it doesn't have all the answers
Just look at the number of people the NYT interviewed for the report. There are some big names in there.
Analysis: This isn't a hastily thrown together intermal memo. It's 96 pages long, and packed full of recognition of the bottlenecks and roadblocks the NYT is facing (and will face). But it didn't start out like that – orignally it appears the report was commissioned to look at ideas for a standalone digital product such as iOS app NYT Now:
3. Some NYT staff need a reminder on what disruption means
There are two pages dedicated to industry disruption (16 and 17):
Analysis: It's a little surprising this section is in the report (though understandable) as almost any journalist working for a traditional publisher should be fully aware of the internet's effect on the media industry. The language is also, dare we say it, pious? "Today, a pack of news startups are hoping to "disrupt" our industry by attacking the strongest incumbent – The New York Times."
4. They are aware of who their disruptors are
Circa, Vox, Business Insider, Huffington Post, Politico, BuzzFeed, Twitter, ESPN (FiveThirtyEight), First Look Media (The Intercept), Flipboard and Yahoo News.
Analysis: There's a "Competitor Cheat Sheet" on pages 18 and 19, which reference the above companies – a mix of technology driven and embedded publishers. The Times has a big advantage in its sizeable newsroom roster size and it recognises that BuzzFeed isn't just cat videos any more, but don't expect it to start heading down the listicle or quiz route any time soon.
5. Visitors to the homepage plummeted from 2011 to 2013
From 160 million homepage visitors in 2011, this figure dropped 50 percent by 2013, landing at 80 million.
"Traffic to the home page has been declining, month after month, for years.Traffic to section fronts is negligible. Traffic on our mobile apps, which are mostly downstream replicas of our home page and section fronts, has declined, as well."
Analysis: That's a trend that has happened to a lot of publishers, but losing 80 million visitors in two years is a lot. The paywall was introduced in 2011 and over that time more and more of the audience will have been arriving through social media channels direct to article pages. A big chunk of the remaining 80 million will be subscribers. The homepage also isn't the most inviting of designs – lots of people love it, but it does tend to look a lot like a newspaper...
6. Audience development needs work
The Times proposes working on three main areas to develop audiences:
Analysis: The Times produces a lot of content – more than 300 stories each day. There isn't a publisher on the planet that doesn't want a larger, more loyal audience, but part of that challenge involves making sure readers aren't swamped with stories they don't want to read. The Times want to focus on a more intelligent "reader-centric approach to packaging and surfacing our journalism" to extend their reach.
7. Snowfall will not be the saviour
The media industry loved Snowfall and what it said about the future of storytelling – it inspired many a spin-off – but it doesn't count as "real experimentation" in the Times' books:
Analysis: American media in general is quite far behind some of the "fail-fast, fail-happy" micro-site experiments we're seeing with traditional publishers in the UK like Trinity MIrror (UsVsTh3m and Ampp3d) and The Telegraph (Project Babb). The NYT recognises that Snowfall won't be the saviour of its business model, however, as beautiful and innovative as it is. Pushing back against perfectionist impulses will be tough for the company – quality has always come first and is at the core of Times journalism – but that doesn't always go completely hand-in-hand in the digital world. NYT Now, NYT Today and the newly-launched Cooking beta are evidence of the NYT's sharpening approach to experimentation.
8. Don't underestimate the value of evergreen
Recirculating older content "without too much effort" seems to have worked well for The Times. Here's the same "Inside the Brothels" collection over 17 years of repackaging:
Analysis: If you can repurpose good evergreen content in a way that is appealing to readers, you will see the traffic benefit of your effort, say the NYT, which has a huge archive of material it can use. Formats are important, but what's more important is having an easy way to pump out those format-driven stories – quizzes, Snowfalls, etc – in quick time.
9. Younger readers consume through personalisation and social
Plenty of newer publishers wouldn't argue that the ability to follow and create their own newsfeeds has been important to their success.
Analysis: There are plenty of apps that allow you to personalise your news feed, and the Times is right when it says there is a feeling "if something is important, it will find me." But the NYT needs to work out a way to provide that service itself to readers, instead of letting someone else read its content through what they have to offer.
10. Data needs to be structured
Tagging stories is an essential part of modern digital publishing, and one that the Times admits it is way behind on:
Analysis: The NYT recognises how far behind they are in tagging: "It took us seven years for us to start tagging stories "September 11"," and recent spend on retroactively tagging recipes, for example, appears to have been a large part of the success in launching the Cooking beta, for example. Structured data could bring a wealth of benefits to the Times, many of which it is fully aware of in part because its competitors are already reaping them.