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Newsonomics: After a purge, the Los Angeles Times (still) searches for a future
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Jan. 17, 2017, 12:51 p.m.

This is The New York Times’ digital path forward

“For all the progress we have made, we still have not built a digital business large enough on its own to support a newsroom that can fulfill our ambitions.” This new internal report outlines how the Times aims to improve its journalism to help do just that.

One thing is certain: The New York Times has gotten a lot better at publishing internal reports.

In 2014, when a team of Times staffers created a raw-by-corporate-memo-standards report on why the paper struggled to innovate, the full version had to be leaked out. (Our summary of that report remains the most popular thing Nieman Lab has ever published.)

Then, 17 months later, the Our Path Forward memo from Times leadership served as the debut of the paper’s stated goal to double digital revenue by 2020. And this time the report was released publicly, albeit as a boring old PDF.

Today, 15 months later, the Times released Journalism That Stands Apart: The Report of the 2020 Group, and it got the full multimedia treatment — big images and type and video, hosted in much the same way (and under the same URL structure) that one of its major interactive pieces would be.

You can read that shift in a few different ways. It’s the Times becoming more comfortable with the idea that there’s major interest in its state and its fate — a trend that the prospect of a Trump presidency has only accelerated. (More than one Times leader reacted with surprise at the audience for our summary of the Innovation report.) It’s also the Times becoming much more agile with presenting its work in a digitally native way. (The Innovation report came barely a year after Snow Fall.) But it’s also, I think, the Times becoming more open about its direction — and, simultaneously, the paper’s confidence in itself and also its fragility. The report captures both ends of that dialectic:

We are, in the simplest terms, a subscription-first business. Our focus on subscribers sets us apart in crucial ways from many other media organizations. We are not trying to maximize clicks and sell low-margin advertising against them. We are not trying to win a pageviews arms race. We believe that the more sound business strategy for The Times is to provide journalism so strong that several million people around the world are willing to pay for it. Of course, this strategy is also deeply in tune with our longtime values. Our incentives point us toward journalistic excellence…

Why must we change? Because our ambitions are grand: to prove that there is a digital model for original, time-consuming, boots-on-the-ground, expert reporting that the world needs…As Dean wrote to the newsroom, when explaining Project 2020, “Make no mistake, this is the only way to protect our journalistic ambitions. To do nothing, or to be timid in imagining the future, would mean being left behind.” There are many once-mighty companies that believed their history of success would inevitably protect them from technological change, only to be done in by their complacency.

At first read, the 2020 report lacks some of the Innovation report’s self-flagellation, which is probably both a reflection of it being designed for public consumption and of that confidence in the subscription-based model. As the digital advertising world burns around publishers, there are few large news outlets better positioned than the Times to survive it. It still has major growth potential overseas; it’s well positioned to skim the top tier of local and regional newspaper audiences as those outlets decline; and one would expect there’s still room for growth not just in how many digital subscribers it has but also in how much money it draws from a large share of them.

Still, the report also shares more than a little DNA with some famous corporate memos of the past few decades; Bill Gates’ 1995 “Internet tidal wave” memo at Microsoft and Stephen Elop’s 2011 “burning platform” memo at Nokia come to mind. Those came from CEOs rather than internal committees, but they both attempted to shake organizations stuck in old mindsets and workflows into substantial and rapid change. (And hey, one of them even worked!)

Today’s 2020 report also shares some resemblance with the big reorganization plans announced by some local and regional newspapers — The Boston Globe’s being the most recent, following The Dallas Morning News, the Gannett chain, and others. Those smaller papers have tended to call for more significant structural changes — new beat structures, new reporting relationships — than the 2020 report does, which is mostly reflective of the greater challenges those papers face with smaller addressable markets and deeper resource cuts.

In that context, it’s also hard to read parts of this report without thinking of the rise of the Bezos-era Washington Post — the Times’ most obvious rival as a premium globe-straddling news organization. (The days of battling The Wall Street Journal over New York coverage feel long ago.) The Post has made plenty of flashy statements about its audience success, its (stated) profitability, and its current hiring spree. A few spots in the report feel like one half of a back-and-forth:

The Times is unrivaled in its investment in original, quality journalism…No newsroom in the world has more journalists who can code. We remain the employer of choice for top journalists, receiving job queries from our peers at other leading publications every week and hiring many of the field’s most creative, distinguished people…Last year, The Times brought in almost $500 million in purely digital revenue, which is far more than the digital revenues reported by many other leading publications (including BuzzFeed, The Guardian and The Washington Post) — combined.

It’s interesting to me that video is not singled out as an area of emphasis in the report, put instead under the broader rubric of a more visual report and presented as one of many platforms for Times journalism. (Meanwhile, the Post is expanding its video team by 30.)

The Times may not have the luxury of a Bezos-style owner with the runway to invest; a memo from executive editor Dean Baquet and managing editor Joe Kahn accompanying the report acknowledges: “There will be budget cuts this year. We will lay out the specifics in the coming weeks and months.”

But this report — assembled by an array of Times staffers, David Leonhardt, Tyson Evans, Marc Lacey, Tom Giratikanon, Jodi Rudoren, Karron Skog, and Jon Galinsky — gives me some confidence the Times is reshaping in a sustainable direction. One reason: Unlike the Innovation report, which was in some sense a compilation of all the things the Times was doing wrong, this report is also a chronicling of what progress it’s already made. And 2016 is not 2014; anyone in the Times newsroom today still resistant to the idea that deep change is necessary for the institution’s future is someone resistant to reality.

My colleagues Laura Hazard Owen, Joseph Lichterman, and Ricardo Bilton have read over the full report and the accompanying changes laid out by Baquet and Kahn and summarized the key points below. We’ve grouped them into the same three thematic sections as the report: the Times’ news report, its staffing, and its workflows. After you’ve read their précis, check out the full report and memo — and take a look at the Times’ state of affairs in 2014 for a compare-and-contrast.

“Our report”

“For all the progress we have made, we still have not built a digital business large enough on its own to support a newsroom that can fulfill our ambitions,” write the report’s authors, and “too often, digital progress has been accomplished through workarounds…our work too often reflects conventions built up over many decades, when we spoke to readers once a day.”

Of the 200 pieces of journalism that the Times publishes every day, the report’s authors write, too many “lack significant impact or audience”:

Incremental news stories that are little different from what can be found in the freely available competition. Features and columns with little urgency. Stories written in a dense, institutional language that fails to clarify important subjects and feels alien to younger readers. A long string of text, when a photograph, video or chart would be more eloquent.

We devote a large amount of resources to stories that relatively few people read. Except in some mission-driven areas or in areas where evidence suggests that the articles have disproportionate value to subscribers, there is little justification for this. It wastes time — of reporters, backfielders, copy editors, photo editors and others — and dilutes our report.

The most poorly read stories, it turns out, are often the most “dutiful” — incremental pieces, typically with minimal added context, without visuals and largely undifferentiated from the competition. They frequently do not clear the bar of journalism worth paying for, because similar versions are available free elsewhere.

In addition, “too much of our daily report remains dominated by long strings of text”; reporters and critics “lack the proper training to embed visuals contextually,” and the Times CMS, which is called Scoop, makes placing visuals “an afterthought” (though a new CMS tool named Oak aims to address this).

“We need to expand the number of visual experts who work at The Times and also expand the number who are in leadership roles,” the report’s authors write; photographers, videographers, and graphics editors will “[play] the primary role covering some stories.” In their memo, Baquet and Kahn write, “We will train many, many more reporters and backfielders to think visually and incorporate visual elements into their stories.” There will be more creative directors and senior editors who are visual experts. And “roughly a dozen new visual-first journalists will be in place by the end of 2017.”

Covering the Trump presidency “aggressively, fairly and unrelentingly will be the top priority for The New York Times newsroom this year,” Baquet and Kahn write, and the company is investing an additional $5 million to do so.

Daily briefings are “among the most successful products” the Times has launched recently, the report says, and “we need more innovations” like them “that make The Times a habit by frequently enlightening readers on major running stories, through email newsletters, alerts, FAQs, scoreboards, audio, video, and forms yet to be invented.”

Journalists also need to use “a less institutional and more conversational writing style” throughout the entire publication and not just on social media:

One of [this style’s] biggest advantages is that it can convey the distinctiveness of The Times, making clear that we’re covering stories on the ground and doing so with expert journalists. In our own report, however, we still do not use this more approachable writing style often enough, and, when we do, we too often equate it with the first-person voice. The Times has rightly become more comfortable with the first person, but clear, conversational writing does not depend on it.

The report places huge focus on the renewal of the Times’ feature sections. “The Times’s current features strategy dates to the creation of new sections in the 1970s” and needs to be revamped; projects like Cooking and Watching are steps in this area, but the publication needs to make “more big digital bets” in features. A “high-ranking” digital features editor will be appointed this year, according to Baquet and Kahn’s memo.

“We need a new strategy, both for traditional features (meant to delight and inform) and for guidance (meant to be useful in tangible ways),” says the report. Readers often want advice and “too often, we don’t offer it, or offer it only in print-centric forms.”

The acquisition of The Wirecutter and launch of Smarter Living are only “first steps” in this direction; “in all likelihood, we will need a modern version of the 1970s features expansion…We expect that the bigger opportunities are in providing guidance rather than traditional features.” In their memo, Baquet and Kahn note that new “service-oriented” journalism will “[take] full advantage of interactive digital platforms and [rely] less on repurposing of coverage intended for print.”

The report says the Times isn’t doing enough to build reader engagement; “our richest community engagement right now” is in “nooks and crannies” like Well posts and recipes. “The Times experience doesn’t get more interesting or valuable as more of a reader’s friends, relatives and colleagues use it. That must change.”

In their memo, Baquet and Kahn stress the need to create new thematic teams:

“High-priority coverage areas are spread across multiple desks, diluting them and limiting collaboration among journalists covering the same subjects…Our health care coverage, for example, spans five departments and multiple print sections. Technology, meanwhile, is covered mostly as a business story, reflecting its place in the organization, focused on companies and executives while largely ignoring the arts, fashion, politics or even the science of the subject. No one starting a news organization from scratch would separate the journalists covering the same subject.”

The Times is about to announce new climate and health editors and is searching for a new gender editor. “One of the advantages of these new teams is that they provide opportunities to promote new editors into the leadership rung — particularly those, like Amanda Cox of The Upshot, who are among our finest journalists but whose backgrounds are not those of traditional newsroom leaders.”

“Our staff”

The Times needs to improve its staff training processes. One newly hired reporter said, “The ability to maneuver and be trained on different platforms would be ideal,” adding that, “training is always haphazard.”

In their memo, Baquet and Kahn write that training must become a regular part of working at the Times. The Digital Transition team, the Times’ training group, has made an initial pass through the newsroom and that it will begin more focused training in the coming weeks.

They said the curriculum will include ways to produce different story formats — including charts and video — and how to write more conversationally:

In developing its curriculum, the team will draw from the constellation of Times leaders who are helping to change the way we work. The issues include: defining roles for different types of editors; identifying best practices for headline writing and engaging with our audiences; reinventing how we tell stories; and how to get the most out of our CMS.

The Times does not “have the right mix of skills in the newsroom to carry about the ambitious plan for change,” the report says, emphasizing a need to move away from print-focused roles and toward more visual and digital jobs.

The report’s authors write that “one of most important recommendations we are making” is that the Times must make more hires in areas directly related to its journalism,” even though doing so will increase the need for newsroom turnover given budget realities.”

The Times has hired about 70 new employees annually in recent years, with about half of those hires occurring in areas that impact journalism.

“The most high-priority hires should be those of creators, such as reporters, graphics editors, photographers and others who make journalism. The hiring of star backfielders, well suited to the digital age, is also crucial,” the report says.

The Times has recently posted jobs for its first executive producer for audio (it hired former WBUR producer Lisa Tobin), an editor to cover gender issues, and a slew of new roles on its national desk to cover topics such as faith and values, race, and immigration.

The paper already has and will continue to use these positions to create teams that span its traditional desks and enable the Times to cover these subjects in multiple ways.

The report encourages the Times to hire more experts. In their memo, Baquet and Kahn say they will appoint a senior editor to lead recruiting; with the decline in local newspapers, they said the Times will have to look to less traditional outlets to recruit new staffers.

“The Internet is brutal to mediocrity,” the report says. “When journalists make mistakes, miss nuances or lack sharpness, they’re called out quickly on Twitter, Facebook and elsewhere. Free alternatives abound, often reporting the same commoditized information. As a result, the returns to expertise have risen.”

The report and memo stress that the Times must focus and double down on its emphasis to diversify its staff.

Increasing the diversity of our newsroom — more people of color, more women, more people from outside major metropolitan areas, more younger journalists and more non-Americans — is critical to our ability to produce a richer and more engaging report. It is also vital to our strategic ambitions. Expanding our international audience and attracting more young readers, which will go a long way toward determining whether The Times meets its audience goals, depend on having a more diversified report and a more diverse staff.

In their memo, Baquet and Kahn write that the Times’ technology, product, and design teams have recently participated in diversity programs, which included unconscious-bias training, mentorships, and more. They suggest that a similar program be implemented in the newsroom.

“The Times should invest more in career planning, and should do more to not only hire people of color or people who aren’t from the usual talent pipelines but also help them with mentorship and career advancement,” one staffer said in response to a survey question.

In their memo, Baquet and Kahn also said that the Times writes more about men than women and that reader surveys have found that women think that “The Times is primarily run by and written by men.”

“Many interviewed said they would like to see more analysis and opinion by women, more women in photos and more women quoted in articles,” they wrote. “Gender diversity issues extend to leadership. There are roughly as many women in the official management ranks of the newsroom as in the staff as a whole, but we want to see more women in positions running coverage in the newsroom.”

The report encourages the Times to increase spending on freelance work, but suggests that the paper reconsider the types of freelance work it commissions.

Many of the Times’ most-read stories are by freelancers. But the publication also uses “stringers in every state and around the world for routine coverage of stories that too often does not surpass the quality or speed of the wires and that requires considerable effort editing and coordinating.”

“We need to be more creative, and ambitious, with the money spent each year on outside contributors,” the report says. “But we should not conflate changing our freelance spending with cutting it. When a newsroom budget is under pressure, freelance is often the most obvious candidate for cuts. Taking an across-the-board approach now would be a mistake.”

Instead, upcoming budget cuts “will focus on the multilayered editing and production systems, a legacy of our newspaper traditions that remains much bigger and more complex than at our competitors.”

“The way we work”

“Who are we writing for?” One would imagine the question to be a baseline at any news organization, particularly the Times. But the newspaper says that that kind of clarity is still missing in many sections, which have not made “clear decisions about who their primary audience is and which journalistic forms are a priority.”

The way forward, the report says, has been modeled to greatest effect with sections like Cooking and Well, which were designed with specific audiences and story forms in mind, and on the graphics desk. However, “these departments with clear, widely understood missions remain unusual,” the report says.

The report suggests that every section should establish a vision plan that specifies what the team will cover, the target audience, how that audience will experience the section’s reporting, and what kinds of skills the group will need. The hope, the Times says, is that this focus will make reporters more effective by in part making it easier to “make choices about what we’re going to do and not do.”

The report makes a strong appeal for sections to adopt specific goals and targets, which “can be a powerful focusing mechanism for reporters.” While experimentation is an obvious necessity with digital journalism, setting clear goals makes it easier to both know what success looks like, and determine when a failed project should be shut down.

“The Times should be more willing to expand teams that are thriving, to change course for teams that don’t appear to have the right approach, to shift resources away from teams that appear to be failing and to change leadership when appropriate,” the report says.

Likewise, the definition of success starts with determining which metrics are most important:

The newsroom needs a clearer understanding that pageviews, while a meaningful yardstick, do not equal success. To repeat, The Times is a subscription-first business; it is not trying to maximize pageviews. The most successful and valuable stories are often not those that receive the largest number of pageviews, despite widespread newsroom assumptions. A story that receives 100,000 or 200,000 pageviews and makes readers feel as if they’re getting reporting and insight that they can’t find anywhere else is more valuable to The Times than a fun piece that goes viral and yet woos few if any new subscribers.

The data and audience insights group, under Laura Evans, is in the latter stages of creating a more sophisticated metric than pageviews, one that tries to measure an article’s value to attracting and retaining subscribers. This metric seems a promising alternative to pageviews.

The report recommends that the Times spend less time on what it calls “low-value editing,” which tends to focus on moving around paragraphs and tweaking the wording of sentences. Instead, reporters say they want a greater focus on “conceptual, front-end editing” to sharpen stories earlier on in the process. In the memo, Baquet and Kahn say that the Times is experimenting with new editing models that will “layer the principles of classic Times editing atop a model more suited to a digital-first operation.” This will inevitably mean fewer editors at the newspaper.

Echoing a shift across the industry, the Times says that its product teams and journalists should work even more closely together, understanding the priorities of their counterparts and developing a mutual understanding of what makes readers tick. The report cites the relative lack of development on the Times homepage as one result of its product teams’ lack of understanding about the newspapers’ coverage priorities. Greater focus on product is also core to the Times’ decision to create an innovation team, which will focus on focusing the Times’ efforts to expand onto new platforms and experiment with new story formats. “We believe this team can help foster a culture of innovation and experimentation across the newsroom, and can encourage journalists to think beyond their current beat,” write Kahn and Baquet.

The Times also wants to rethink the role of its print product, which still dictates the rhythms of reporting and publishing. This is “holding back our ability to make further digital changes, and it is also starting to rob the print newspaper of the attention it needs to become even better,” the report says.

A larger, more autonomous print hub to focus on the print product will, in turn, free up reporters to focus on digital production. “Only if the print hub is truly separate from the departments — and only if the entire newsroom understands how the hub operates — will we get the benefits of such an arrangement,” Baquet and Kahn write.

Top photo of the New York Times newsroom on Election Night 2008 by Nick Bilton.

POSTED     Jan. 17, 2017, 12:51 p.m.
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