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Nov. 25, 2014, 11:56 a.m.
Reporting & Production

Ken Doctor: Why The New York Times hired Kinsey Wilson

The former chief content officer at NPR will be moving up I-95 to one of the most important digital positions at the Times.

In a year of both triumphs and stumbles in The New York Times’ ungainly digital business progress, today’s appointment of Kinsey Wilson to the post of strategy and innovation editor makes a lot of sense. Wilson lost his job as NPR’s chief content officer in October. His availability fits right in with still-new Times executive editor Dean Baquet’s needs and plans as he prepares for 2015. The hope: Wilson will provide a missing link, both within and outside the Times newsroom.

Wilson will serve as one of six Baquet deputies in the recently reshaped newsroom. Most importantly, though, he’s the one who is a full digital convert. Steeped in the traditions and legacies of the newspaper industry, back to his early days working at Newsday and then as executive editor of USA Today, Wilson made his name with his efforts to transform NPR from a big radio operation to a multiplatform one — a transformation still on training wheels. He understands deeply the all-important roles of technology and of partnership in driving all news businesses forward. In those respects, he can be Baquet’s trusted ambassador — the two have known each other for a long time — to worlds not immediately intuitive to Baquet, a master journalist and editor, but one who hasn’t gone digital (“The newsonomics of The New York Times’ innovators’ dilemmas”). With the appointment, Baquet is showing that he is savvy enough to know what he doesn’t know — and to act on that knowledge.

Wilson moves into a newsroom recently shaped toward digital yet again. In the October Times newsroom cuts, both costs and legacy positions were taken out. The program of removing as many as 100 positions has centered on “reskilling” for the digital age (“The newsonomics of new cutbacks at The New York Times”). One driver of that, clearly, is the deep print ad losses the Times continues to endure, its third quarter on par with its newspaper peers as one of the worst in recent years. Second, the Times’ leaked newsroom innovation report painted a picture of a newsroom whose digital transition had been real, but also really uneven. Arthur Gregg Sulzberger, the publisher’s son and an heir apparent, led the authorship of that report; he’s since assumed the title of senior editor for strategy.

That is only one of the key relationships that Wilson will have to work. Within the 1,200-plus newsroom, there are of course countless connections to make and reinforce. The good news: Given all the change leading up to 2015, Wilson will find many kindred spirits.

Outside the newsroom — but within the Times itself — Wilson will try to reconnect ties that are strong in some places and weak in others. Consider the recent history. When Bill Keller retired as executive editor in 2011, his digital leadership decamped the Times as Jill Abramson took over. Jon Landman went to Bloomberg as editor-at-large, now heading Bloomberg QuickTake. Jim Roberts joined Reuters for a brief stay, as that company restructured itself, and now serves as Mashable’s executive editor/chief content officer. Jim Schachter was the first to leave; I highlighted his work at WNYC last week. That troika provided outreach both within the building and outside via partnerships. That outreach might have been imperfect, but as one Times exec put it to me, “You at least knew who to go to in the newsroom.” Consider Wilson’s appointment as a new chance to re-establish more orderly working relationships.

Of course, since 2011, a lot has changed. Mark Thompson became CEO in 2012 and serves as the Times’ master strategist. Meredith Levien — now looked to for leadership in digital ads generally and native/content marketing specifically — came over from Forbes in July 2013. While Wilson is the new guy on the block, he’ll have a month or several of seniority on the next two Times power players. As he recently reported troublesome quarterly financials, Thompson announced the creation of two new top jobs — chief digital officer and chief marketing officer — and is recruiting for both, as former digital business head Denise Warren departs. Wilson’s relationships with all these players, on his own and as Dean Baquet’s surrogate, will be crucial to the next phase of the Times’ transformation to a mainly digital enterprise.

Outside the company, Wilson, too, will work relationships. In his NPR role, he’s been a frequent visitor to Silicon Valley, working connections with Apple and smaller companies as he prepared to launch the NPR One mobile app, intended to put distance between NPR and its commercial aggregator competitors. That product just got off the ground (“The newsonomics of NPR One and the dream of personalized public radio”) and in so doing rankled some of the execs of public radio’s biggest stations. Those sharp elbows helped push Wilson out of the NPR job, and he is no stranger to them, given his work in dedicated-but-contentious public radio and, before that, Gannett. It may seem like an out-of-frying-pan, into-the-Times-fire scenario, but it’s one Wilson is suited for by knowledge and temperament. One looming question: How will the still-insular Times culture accept a non-Timesman in this position? While new NPR CEO Jarl Mohn figures out his next leadership moves — the appointment of a new head of news is pivotal to that and expected by January — NPR’s loss should be the Times’ gain.

It’s curious. Both The New York Times and NPR command huge national audiences. Both can claim pioneering status in moving from legacy formats into the new digital-delivered world. Both depend on their audience — the Times through subscribers, NPR through station payments bolstered by millions of members — to feed their journalism. Both have suffered job cutbacks just this year. Yet both possess the strengths to make it to the other side of this digital divide.

Twenty-five years of news industry experience on the web has yielded quite an education for some. Increasingly, the leadership of places like the Times and NPR is being cross-pollinated, as veterans — like Kinsey Wilson — take what they’ve learned at one shop and apply at another.

Photo of Kinsey Wilson (right) at the 2011 IMA Conference by used under a Creative Commons license.

POSTED     Nov. 25, 2014, 11:56 a.m.
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