The Wall Must Stand: Innovation At the New York Times

“In the future,” writes digital scholar and Twitter wit Ian Bogost , “all news will be about, rather than in, the New York Times.”

That future seemed to arrive last week, and not only with the controversy unleashed by the abrupt firing of executive editor Jill Abramson. Possibly as part of the storm, someone in the newsroom leaked a 96-page document with detailed proposals for bringing the Times more fully into the digital age and—even more important—making the Grey Lady more “Reader Experience”-friendly.

#164976308 / gettyimages.com

Nieman Journalism Lab’s Joshua Benton, calls the report “one of the most remarkable documents I’ve seen in my years running the Lab.”  He even tasked three of his staffers with excerpting highlights from it. But the whole thing merits reading by anyone interested in the possible (or inevitable?) future of the news.

Not that there is anything truly new or surprising on any page of “Innovation,” as the study is so grandiloquently titled. Put together by a six-member team led by Arthur Gregg Sulzberger, the publisher’s son and heir apparent, the report is a compendium of ideas, strategies, arguments, and veiled threats familiar to anyone who has worked in or around newsrooms during the last decade or so. From the title on, it buzzes with the kind of jargony nostrums that fuel TED Talks and South by Southwest conferences, from impact toolboxes and repackaging old content in new formats to making journalists their own content promoters and integrating the Reader Experience team with the newsroom to, well, anything else that helps counter the disruptive incursions of new media upstarts like Buzzfeed and Huffington Post.

And why not counter those disrupters? As the report frequently notes, the NYT produces consistently superior content but does an almost-as-consistently inferior job of getting its content out to its reader. In some cases, competitors are even more successful at distributing Times content than the Times itself. It makes little sense to remain satisfied with such a status quo.

But reading the report invites suspicion on at least two counts. The first is quite immediate: How is it possible that these objectives haven’t already been accomplished? (And, in fact, is it possible that many of them have, as some NYT insiders say, proving once again that many strategic studies merely confirm the direction in which the institution is already heading). My incredulity arises from the facts presented in the report itself, namely the astonishing number of Times employees already dedicated to Reader Experience activities (which, as the report notes, “includes large segments of Design, Technology, Consumer Insight Group, R &D, and Product”).

The problem, explicitly remarked upon at several points in the report, appears to be turf wars.  Some of this is simply silly, such as the exclusion of Reader Experience people from key editorial meetings or other instances of uncollegial shunning. But I suspect the problem also stems from something far less silly, indeed, from the most fundamental of political-institutional questions: Who, at the end of the day, will be in command of the combined newsroom and Reader Experience personnel? Will it be the editorial leadership or the business leadership?

That question can’t be finessed, fudged, blurred, or deferred. It must be answered forthrightly, because if it isn’t, the very purpose of a serious news organization becomes unclear.

And that leads to my second big concern.  What is the real goal of “innovation” at the New York Times? Is it intended primarily to enable the editorial leaders to use and inculcate the best practices of distribution, with additional staff possessing advanced skills in those practices, in order to support and advance strong journalism? Or is intended primarily to increase the number of Reader Experiences as measured through analytics and other metrics at the expense, in the long or short runs, of the highest quality of journalism? If the former, I am on board—who wouldn’t be?

Which is why the political question must be answered first. If not, and if the new and enhanced newsroom ends up being run by the business side, then decisions will be made that will slowly erode the quality of the journalistic content. If content packagers and social media community managers answer ultimately to publishing executives and not to editors, then they will be able to demand the kind of content—whimsical features, for example, rather than hard reporting—that tends to trend most strongly.  The sad fact is that cute cat stories always sell better than revelations about city hall. The number of hits, likes, or visits will gradually but inevitably determine the editorial agenda.

Overstated? Simplistic? I don’t think so. When the ultimate purpose of a news organization is something that can be evaluated almost exclusively by metrics, then you can be sure you are no longer talking about a news organization.  A media company, perhaps, but not a journalistic one.

The report calls for some breaching of the editorial-publishing (or church-state) firewall. That sounds suspect to me. What it should call for is the migration of some of those Reader Experience departments and personnel to the editorial side of the firewall. The wall itself must stand. Or the journalism will fall.

Jay Tolson is the Executive Editor of The Hedgehog Review.

 

 

. . . . . . . .

Like The Hedgehog Review on Facebook, follow us on Twitter, and subscribe to our posts via RSS.

FacebookTwitterGoogle+LinkedInShare