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Jan. 30, 2017, 10:39 a.m.
Business Models

How The New York Times plans to get Australia “into the bloodstream” of its coverage of global events

“Somebody asked me, ‘Whose market share are you trying to steal?’ That’s not really how we’re thinking about this.”

Last week, The New York Times formally announced the launch of its expanded presence in Australia — by opening a full bureau in Sydney; by putting out an open call for story and project ideas; and by seeking input from readers directly through a new Australia-focused newsletter.

“This is a much more nimble, starting-from-scratch startup model that deploys things from the 2020 report and deploys the things many of us who’ve been wanting to innovate from the inside have been wanting to do for a while,” Damien Cave, the new Australia bureau chief, told me. (Jacqueline Williams from the investigative team and Michelle Innis, who has been an Australia correspondent for the Times since 2014, are already working at the new bureau.) “The mix of the team is different. It’ll be more visual. The focus on the audience will be more intense, more measured. And the line between various departments: [NYT] Global includes people from product and marketing and advertising; the opinion editor and I have many conversations.”

When I spoke with Cave last week, he elaborated on the thinking behind the new bureau, the stories he hopes his team will cover and the readers he hopes they’ll reach, and the way the Times’ Australian experiment carries out the mandates in the recently released 2020 report on the organization’s digital path forward. Our conversation is below, edited for length and clarity.

Shan Wang: I want to hear more from you about what exactly it is you guys will be producing.

Damien Cave: If you look at the job listings, and me and Jacqueline, you’ll see that there are a few priorities for us. One is investigative stories that no one else can do, or that no one else is as doing as commonly as we can, that involve not just Australia but the world. When we do stories about global migration and the ways migrants are being integrated in different countries, Australia should be part of that coverage. We want to get Australia into the bloodstream of how the Times covers the world.

We also want to be more creative in terms of presentation, and the way we tell stories. We want a graphics and multimedia editor, because we want this to be more visual.

We’re doing an open call for proposals, with the intent of producing things that are more collaborative and ambitious. I just came off a partnership with [PBS documentary series] POV for the race team, which went really well. It let us do ambitious, digital projects we wouldn’t have done otherwise. I hope we’ll tap into the most talented, creative storytellers in Australia, they’ll bring story ideas to us, and we’ll find a way to make [those stories] both Timesian and Australian at the same time.

We’ll cover the news, but the team is small, so we’ll be selective. We can’t compete on incremental, day-to-day political news.

Somebody asked me, “Whose market share are you trying to steal?” That’s not really how we’re thinking about this. We think we can add something to what’s already here. This isn’t a criticism of the journalism already here, but we think there’s demand for and interest in the journalism the Times does.

We’ll adjust and adapt and pivot more like a startup than a giant legacy corporation. We’re trying to build it small so we can adjust depending on what works. All the things I just told you — these are also just working hypotheses.

Wang: So what we’ll see is, really, more Australia stories on nytimes.com. And there’s an Australia-focused newsletter. Will there be a separate homepage for an Australian edition, for instance?

Cave: We’ll make it easier for Australians to see and find our content. The newsletter will not be the only tool.

The idea of a “local edition” — something about that phrase doesn’t quite feel right. We’re trying to connect the broader New York Times to Australia. We’re trying to bring the audience here the best of the Times, tailored to them, plus deeper coverage of Australia and the issues Australians care about around the world.

Wang: So it’s all going to be original reporting.

Cave: Commodity news for us…there’s just a lot already out there, and people can get that anywhere. We want to give people something different, which is specifically The New York Times. Again, when there’s big news — this is a small example of what we do: On Wednesday, we had a story about Peter Thiel having New Zealand citizenship. Jacqueline got to a bunch of officials in New Zealand and unearthed details we never would’ve found if we hadn’t been here.

Wang: Do you have a sense of the percentage of stories that will be for Australians, about Australia specifically, and the percentage that will be of broader interest? It sounds as if you’re making a distinction between these.

Cave: I’ve been meeting with photographers, journalists, a whole bunch of people since we’ve been here. Even when we’re telling stories for people outside of Australia interested in Australia, they still need to say something new for Australians.

The primary focus is definitely the Australian audience. We don’t want to do stories to tell them something they already know. If we do a story on climate change and mining, it needs to go deeper than something they’ve already read in their local press.

We have ideas around culture coverage that go beyond news; some of the culture stories may just be local. We’re already starting to ramp up opinion assignments. It’s a whole package we’re trying to give people. The majority of what we do will go after a global reader we think is in Australia and elsewhere.

Wang: The Times’ ultimate goal is to attract paying subscribers. Are you trying to hit a certain number of stories per day, to make this valuable enough to pay for?

Cave: There need to be enough stories for people to develop a habit, but we have to test what that volume is. We’re still trying to figure out the tools we’ll use for the newsletter, and what we’re doing on social. I don’t think we’ll get as much out of volume as we will out of quality.

Wang: Are you looking to hire mostly locally?

Cave: Our listing says that you should be in Australia or have a plan to get here. There are lots of great Australian journalists working all around the world, and they’re interested in coming home. I want to talk to them. They don’t have to be Australian, but they should have an understanding and passion for this place. We need enough Australians on the team that we don’t feel like we’re parachuting in. The people who are already attracted to the job seem to be Australians who have some international experience already, and that’s important — someone who understands Australia, but also understands how other countries work, can help us put this country in context.

Wang: Is there a set of metrics for what success will look like?

Cave: I’ve been pushing the team to think about how to measure deeper engagement — how do we measure not just the number of clicks or the size of the audience or even the number of subscribers, but find a way to determine whether readers have an emotional connection to what we’re producing?

Our tools are still not great at measuring that; it’s one of the things we’re trying to figure out. For me, success will be stories that are memorable enough and provide enough value that people want to come back and pay for them. How do we measure that moment of emotional impact?

Wang: How does this fit into the Times’ overall plans for global expansion? Is the building of the Australian bureau a model for how the Times plans to expand in other countries?

Cave: It could be. We’re looking at this as a promising experiment. It’s a different market than Canada [where the Times is also expanding coverage], for instance, which by its proximity to the U.S. and the fact that we’ve had a correspondent there for a long time, is a different thing.

This is a much more nimble, starting-from-scratch startup model that deploys things from the 2020 report, and deploys the things many of us who’ve been wanting to innovate from the inside, have been wanting to do for a while.

The mix of the team is different. It’ll be more visual. The focus on the audience will be more intense, more measured. And the line between various departments. [NYT] Global includes people from product and marketing and advertising; the opinion editor and I have many conversations. When silos break down and we’re starting something from scratch, what do we think it should look like? How do we measure success?

If this works, my hope is that some of this will be exported to other markets. And if it doesn’t work, we’ll try some other things. Who knows! Let’s give it a go.

The paper’s trying to figure out a lot of this stuff. It can be hard to do within an enormous organization, so this, as something a little smaller, maybe there are some lessons that can be learned.

At the end of the day there are a lot of experiments going on here. This is a relatively small investment — it’s not the size of what The Guardian or even BuzzFeed has here. We’re excited about this, but this is a small experiment that will build and grow depending on how things go. While yes, I think this can be a model, there are lots of other things can be a model. We’re not the only belles at the ball! It’s a different model, in a different country, far away from New York.

Photo of an 1836 map of Australia by State Library of South Australia used under a Creative Commons license.

POSTED     Jan. 30, 2017, 10:39 a.m.
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