Nieman Foundation at Harvard
HOME
          
LATEST STORY
Outgoing New York Times CEO Mark Thompson thinks there won’t be a print edition in 20 years
ABOUT                    SUBSCRIBE
April 2, 2020, 6:30 p.m.

Why The New York Times considers books — like podcasts and TV — ripe for expansion

“Reporters leave a ton in their notebooks. The book form really gives us a chance to expand the journalism.”

The New York Times has been turning its journalism into books in different ways for more than a century. (Here’s a copy of “The New York Times Current History: The European War, Volume XIII,” published 1917.)

The newspaper typically partners with traditional book publishers; it published 15 books with nine different publishers in 2019. But the Times is increasingly choosing to go its own way — viewing books as another venue for the expansion of the Times brand.

Over a few frantic days last month, the Times published an ebook titled “Answers to Your Coronavirus Questions,” which collected explanatory and service-oriented Times articles about the virus.

“It was a five-day sprint from conception to publication,” said Caroline Que, who leads book development at The New York Times. “Even with bylines or contributor lines from almost 30 journalists, it collects only a sliver of our coverage.”

Que said the Times published the book directly — and for free — in part to displace “lower-quality offerings.” (Amazon, as one example, has been flooded with self-published coronavirus books, which meant some top results include plagiarized material or unverified information by self-proclaimed experts.)

“It feels really good to have quality info out there for a different audience and in a different form,” Que said.

The Times ebook — which was also available as a PDF, epub, or mobi — was downloaded 30,000 times from Apple Books in its first week. It’s “a very healthy number,” according to Que, and landed the ebook the No. 1 spot for free books on Apple’s platform. It’s currently still No. 48, behind a lot of romance titles and a few Elmo books to entertain kids stuck at home.

(“Excellent information: Coherent information in a well organized way,” says reader md_manny. “Don’t believe this propaganda news paper go to the CDC.gov and get the true information,” says reader Kelly mcc. Can’t win them all.)

Que estimated the ebook “accounted for an extra million views” of explanatory and service articles by Times journalists on the topic between the Apple Books sales and direct downloads from the Times site. (That’s assuming, optimistically, that everyone who downloaded read all 160 pages.) The book, which doesn’t have much in the way of cover design, features a range of content, from how to protect a family member in a nursing home to answers to 401(k) questions to the best way to stock a pantry during the crisis.

News organizations publishing ebooks directly is nothing new. Especially in the early days of the Kindle, many saw ebooks as a way to monetize the journalism they were publishing online for free. For the most part, those hopes faded; sales didn’t materialize in significant numbers and ebooks as a whole lost ground back to print.

But a project like this coronavirus book is less about direct revenue and more about extending the Times brand for quality journalism to new platforms. Someone downloading a free Times book on their iPhone might be more likely to become a paying subscriber — or at least to have a positive impression of the paper. On the other end of the funnel, the Times, The Wall Street Journal, and others have at various points used exclusive ebooks as a benefit for premium subscribers.

Book development is growing at the Times, and Que is hiring a project manager to help her take on more projects. The expansion is part of a larger effort at the Times to push into other forms. Although book development has fewer staff than, say, the paper’s growing audio team, Que said she has “a broad mandate” to think creatively about “elevating and expanding” their journalism into book form.

“The Times is moving into a lot of new areas — film, TV, audio — at different speeds,” Que said. “We’re bringing the book development program in line with some of those things as one of the modern offerings of The New York Times.”

One of the first steps is thinking collaboratively about books with Times reporters instead of watching them take their reporting and book proposals out the door. (“The Times has become a book-deal factory,” one reporter told Vanity Fair last year, when more than two dozen Times reporters had recently landed book deals.)

“To me, it feels like the worst case scenario to have the Times invest in a line of reporting for six months and then the reporter go off on their own,” Que said. “We’re taking a hard look at how we do some of those things. I think there’s room to make that [book leave] process better and more transparent. I want to create a system where reporters feel much more supported.”

Que took over the desk last summer after spending most of her career in digital daily news. That deep editorial background has given her insight into missed opportunities that crop up during the average newsmaking process.

“I know reporters leave a ton in their notebooks,” Que said. “The book form really gives us a chance to expand the journalism and include a lot more of the detail and texture that is never going to make it into the daily report, because of space constraints, reader time constraints, and a number of other issues.”

For years, and in many different roles, Que has thought about digital shelf life and how to resurface the paper’s best journalism while remaining focused on what’s, you know, news. Even regular readers only dip and out of the daily stream of digital information and journalism published by the Times, which means some inevitably miss critical work.

Que used the example of a paper publishing the most important thing of the week on a Sunday and a user who won’t visit the site until Tuesday, when the article has likely been buried by new pieces.

“That’s a tough technical challenge to solve for,” Que said. “We’ve done experimentation with personalization and other things, but there’s also stepping back and looking through the book lens. It’s a way to say, ‘Okay, this really deserves another push or another platform or another audience.”

The Times plans to publish another 10 books in 2020, with more planned for 2021. Que highlighted a middle-grade book timed with the 100th anniversary of the ratification of the 19th Amendment called “Finish the Fight!” and a narrative nonfiction work expanding on investigative reporting done by Erica Green and Katie Benner.

POSTED     April 2, 2020, 6:30 p.m.
SHARE THIS STORY
   
 
Join the 50,000 who get the freshest future-of-journalism news in our daily email.
Outgoing New York Times CEO Mark Thompson thinks there won’t be a print edition in 20 years
Also, the Times now reaches about half of American millennials.
How do you run a fun membership drive in sad pandemic times? Maximum Fun has some ideas
Plus: What Spotify wants premium advertising to sound like, claims of systemic racism at PRX, BBC pushes for podcast audiences in Africa, and can Serial stay special?
People are using Facebook and Instagram as search engines. During a pandemic, that’s dangerous.
Data voids on social networks are spreading misinformation and causing real world harm. Here are some ideas on how to fix the problem.