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Nieman Journalism Lab
Pushing to the future of journalism — A project of the Nieman Foundation at Harvard

Jim Roberts, Reuters’ newest hire, on the digital side of the NYT, paywall math, and next steps

The new executive editor of Reuters Digital and ex-Timesman: “I like to think I laid a good groundwork for taking advantage of the tools of technology for being able to exploit smart digital opportunities.”

jimrobertsJudging by his pace on Twitter, little has changed for Jim Roberts over the last three weeks. The links to news near and far, on topics both timely and unearthed, are coming as rapid as ever.

But things have changed. Roberts parted way with The New York Times after 26 years at the newspaper in the end of January. The former assistant managing editor was among a number of notable names taking buyouts as the Times attempts to cut costs and streamline its masthead. “I like to think I laid a good groundwork for taking advantage of the tools of technology for being able to exploit smart digital opportunities. There are a lot of people there who can do the many things I advocated,” he told me last week.

Just this afternoon, he announced where he was heading next: to Reuters, to be its executive editor for digital, where Thomson Reuters Digital editor Chrystia Freeland says he’ll “oversee the editorial work of Reuters.com and our global family of Reuters websites, our opinion team and our online video operation.”

Roberts had a long life at the Times, leading coverage on national news and politics before jumping into digital in 2006, when he was asked to oversee NYTimes.com. Roberts had a significant role in shaping the digital presence for the Times, how its news breaks online, its investment in multimedia, and how it approaches social media. I spoke with Roberts (before the announcement) about his career at the Times, how NYTimes.com has changed, the growing pains of using multimedia, and how he changed his mind on the Times’ paywall. Here’s a lightly edited version of our conversation.

Justin Ellis: Why leave? As you say, it’s a pretty exciting time in the industry and The Times is doing a lot of exciting things. People are looking at the paper and trying to decide if it’s going to be the direction of the whole industry.
Jim Roberts: I do feel like the timing of this was smart for me, in the sense that I put a lot of effort into what we did with politics, as I do every two and four years. I worked a lot on what we did with video, particularly our exploration of live video possibilities during the campaign. The Times has this informal habit of reassessing and repositioning people — whether by true design or not, it tends to coincide with getting through a presidential election. So it just felt like if I were to ever explore opportunities outside of the Times, it felt like a good time.

I also felt like I was at a point in my career where I felt like I still have a lot to offer and could find something interesting. There was that feeling that this is a good moment for me to see what’s out there.

Ellis: It was around 2006 when you were tasked with being the editor for NYTimes.com, right?
Roberts: That wasn’t exactly my formal title but, yes, I took over the management and oversight of the website.
Ellis: I want to know what it was like being in that job then — what was the state of play compared to now? It must have been worlds apart.

“I don’t think I’d be going so far out on a limb as to say that, in some ways, the editorial management of the Times, at that time in early 2006, didn’t give a great deal of thought to what we were doing online.”

Roberts: It was worlds apart. But sometimes the differences get a little exaggerated, because when I moved to digital, we had a damn good website. There was already a very strong and resourceful staff. What they lacked was a strong connection with the Times as a whole.

We were working in a building that was six or seven blocks away from the mothership. There was very little physical connection between the two entities. I don’t think I’d be going so far out on a limb as to say that, in some ways, the editorial management of the Times, at that time in early 2006, didn’t give a great deal of thought to what we were doing online. It was not then the priority it is now. I think the fact the two newsrooms were separate spoke volumes in terms of how NYTimes.com was viewed by the senior leadership.

So one of my missions was to stitch the two more closely together, but at the same time not squander the creative, innovative talents of many of the people who were working there.

The other mission that I inherited was helping build out their staff. The years 2007, 2008, were giant growth years for us in terms of building staff, building capabilities. The multimedia team went from a handful of people to 10 or so. And truly some of the smartest people in the business were recruited to be part of it. Those were fantastic years, but they were still sort of existing somewhat in the shadow of the mothership. Certainly there was both that mental and physical difference between the two.

Ellis: You had a background in print. Was there a conscious decision that we need to have some with a background in print but an interest in digital to help the transition?

Roberts: I think so. I was appointed to the job by Jon Landman — obviously it was endorsed by the executive editor. But I think what Jon saw in me — and Jon and I are print veterans from the get-go; he and I both started at the Times within weeks of each other — he knew me very, very well, knew my interest and background in news. And one thing he saw as an opportunity here was how I would take advantage of the digital opportunities in responding to news on a 24-hour basis. I think that was probably the one thing he could be certain I would do.

I don’t think I was sent solely to be the print “grownup” over there. I think Jon was eager to send somebody who had the knowledge of the paper’s needs and traditions, but also somebody who could be a guider as well as a spark plug. While I was excited about doing it, it wasn’t until I got there that I realized what the potential was. And I’m forever grateful to the backing Jon gave me in terms of going well beyond breaking news and exploring what we could do with multimedia, interactive journalism, and ultimately with social journalism.

Ellis: What do you mean by the potential?
Roberts: I meant people. There were producers, multimedia experts who taught me a huge amount. And when I could see what they did, that allowed me to form partnerships and alliances, and learn to exploit their creative potential.

Also, one of the things I felt that I brought was the desire to really promote things. I really feel that one of the best ways of managing your staff and managing your content is showing off the good stuff. I worked very hard to exploit the capabilities of the homepage to showcase the work of our interactive and multimedia guys, to really just push the visual boundaries of what we could do and what we could put in front of people.

It was really walking into that environment. I felt very comfortable on the news front, I knew precious little about the technical aspects of digital journalism. But once I walked into that newsroom and I got to know these people — Fiona Spruill, who was a senior manager in the web newsroom, Gabriel Dance, who was a multimedia producer — when I realized the type of things they were doing and things they were capable of doing, it just opened up all these doors.

The coincidence of timing was also a really, really good thing, because we were prepared to invest in building that staff. We hired Andrew DeVigal as our multimedia editor, that was a very, very big deal. And Andrew then helped Fiona and me build an even bigger and better team. Gabriel Dance had been there when I arrived; we recruited Tom Jackson, who was another really smart interactive and multimedia developer. Just an incredibly good brain, in terms of the technology as well as the journalism.

Ellis: You’ve mentioned a couple of times the importance of finding the right people. Just judging from the reaction to your departure, and the outpouring of support on Twitter, there are a lot of people who credit you for their career success. As a manager, what were you looking for in people?
Roberts: It was really tough. I remember particularly a period — I think it was in the latter part of 2007 — when we were going through interview after interview, sometimes multiple interviews in a day. What we were looking for was a balance, I think — there was a pretty wide gulf between people who were solely capable of producing text and those on the other extreme who were developers and programmers.

But within that continuum, we did find dozens of people who had really interesting and good balances between the traditional skills and the technical side. And, you know, they differed. There were some who were a little bit more experienced in producing and editing text, and there were others who were more experienced in working with Flash and other technologies. But we were always looking for people who were both journalists and comfortable with the technological tools that we had and comfortable trying to exploit them.

Ellis: It seems like a lot of what news organizations have to do now is be ready for change itself, along with knowing one type of technology or another. Is there a way to structure for that agility as a manager or an editor? How did you deal with that?
Roberts: If I could find fault with some of the things that I did, I think there were times where I tried to do too many things at once and I failed to make the best possible choices.

I think this is something that resulted from the luxury the Times had of incredibly capable staffs of people. But I think that there were — and I’m sure you could find a case — where we had a large project and it had associated with it graphics, and interactives, and video, and photo slideshows. Just the entire gamut of things. I think we learned slowly — and I think the Times is much better at this now, and in fact has instituted a little bit more of a routine — how to try to make sure you’re using the right tools for the right needs. For no other reason than sheer efficiency — I think you have to do that. But I think it’s ultimately better for the audience in really finding that sweet spot of “this is the right type of technology to apply to this information or storytelling challenge.”

It’s an interesting challenge for the newsroom management too. I think that it’s something I learned over time; it did not come to me overnight. I think that it’s something the Times is going to have to continue to work through. You don’t have to understand how to create the information, but you certainly have to understand how it’s used, how it’s consumed. You need to understand how much time it takes, the resource issues, and that’s something you just don’t learn overnight. That will be an ongoing challenge. But as I said, I think the Times has a little bit more structured approach to how you determine how to apply certain tools.

Ellis: Do you have an example of a time where you felt like you missed an opportunity?
Roberts: I wish I could point to it. I remember there were a few moments, maybe two or three years ago, where we wound up having projects in which we had text, very lush photo slideshows or audio slide shows, as well as really high quality video. Again, that’s a great luxury. But I think in hindsight when we reflected upon it, we felt: Wait a minute, did we really need to throw that much at it?

I think a lot of people who have offered a great deal of praise to the avalanche project that was done towards the end of last year, Snow Fall — that to me was an occasion where all the elements did work well together. That’s not actually what I’m pointing to — that’s where I think the real smart use of photography, video, audio, interactive, they all came together in a very smart way. And I think the Times will wisely try to exploit that kind of thinking.

nytimes-snow-fall

Ellis: I was going to ask you about Snow Fall — because people went bananas for that, the story itself, but also the presentation. But one of the questions I had coming out of that was how something like that works going forward? Is it a presentation used just for special packages, or does the day-to-day Times story move further in that direction? What were your thoughts about that?
Roberts: I first have to offer the caveat: I had zero input into that project. I think I saw it when it was 95 percent done. There was a huge amount of manpower that went into putting that together. I don’t even know — again, I wasn’t involved to know how much, but I have a pretty good idea that it’s not the kind of thing you can replicate very easy. Although, once you do something, one of the things I’ve always learned is once you open a door, it becomes easier to open time and again.

So I think some of those things can be put to greater use. Some of it is going to be a question of resource management, cost/benefit. Certainly in that case, the benefit justifies the cost. I could guess that in the coming year, the Times will probably be capable of doing that — well they did it once last year, so maybe they’ll be able to do it twice or three times in the coming year.

Ellis: I have to ask you about the paywall. You were initially not in favor of it, right?
Roberts: That’s true. I didn’t have a vote. Well, no — there was one moment where Bill Keller was surveying the masthead. So in terms of an expression of either approval or disapproval, in that meeting, I voiced my disapproval. I don’t need to reiterate all the reasons I did it. I’ve actually given public speeches where that’s my opening anecdote, of what I feared and what transpired in reality.
Ellis: What changed for you?
Roberts: The results. Now, I won’t say that I still don’t have a few reservations. And I certainly won’t pretend a paywall situation is workable for every news outlet on the planet. I think there are circumstances at the Times that are different enough that allowed the Times to do what it did.

“I certainly won’t pretend a paywall situation is workable for every news outlet on the planet. I think there are circumstances at the Times that are different enough that allowed the Times to do what it did.”

My big worry is that we would lose our reach. That we would, after a period of great growth over the years — including the really booming years of 2007, 2008 — that our audience would shrink.

I worried enormously what it would do to our younger audience. At the time, one of my children was in college, the other was in his final years of high school, and I really worried that a paywall would be a severe impediment to them and their peers in terms of access to what we were doing. We had done a lot of innovative things in terms of covering the 2008 campaign. Certainly judging from the reaction of my daughter and her friends, we were nailing it in that demographic. They were really, really absorbing and loving what we were doing.

Granted 2008 was a special year — Obama had a great deal of appeal to younger people and college audiences, so we benefited from some of that. But I also thought we were doing incredibly good stuff. I didn’t want to discourage usage among her age group, as well as the broader digital audience that, still to a certain degree, expects information to be free.

I fully understand the argument for a paywall. Good information is not free, or certainly isn’t free to create. The costs are enormous. The infrastructure of an institution like the Times — forget about the chunk of real estate, the human infrastructure — is enormous.

It’s funny: Over time, certainly after we introduced the paywall, I began to sort of resent some of the critics who were, “I am not going to pay attention to them because information wants to be free.” Yeah, well, dude, I get it, but, I think really good information can’t always be free. And certainly we saw what the recession did to us and other news organizations. I think the idea that the Times embarked on, of creating another stream of revenue, was something that was really critical to their long-term survival.

So what changed my mind? Well, a couple of things. One, they built a system I thought was really smart. The side doors that were created, that basically allow people access to content from search, from social, from basically the broader open web. If someone sent you to a particular article or some other form of multimedia, we weren’t going to block you. For the most part, uniques remained stable. Ultimately, I think there was a small hit in overall traffic, but I think we retained our audience.

And I think we retained the feeling that the Times was an open site. I think if you compared the Times to some others — certainly something like The Times of London or even The Wall Street Journal — you have a feeling of more openness there. And I really think that was a very good system. It also coincided with the explosion of interest in social media, so we could continue to develop and entertain an audience coming in through Twitter and Facebook and other means. So that was all to the good.

I still don’t know whether young people are still there in the numbers that we saw in 2008. It is hard, without doing specific user surveys — you can’t just look at traffic data and discern what the demographics are. I do worry that there was potentially a long-term consequence among younger readers. But, yeah, I think it worked out really well. I was very happy to stand up in front of public audiences and say, in spite of what I said, I think it’s working really well.

Ellis: How about the opportunities on mobile? What kind of challenges did you face at the Times for figuring out the Times’ presence on mobile devices? How are companies going to have to think about how people consume news there?
Roberts: The Times has to pay attention to mobile. The degree to which mobile traffic grew over the past year was just jaw-dropping to me. Not just the past year, but the past couple of years, and it continues to grow. I think the Times has smartly attempted to exploit those technologies.

If you look at the iPhone app, when there’s a really big story, and look at how that story is presented on the phone and compare it to some other news organizations’ apps, which are just a list of headlines, a list of articles — if a big story happens, whether it’s Sandy or something in the Middle East, you look at a smartphone and you see in small but truly significant ways we’re trying to create an experience that is not just a feed. It’s a smart feed. It tells people: “This is a big event: Pay attention.”

I think they’ve got to figure out, and I think one of the ongoing struggles will be, how mobile fits into the pay model. Right now, there are these bundles, but I think that they have to face questions of whether they want to break any mobile products away from the bundles.

Ellis: You’ve made the transition from @nytjim to @nycjim. What was your Twitter “aha” moment?
Roberts: I’m going to point to a couple of moments. Probably the biggest single moment was Gabby Giffords. I remember — I think it was a Saturday if I’m not mistaken — I remember learning of it. I got a phone call, so I went into the office. So we’re talking about January 2011. The team was well in gear — there were reporters and editors, and people managing the website. We were working through the presentation. Once the machinery is all clicking on that, I sort of sat back and started shooting out some links to the stories we were creating.

Then the police or sheriffs began holding press conferences and I started live-tweeting them. The response to that was extraordinary. I remember, viscerally, just realizing: Wow, this is really intense, how people are hungry for this information and hungry for it in this fashion.

I had been using Twitter since 2008. There were other moments in which I really saw the power of it to spread information. But with Gabby Giffords, I felt like that was a moment in which the sort of instant way of spreading information was really intensely valuable through those press conferences. I spent the majority of that day just kind of live-tweeting updates to the extent that I could.

And of course what an incredible year 2011 turned out to be. Within weeks, if not days, of the shooting, we had Egypt, Fukushima, Libya — all of these both immediate and ongoing stories in which people’s hunger for information in real time was filled in a really cool way by Twitter.

Those months between January 2011 and the summer were really a period of intense enlightenment for me. But the whole year was. By the summer, we were starting to get into primary debates, the Republican primary. I remember social being potent during the riots in London, which was also that summer. That’s a period in which I really saw the power of it.

                                   
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Ann Marie Lipinski    July 24, 2014
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  • malcolmintl

    Very interesting to hear Jim’s thoughts and how his experience with the NYT helped change his mind about online paywalls. The trend towards charging for content is definitely significant and growing. Is it because of the iOS app store or just because we spend so much time in front of a screen instead of a piece of paper? That’s open to debate, but the $91M the NY Times generated last year with under 600,000 subscribers is a clear bellwether. I’m the CEO of MediaPass, and we have an upcoming webinar on best practices for paywalls in the spring.

  • http://twitter.com/GlennF Glenn Fleishman

    I believe Steward Brand’s “information wants to be free” always misquoted by those who use it to oppose fees for information, like those that Jim cited complaining about paywall.

    Brand’s statement was about availability, not cost. The better formulation is “information wants to be freed,” that is not bound up in a way that no one may reach at any cost. He didn’t say it had to be free (gratis) or free (libre) as the cant goes. He just meant accessible.