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March 7, 2016, 12:12 p.m.
Mobile & Apps

Newsonomics: The New York Times reinvents Page One — and it’s better than print ever was

For the first time, I see a newspaper-created product that seems utterly comfortable with the digital medium.

Ah, the art of the broadsheet Page One, with its mystical above-the-fold, below-the-fold double secret handshake code, its photo telegraphing The Big Story, its fonts delivering nuance, and its italics offering their own sweet siren song of understanding? Our never-thought-about assumption: this is what newspapers should look like, and they did, city to city, nation to nation. We hardly considered it design; it just was.

Then, 20 years ago, many of us starting working on online news. In my early Knight Ridder New Media days, I remember vendors pitching me on the earliest e-editions — “digital replicas” of the print newspaper. To this day, many papers offer the easily produced replica (and replica-plus products), which maintain a surprising popularity with the older demographic. We knew, though, that the digital form had to be different than the print form. We figured we would figure out what that new form was fairly quickly. We didn’t.

We all now know that the digital revolution hasn’t been good for the newspaper-based business, with unending losses still defining the press. What we haven’t talked much about is how our failure to create a new, intuitive digital news reading metaphor has contributed to the chaos. Over 20 years, the desktop problem has persisted: Newspapers did not have a good way to let digital readers know the full breadth and depth of their daily production.

News, too often, dominated features and “lifestyle.” Our LIFO (last in, first out) headlining — each in the same typeface, at the same size — never conveyed the richness of the content, that stream of news that any good news organization offers its readers. Digital presentation oozed artlessness. Newspapers too often simply mimicked Google News, which had reproduced its snippetized “news” into a deadening list, letting its algorithms muddy meaning and value. Recency trumped relevance.

While the semi-beloved Page Ones, as limited as they were, offered an orderly, logical news report, Internet-delivered news has often reported in digitally drunk and disorderly.

STORY TOUTS IN THE STREAM NYT SMARTPHONE FOR NIEMAN copyToday, though, I want to celebrate a breakthrough. The New York Times smartphone products now have redefined Page One for the digital era. Finally, we have a model. Mobile can be harnessed to share the day’s news, and works far better to keep us informed than newsprint ever could.

For the first time, I see a newspaper-created product that seems utterly comfortable with the digital medium. It’s casual yet serious, with the hardest news of the day sidling up to winning features, commentary making an appearance where it makes sense and visuals of every variety — maps, graphics, photos, and illustrations — sized appropriately for a small screen. It’s information-dense, but not leaden. In a scan or a scroll of the moment’s news, readers can get a broad sense of what it indeed is happening. We also feel something we rarely have felt with digital newspaper products: playfulness.

“Obviously, it’s different,” said Steve Duenes, the Times associate managing editor for graphics. (See my separate interview with him this week.) “I mean [the print] Page One is [the important news of] the day, but this is…the Page One of the moment, in a way. For example, if you were following the coverage of the Paris attacks, you could see the scale of the story grow. You could see the different strands of the story that were getting covered and their presentations sort of settled into a logic for how we wanted to communicate that story.” Page One is a tough metaphor, but Duenes, 17-year Times veteran, made the association tangible. Speaking of the coverage of those attacks, he says, “We were able to introduce a hierarchy typographically, and then package parts of stories together with the team, for the phone. I think someone in the newsroom made a comparison to Page One.”

Now, dependably, topping the Times page is the Your Morning Briefing or Your Evening Briefing, doing in 10 or so points what Page One could never do. And tying it together is typography, too often the forgotten stepchild of our digital times. On the smartphone, the Times’ typography is elegant and used to signal differing kinds of content. For example, a bolder sans serif face tells you in an instant that a Sunday Magazine story is being released midweek.

The Times app is a harbinger of how the digital age can reward readers, journalists, and the business of journalism going forward. Over the past couple of years, we’ve also seen other newspaper-based design innovations. Two of the better ones have contributed to this next age. I find The Washington Post’s mobile display winning, but it’s a magazine scroll, lacking the proportion and editorial judgment that the Times has figured out how to introduce and maintain daily. The Guardian has figured out how to get a lot of its great work onto the page, but lacks the nuance and lightness of the Times. Buzzfeed, Vox and Slate, among others, all offer spirit and variety, but still look and feel boxy and/or listy.

The Times experience may be a good one, but does it drive the business forward? While the majority of news reading is now mobile — 55 percent or more — publishers have decried the lack of associated revenue. The Times, with its emphasis on reader revenue, believes it is cracking a code here: It is satisfying mobile audiences, and seeing subscription results. The company provided some key data points:

  • “Based on our mid-spring [2015] iPhone homescreen redesign, we saw an increase in frequency of visits as well as higher article views and average time spent per user;
  • Following the initial iPhone homescreen redesign, our new user retention improved with a lift of 20 percent at the first month; after six months, the new user retention has improved by 60 percent vs. the same period the prior year;
  • In addition to mobile apps generating subscriptions, subscribers (print as well as digital exclusive subscribers) are accessing mobile at growing rates. In addition to viewing more content, subscribers who access mobile retain at a higher rate. On average, digital subscribers who use mobile have a 12 percent lift in one year retention vs subscribers who only use the desktop site (based on 2015 retention of 2014 starts).”

Kinsey Wilson, the Times’ executive vice president for product and technology, summed it up this way: “Part of the reason people subscribe is the breadth of our coverage, not just the depth and the authoritativeness of our reporting. Exposing that breadth is really important.” This is the moral of our little story: There’s a clear line we can draw between better products and growing revenue.

Most of the money comes from a few of the readers

Consider engagement and mobile innovation. While publishers may still talk unique visitors, they have finally come to realize that much of the money in the digital business is still to found from as little as 15 percent of the digital readership. The Times has found that about one out of eight digital readers drive its business. It’s no surprise that the only people who will pay are those who use the product.

So engagement — more minutes, now especially in mobile — drives subscription sales, retention, and the ability to increase prices over time. The Times now has that data, and the engaging nature of its smartphone products aligns nicely with its reader revenue strategy.

Can the Times hit CEO Mark Thompson’s goal of doubling its digital revenue to $800 million by 2020? Yes, according to the numbers I’ve crunched — but only if that engagement with the top 10 percent of the digital audience gets deeper and deeper over time.

This is an old-fashioned business philosophy: Give the customer more when you ask them to pay more. Amazingly, too few publishers today embrace that age-old tenet. The Times’ surpassingly high-quality content is worth the price of admission, but it’s in the product experience itself that the value of that content gets proven out.

In a very real sense, the digital display of news organizations has long masked their wealth of production. When Kinsey Wilson first arrived, and then quickly ascended, I asked him what he was making of the new experience. He said he hadn’t realized the breadth of what the Times produces every day. The Times produces 150 stories a day, 250 on Sunday. Yet most people will only read a minority of those stories.

HARPER LEE CONTEXT FOR NIEMAN copyIf the Times can get readers to go deeper, and sideways, it will surprise them with all kinds of content they never knew was buried in the digital ether. In fact, another Times metric — one I haven’t heard cited by other publishers — is that a reader who reads two kinds of content regularly is more likely to become and stay a subscriber than a reader who reads only one, even if the number of pageviews is constant between the two. Variety may not only be the spice of life, but of subscription. As Mark Thompson has put it to me, “We are working the engagement curve.”

On the app, “we have gradually moved away from a more traditional top-story layout to one that is intended to make a statement about what the Times is all about and to give people a sense of the richness that’s there,” Wilson told me recently. “The implication is that the front screen is going to present the breadth and depth of The New York Times, as well as the most important stories of the day.”

In other words, it’s not a newspaper gone digital. It’s something else.

“We look at the way in which headlines and photos are handled so that an in-depth feature or a lighter piece gets a different treatment than a hard news story,” Wilson said. “You also need to build into your layout as much familiarity and predictability as you can, even though news is inherently unpredictable and changes all the time, so readers know what to expect when they go deeper.”

It’s all back to that engagement question, and how hard it is to gain — and keep — readers’ attention.

“There is so much that goes into getting somebody to click on a story,” said Wilson. “First, you need to telegraph as much as you can about what’s in the story that a reader won’t want to miss. One way to do that is to put the most essential element of the story, whether it’s a headline, a photo, or a pull quote, on that front card. We’re not all the way there, but that’s how we are approaching it.”

How the Times got here

It’s been a tortuous path, involving the reworking of content management system tools, newsroom workflow, and product capabilities across the company.

“Our 2015 redesign brought our codebase up to speed in many ways, but also helped us develop new technical and design approaches that we’re now spreading across the platform ecosystem,” Kate Harris, who has directed the Times’ mobile product development for four years, told me. Behind the scenes, it’s product development tools that make a difference. “Over time, we’ve been developing more and more tools to give editors the ability to express a story in a card format.” It’s not a discrete toolbox, ready to be plucked from for a breaking story. It’s more a shared way of doing things, a new newsroom/tech culture still developing.

Credit must go to the too-much-criticized NYT Now (“The newsonomics of NYT Now”). That product, launched in 2014 with a focus on millennials, failed to find a substantial new paying market, but its briefings-based, sharing-oriented way of presenting the news crunched new ground for the Times.

NYT Now founding editor Cliff Levy, who had iterated some of those innovations at a previous experiment (New York Today), deserves a nod here. Wilson credits NYT Now with several major innovations that are now being integrated into the main New York Times:

  • Presenting a greater cross-section of what the Times publishes spanning culture, opinion, and sports;
  • Using that fuller toolbox of typography, thumbnails and visuals to better express the range of stories offered;
  • Presenting a finite list of stories so readers have a sense of completion
  • Combining a select list of outside stories with Times content

That should be a four-point checklist for any news publisher. While the Times is the Times, the principles are sound.

The Times’ current smartphone product isn’t an endpoint; there’s plenty of work ahead. While the Times has managed to maintain much of the spunk of the NYT app (iOS and Android) in its browser products, its Kindle app suffers in comparison.

For now, though, the Times not only gives us a new Page One. It offers the first accessible model for the next generation of smartphone-delivered news. Further, it not only repairs the loss we’ve suffered with the decline of print, it points the way — finally — for how digital delivery of news can be smarter, wider, deeper and, eventually, more lucrative than what came before.

POSTED     March 7, 2016, 12:12 p.m.
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