paper-boyOn 15 May, BuzzFeed leaked The New York Times innovation report – an internal document that asks tough questions about the publication’s place among its peers as it transitions from “a newspaper that also produces a rich and impressive digital report to a digital publication that also produces a rich and impressive newspaper.”

It’s a rare thing for a report of this kind to reach the public. So far it’s been hailed as “one of the key documents of this media age” and derided as a “terribly ironic” reflection of The Time’s struggle to adopt a digital-first mindset.

For us, it’s a 96-page snapshot of the old guard contemplating its own tale. That’s not a derisive statement. One of the central questions to come out of the report – how do you commit to quality journalism when content itself is the promotional medium? And the direction it advocates – dissolve the Chinese wall – bring into focus just how much has changed in the content, media and marketing world over the past few years.

It’s astonishing that the authors (led by its publisher’s son, A.G. Sulzberger) are having to inform the newspaper’s leaders why they should consider “using technology to ensure that the right stories are finding the right readers in the right places at the right times.” And a skeptic could put The Times at fault for taking so long to accept that distribution is as much an editorial problem as it is a business problem.

The report’s focus lies squarely on The New York Times and its place in the industry, but there are relevant lessons to be gleaned for anyone interested in content and in audience retention.

Even though the bulk of readers access The Times via the web, most of the publications revenues come from its print subscription.

Even though the bulk of readers access The Times via the web, most of the publication’s revenue comes from print.

The death of the homepage

BuzzFeed was born into a world of social sharing and hyperlinks, but The New York Times still sees these as new tricks. Right out of the gates, the authors hone in on The New York Times biggest problem – distribution. This challenge, it turns out, is as conceptual as it is practical.

That’s because legacy media like The Times are used to thinking about publications as discrete entities – physical packages meant to be read sequentially from A1 all the way to the classifieds. But that’s not how it works online, and as obvious as that may sound, it’s proven to be a tough pill to swallow for the storied publication.

In one passage, the authors explain how The Times transitioned from one of the most “sophisticated consumer outreach operations in history,” (i.e. home delivery of its print newspapers) to a “much more passive approach” online.

It’s a classic print-to-web problem. The paper expected that people would obediently seek out and start with the homepage, just as they had in print for more than one hundred years.

A graph from the report shows the decline in traffic to The Times' homepage.

A graph from the report shows the decline in traffic to The Times‘ homepage.

If that ever was the case online, it isn’t now. Instead, The Times has watched traffic to Page One dwindle year after year since 2011.

People expected the news to arrive at their doorsteps, explains the report, and now they expect it to arrive in their inboxes and social feeds. The expectation hasn’t changed, but distribution has.

So what does this mean for content creators? The New York Times’ homepage is a canary in the coalmine. Or maybe it’s the sickly coal miner warning all the canaries. Either way, the message is clear: if you want people to read your content, you have to serve it to them.

Growing the numbers

Figuring out the proper channels to distribute content is one thing, but getting people to consume that content is another.

Each month The Times receives 30 million web and 20 million mobile visitors from the US. But those numbers pale in comparison to what digital-first giants like the Huffington Post and BuzzFeed receive. Even USA Today has overtaken The Times in terms of readership.

Digital native publications like The Huffington Post have overtaken The Times in terms of traffic.

Digital native publications like The Huffington Post have overtaken The Times in terms of traffic.

While the authors outline a number of technological fixes, including improving organic search rankings by adopting best practices in SEO and metadata management, it focuses just as much attention on the editorial side: “The newsroom needs to claim its seat at the table because packaging, promoting and sharing our journalism requires editorial oversight.”

The authors warn that quality journalism will make The Times the eternal spring from which the Gawkers of the world can curate content, but it leaves The Times thirsty for viewers.

In one example, Gawker repackaged a 161-year-old article – which it discovered through a New York Times tweet – and turned it into “one of their best-read items of the year.”

In the newsroom and in any publication, content is only valuable if it reaches readers. Repackaging bespoke content and distributing it to the right people at the right time, is one of way to do that.

Collaboration 101

For a report analyzing the tech and logistical tools needed to turn the print-first publication into one optimized for the web and mobile, it focused a lot on work culture. Most of that discussion revolved around breaking down silos, especially the dissolution of the barriers between business and editorial departments.

“The wall dividing the newsroom and business side has served The Times well for decades, allowing one side to focus on readers and the other to focus on advertisers,” write the authors, “But the growth in our subscription revenue and the steady decline in advertising – as well as the changing nature of our digital operation – now require us to work together.”

Much of it comes down to reader experience. The business side and content creators should be equally focused on improving reader experience to increase traffic, which will lead to more subscriptions, more advertising and more revenue.

“At The Times, discovery, promotion and engagement have been pushed to the margins, typically left to our business-side colleagues or handed to small teams in the newsroom,” write the authors.

A digital-first operation requires a completely reorganized workflow. It means integrating digital teams with editors, allowing data and analytics to inform content decisions, and thinking about how content will look and read on mobile as much as desktop and in print.

Taking a look at its competitors, the authors note that it’s this focus on “the dry stuff – tools, workflow and process” that has resulted in BuzzFeed’s explosive growth. Rather than relying on quality journalism to market itself, getting content to lots of people requires baking business interests into the product from the get-go.

These are not groundbreaking revelations. But The Times defines itself by its editorial integrity. For any publication concerned about reader experience and high editorial standards, the real issue at play here is simple – it’s about finding the balance between ‘sharability’ and quality.

Upworthy is winning because of its annoying headlines and Buzzfeed is winning because of its relentless devotion to formulaic quizzes. Half of the digital-first equation is algorithms, but does the other part have to be listicles?

The report suggests that the newsroom and business side collaborate on shared goals.

The report suggests that the newsroom and business side collaborate on shared goals.

Building an experimental legacy

So what does innovation mean to a print-first publication in the 21st century? The hard truth (at least for The Times) is that it means embracing risk and rewarding experimentation – it’s about forging ahead with new practices, not propping up old ones.

The authors turn to Bob Pittman, CEO of Clear Channel, for his insight into what successful experimentation looks like:

If I try 10 new things and let’s say two are clear winners and two are clear losers. That means I’ve got six in between. What do I do with those? Most organizations let everything live except the clear losers. … Pretty soon my whole organization is basically mediocrity and gunk. So if you can bring yourself to say, I’m only gong to let clear winners live. I’m going to take the resources I put for the other eight things and try again,’ you can keep a crisp organization.

Marketers who have made their careers tracking the evolution of online ad units, the explosion of platforms and the inexorable proliferation of digital content might find it alarming that a decade after blogs have gone mainstream, The Times is finally codifying its need to embrace risk and develop a digital-first strategy.

So it’s worth keeping in mind that The New York Times has proven time and again it has the ambition and talent to tell brilliant stories that can only be told in the browser. Except replication is a problem. Departmental organization is a problem. Fear of failure is a big problem.

The reason content creators of all stripes should care about this report is because it’s not just The Times that’s dealing with this present reality. When Pittman says, “Don’t be afraid to make mistakes, you’ll make a lot of them,” he may be talking about The Times, but it’s timely advice for us all.

For more analysis, check out The Nieman Journalism Lab’s coverage.

Read the full report here [PDF]