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The strategic impact of the New York Times innovation report

It can be challenging for organisations to adapt to new digital trends and innovation, especially in businesses that are part of industries with long histories of entrenched working methods or practices. It’s something that I work on with clients at work, and it’s one of the most interesting parts of my job.

For some, the challenge is a positive one to be embraced and viewed as an opportunity to grow both themselves and their businesses. Yet for others, it represents something to be feared and rejected, a potential threat to the status quo they’ve grown so comfortable with.

In May 2014, the culmination of a tumultuous period in the New York Times newsroom came to a head with the leaking of a damning, insightful, revelatory and superlative-shattering internal document outlining the huge cultural changes still required to transform even industries as supposedly digitally agile as that of news gathering and journalism.

What the report tells us

To say the the report has made waves in the worlds of journalism and digital would be an understatement. As Joshua Benton at NiemanLab says, “I’ve spoken with multiple digital-savvy Times staffers in recent days who described the report with words like “transformative” and “incredibly important” and “a big big moment for the future of the Times.” One admitted crying while reading it because it surfaced so many issues about Times culture that digital types have been struggling to overcome for years.”

In this post, I pull apart some interesting bits of the report and highlight the elements that resonate most with me. You can read the full report on Scribd.

The report sketches out a bleak – with flashes of determined optimism – picture of the New York Times newsroom. Four eye-catching graphs show key trends in terms of traffic and engagement on the NYT website (unless otherwise stated, all charts and data taken from the report linked above).

The first three graphs, while not setting the world alight, are at least not in rapid decline.

Page Views

Page views have been relatively consistent, hovering at five million plus.

1b

Dwell time on-site fluctuates but never craters.

1c

iPhone app users fluctuate too, with some large spikes, but showing positive trend towards the end of the X axis. But all three of these graphs are below the levels of the year before.

1d

The most stark and alarming graph is the one that shows visits to the NYT home page: over two years, the number of visitors has halved from ~160m to ~80m. “The need is urgent,” states the report, “Our home page has been our main tool for getting our journalism to readers, but its impact is waning. Only a third of our readers ever visit it. And those who do visit are spending less time: page views and minutes spent per reader dropped by double-digit percentages last year.”

The report sums up the challenge the NYT faces as follows:

“Perhaps because the path forward is not clear and requires very different skills, we are putting less effort into reaching readers’ digital doorsteps than we ever did in reaching their physical doorsteps.

“This effort to reach more readers — known as Audience Development — is where our competitors are pushing ahead of us.”

It is this stark awareness that the paper has lost touch with its core audience which characterises the opening section of the report.

What is the NYT trying to do about it? The report puts forward this high-level process:

Audience progression

It is a fundamental need to transform more non-readers and others into NYT loyalists that is the imperative behind the report. Without a readership, the NYT – both print and digital – is a lame duck waiting to be eaten by Buzzfeed, First Look Media, The Huffington Post, FiveThirtyEight and countless others.

The solution, according to the report, consists of three key areas:

Key insights

It is with this that the second half section of the report opens up with three proposals for changing the newsroom:

And three final sections on “how to get there”:

Ultimately, this means “aggressively questioning many of our print-based traditions and their demands on our time, and determining which can be abandoned to free up resources for digital work.” The NYT remains a newspaper with a website attached, rather than a synergistic digital media organisation like its contemporaries at The Guardian.

As these charts show, while the revenue primarily comes from print, the audience does not:

Most revenue still comes from print...

Outcomes

While at times this blog post might have sounded like I was the highlighting negative parts of the report, this is because there are huge challenges at the NYT and barriers to it becoming the digital-first, innovative business that it clearly wants to be.

The talent at the NYT is amazing and its digital content can be superb (think ‘Snow Fall’). But the lack of strategy and vision for digital within the business means that the people who are most likely to drive the paper forwards (both in terms of innovation and business) are the ones who are least likely to be involved in the key decision making processes.

The mistake the NYT made was it became more obsessed with the news than with what its audience wanted from it. Kudos to it for recognising this and writing such an incredibly important document as the innovation report.

But it should be a strategic lesson to all other organisations – both large and small – of what can happen when a sustainable and progressive vision for dealing with a changing business landscape drifts, and teams become fragmented.

Having a clear digital transformation and leadership strategy is fundamental to the sustained success of any business. It’s no longer an option to avoid “doing” digital – it’s where your audience is, and where your business needs to be.

This post originally appeared on the Brilliant Noise blog.