By: Alan D. Mutter
The New York Times wrote the story in 1853 about how Solomon Northup was kidnapped and sold into slavery, but Gawker got most of the page views by publicizing the archived article when “12 Years a Slave” won the Oscar for best picture in 2014.
This example of how the Times fails to capitalize on its rich content to build digital readership, relevance and revenues came to light in the leak this spring of a candid, unsettling and must-read assessment of the newspaper’s less than elegant effort to pivot from print to pixels.
Given the size of its staff, the sweep of its ambition and its stature as house organ to the world’s political, economic, academic and cultural elites, the Times is something of a unique case among newspapers. But its struggle to achieve scale and economic sustainability as a full-on digital publisher—as opposed to a legacy newspaper producing digitized renditions of an increasingly superannuated print product—is directly relevant to nearly every newsroom in the globe.
If you work at a newspaper—or simply care about the health of these important institutions—then you need to read the 90-plus page internal report about how the Times is trying, with less than dazzling success, to retool its culture and business model. The report, which illustrates why digital must be an obsession and not a hobby, is at tinyurl.com/nytdigi.
The document, which never was meant for public disclosure, first was published in May by BuzzFeed—another of the digital interlopers who knows how to generate more page views with a Times story than the Times—on the day after Jill Abramson was ousted as editor of the newspaper. Commissioned by Abramson some months before her exit, the report was written by a crew of journalists headed by no less than A.G. Sulzberger, the son and presumptive successor of publisher Arthur Sulzberger, the head of the family that controls the paper.
The report details an alarming number of occasions that the Times, like most other newspapers, was out-thought, out-promoted and otherwise out-gunned by the growing phalanx of digital publishers.
In one painful example, a Huffington Post editor told the Times team that their newspaper was “crushed” by the amount of traffic captured by his site when it repurposed NYT coverage of the death of Nelson Mandela. “I was queasy watching the numbers,” said the unidentified editor quoted in the report. “I’m not proud of this. But this is your competition. You should defend the digital pickpockets from stealing your stuff with better headlines, better social.”
In another example of digital tone-deafness cited in the report, the author of the sprawling Dasani series on a homeless family trapped in horrific public housing did not get around to tweeting about her own story until two days after the first installment ran. Curiously, noted the report, the newsroom controls the Twitter account but the “business side” runs the Facebook page.
The barrier to nimble and effective digital publishing at the Times is, as is the case at most other papers, its entrenched print tradition.
The workflow in the newsroom throughout the day is focused heavily on the print edition, including rewriting the summaries—not the articles themselves—of stories being pitched for the next morning’s front page. “The vast majority of our content is still published late in the evening, but our digital traffic is busiest in the morning,” said the report. “We aim ambitious stories for Sunday because it is our largest print readership, but weekends are the slowest online.”
Because people who distinguished themselves as writers and editors for the print product hold the senior jobs in the newsroom, they lack the skills, the sensibilities and, frankly, the sass that make for successful digital publishing in an age when readers want their news to be as amusing as it is informative. Because masters of the print universe dominate the top newsroom jobs, many young, digital-savvy staffers depart in despair of ever advancing in the organization.
While the internal Times report recommends many ways to tinker with priorities, process and personnel, the real problem it identifies—without offering any solution—is the lack of commitment to changing the culture of the institution. In part, the inertia comes from the respect and affection that most of us share for the honorable tradition of print. But it also comes from not understanding that the Times, like all newspapers, has to be willing to aggressively disrupt and reinvent itself before readers and advertisers move on without it.
Everyone at the Times—and at most other newspapers—has the smarts to do this. But the first step to change is acknowledging that you have a problem. Until there is an inalterable conviction at the Times and other newspapers that they need to overhaul their cultures at Internet speed, they will continue dabbling at digital while fierce and well-financed digital competitors peck them silly. Dabbling won’t be enough.
Alan D. Mutter is a former newspaper editor who became a Silicon Valley CEO and now serves as a technology consultant to media companies. He blogs at Reflections of a Newsosaur (newsosaur.blogspot.com).