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Oct. 21, 2009, 10 a.m.

New York Times, still uncertain on charging, sets seven digital priorities

While the New York Times newsroom deals with another round of job cuts, one area of the newspaper is actually growing. Fourteen jobs are currently open at the Times website, most of them for software developers and engineers.

On Thursday, the digital staff gathered for an “all hands” meeting at TheTimesCenter to hear updates on various initiatives in advertising, business development, and content. Hanging in the air was the still unresolved question of whether the Times will charge for portions of its website. (Some readers were clamoring for that yesterday.)

Denise Warren, general manager of NYTimes.com, said the company is in “strategic limbo,” and Bill Keller, the executive editor, acknowledged frustration over the delay:

…everyone feels a little paralyzed by the unresolved question of pay versus free. I let Denise edit my remarks and she edited out expressions like “quagmire” and “time suck.” But we all feel a little sense of frustration about how long that’s taking, even though I think we understand that if it were a theological decision, it would be made by now. But, unfortunately, it’s a business decision.

Keller and Jill Abramson, the managing editor, took on more responsibility for the website when Jonathan Landman, the masthead editor formerly in charge of digital operations, recently shifted to the culture desk. To prepare, Keller said he and Abramson have been attending meetings with web staff and, as I wrote yesterday, trying to read the Times mostly online.

He also ticked off seven “questions that loom largest to us at the moment”:

  1. the future role of Times Topics and other “living articles”
  2. openness of Times content, integration of non-Times content, and social media
  3. integration of print and digital operations, particularly for department heads
  4. improved collaboration between technologists and the newsroom
  5. thinking “web first”
  6. a stronger strategy for cell phones and other mobile devices
  7. redesigning Times article pages to create “an engine of engagement”

It’s not an earth-shattering speech, but it’s a peek at a large organization that, like its competitors, is trying to best integrate its print and digital operations. Keller describes prioritizing the web at the Times as “our Manhattan Project.”

Video of the meeting, which Warren declared “off the record,” was posted on an internal Times server and provided to us. Here’s a transcript of Keller’s remarks:

I’m just half of Bill and Jill. [laughter] In the weeks since Jill and I said that we wanted to talk on more of the direct responsibility for the digital parts of our newsroom, we’ve been immersing ourselves, meeting one-on-one or two-on-one with a lot of people in this room, with the leaders in the digital newsroom, technology, product, advertising, multimedia, social networking, video, and so on.

I’ve been telling people that it feels a little like we just enrolled in graduate school, but we forgot to take any of the undergraduate courses on the way there. You know, it’s a little exhausting and overwhelming, but as we get better acquainted with all of you, we’ve found it tremendously rewarding. We’ve discovered, or I should say, rediscovered that we’re blessed with an amazing staff of people whose skills are dazzling, whose values are completely ours, and whose loyalty to this venture runs as deep as the loyalty of anybody else in the organization.

And we’ve been, for the most part, impressed by how well the system works. That’ll come as a surprise to all of you who fret over the many things that ought to work better. There are plenty of kinks in the system, and that doesn’t even count the fact that everyone feels a little paralyzed by the unresolved question of pay versus free. I let Denise edit my remarks, and she edited out expressions like “quagmire” and “time suck.” [laughter] But we all feel a little sense of frustration about how long that’s taking, even though I think we understand that if it were a theological decision, it would be made by now. But, unfortunately, it’s a business decision.

We will decide on pay versus free, and I hope after that, that Jill and I can help smooth out some of the kinks that you find frustrating. I mean, there’s clearly a lot that we can do better. But I did want to start by saying that the system works a lot more than it doesn’t work. We’ve established a reputation as the most innovative online publisher in the business. We’ve forged a constructive working relationship between the newsroom and advertising, which Jill and I intend to continue. We’ve launched some big ambitious projects. We’ve set a standard that can be measured not only by traffic and awards but by pilgrims visiting from other newsrooms that want to copy us. And even by the fact that Apple sees our homepage as the place to try out its most creative advertising — a mixed blessing, that one.

In our indoctrination period, Jill and I have been trying to do three things. First, we’ve been seeking advice on how to educate ourselves better about the issues that we face. I will not pretend that I’m going to master the intricacies of digital the way Jon Landman did. Jon’s about the smartest guy I know, and he also had the luxury of mostly detaching himself from a lot of the other problems in the newsroom, little things like the print editions and the non-digital budget. But there are two of us, we are trainable, and we don’t start out as total strangers to the digital world.

The single best advice we’ve gotten, I think, is to spend some time living without print. And we’ve both been trying to do that, trying to experience The New York Times and our competition mostly on screens — iPhone, laptop, Kindle, Times Reader –- trying to better understand the joys and frustrations of our journalism delivered online.

Our other indispensable source of education is you. I urge you all to send us things that you think we’ll find interesting, drop by to tell us about accomplishments or problems, invite us to stuff. In the early days of our education, especially, we would rather have too much thrown at us than too little, so invite us, and if we don’t come the first time, don’t give up. Invite us again.

Our second aim during this period has been to plug ourselves more formally into the process. To figure out which people and which meetings need to be on our calendar, so that we’re not too far behind the curve. In the early weeks, we’ve been going to a lot of things, planning to narrow or adjust the docket as time passes, so that we can focus on the matters that really need our focus.

We also need to figure out our division of labor: where Jill goes, where I go. The digital culture seems to love its meetings, including some large meetings that go on for a long time and don’t necessarily get to the end of things. For those of us who come from the world of snap judgments made on deadline, this represents a bit of an adjustment, but maybe we’ll meet somewhere in the middle.

The third and really the most important thing that we’ve been trying to do in these early weeks is to begin to set out some priorities. Not priorities for the institution. We have an elaborate process for setting company and newsroom priorities. I’m talking about priorities for where we should be focusing our immediate attention. Aside from the obvious issue of the pay debate, where should our energy be?

We’ve elicited from you and your colleagues many suggestions on that score. We’ve begun to home in on a few big questions that seem likely to be our first orders of business. All of them are important questions whether or not we adopt a pay model, and all of them are aimed at enhancing both the quality of the site and the revenue potential. So I will lay out a few things that, in broad strokes, are the questions that we intend to be most focused on in the next couple of months.

One is, where are we going with topics pages and living articles? How large a priority should that be, and if it’s a major venture for us, then shouldn’t it have the leadership and resources required to really make it grow?

A second question is, what is the best strategy for community? Over the past year or so we’ve opened up to the world, both in the development of APIs and in the inclusion of content from outsiders. Some people find this openness a little unnerving, fear it will erode our quality and authority. I think most of the people in this room believe openness is essential for our engagement and growth, and we should be doing as much of it — as much as we can to facilitate it.

One thing that jumps out from the analytics is that users under 35 — our future — are vastly more likely to be using social networking sites to share our articles, photos and multimedia. At the moment we have community-building endeavors underway in several places. We have TimesPeople, we have the new conversation tools that debuted in health care, we have Jennifer‘s social-networking portfolio, and so on. So how do we make sure that all of our innovative intelligence is working in the same direction on community?

A third issue for us is how to spread the gospel of integration more fully in the newsroom. I think everyone agrees that over the past four-plus years, we’ve come a long way in breaking down the psychological, cultural, and organizational barriers that isolated print from digital. But the gospel still needs preaching, and I think the next congregation we will focus on is the department heads. The department heads all, to one degree or another, support the website, but they need to engage it more. They need to be, to quote one of you, “more than web tourists.” We need to spread the word that the Well blog or The Caucus blog is as important and as integral to our future success as stories on A1 of the printed paper.

Fourth on my list is, we want to make sure we have the best possible working relationship between technology, product, and the newsroom. We understand that The New York Times is, and has to be, a technology company as well as a journalism company. We want to make sure that that collaboration is optimized to achieve our journalistic and commercial ambitions.

Fifth, how do we assure that “web first” is getting the priority it needs? One of you described web first to us as our Manhattan Project, and I think that’s what it ought to be. As long as we’re doing journalism on separate publishing systems, we will not be an integrated newsroom. We will not think and plan our journalism with the web in the front of our mind.

Sixth, we need to figure out the right journalistic product to deliver to mobile platforms and devices. I’m hoping we can get the newsroom more actively involved in the challenge of delivering our best journalism in the form of Times Reader, iPhone apps, WAP, or the impending Apple slate, or whatever comes after that.

And seventh, we’re going to paying close attention to article-page redesign. As proud as we are of all the exciting new things that we keep inventing to grab hold of our audience, we can’t lose sight of the basic site experience. The article pages are a major point of entry, and we need to turn them into an engine of engagement.

That’s a lot of big stuff, and it’s not complete. This isn’t just the list — this isn’t the list of everything that’s important, or everything that’s going to be done, or everything that we’ll be thinking about, but those are the questions that loom largest to us at the moment. Before I turn the mic over to Jill, I just want to underscore that we know we have a big vacuum to fill, and we know we have a lot to prove, and we’re counting on you to help us get it right. Thanks.

POSTED     Oct. 21, 2009, 10 a.m.
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