As part of a course on the internet and journalism at HKS, I wrote a response paper on the New York Times’ 2014 Innovation Report.
Back in 2014, when the New York Times finished its internal Innovation Report (and then saw it leak), it wasn’t in the same place it is today. The Times was stagnating, with gradually falling print revenue and no significant web traffic growth over the previous year. (NYT 4, 81-83) Figuring out how to adapt to journalism’s new digital environment was a central priority for the paper, which led its top editors to commission the report. The final document, several months in the making, made a variety of recommendations to update the Times for the digital age. The paper has implemented most of them since then, and not coincidentally seen its fortunes recover. Beyond the sound business and journalistic sense that was clearly on display, there’s still much to learn from the report as a historical artifact.
The process The process of writing the report reveals a great deal about the Times’ organizational structure and culture. Indeed, the point of a report like this is only partially to put an analysis in the hands of senior management. Having eight well-connected and presumably well-liked reporters go on a listening tour with the masthead’s blessing and attention has salutary effects in its own right. It boosts morale, particularly among the discouraged business-side workers the report mentions1, and it seeds the topic in the minds of the same newsroom and business staff who’ll have to carry out the final report’s recommendations.
Those process benefits are especially salient because of something else the report inadvertently reveals about the Times, at least as of 2014: its highly bureaucratic and risk-averse corporate culture. It’s clear that the company has hardworking and intrepid journalists, but it’s also clear from the report that the system they work in changes at the same slow pace as the print news industry.
Judging by the report, management recognized this fact and wanted to change it. The report’s comparison with Vox Media is instructive: it has a newsroom “custom-built for digital,” and its advantages were enough to get star hire Ezra Klein to turn down “the value of a guaranteed audience - the Washington Post’s historic trump card” (86). Established organizations will never be as nimble as startups, but they can at least adapt to new technology.
More speculatively, and without knowing much about the Times’ internal politics, it may be significant that the report leaked to the public. It came out shortly after Jill Abramson was fired and replaced by Dean Baquet; it’s possible that had she not been, the report wouldn’t have leaked. Parts of it certainly don’t read like a document expected to be public eventually: the newsroom’s cultural conservatism, for example, is depicted as extreme enough that using bullet points in abstracts would mean “dumbing down our report” (78). Leaking such an unvarnished internal document is both evidence of resistance to implementing its recommendations and a powerful way to make sure those recommendations are in fact implemented. Some of the Times’ success in following this report’s plan may be attributable to one of its reporters’ decision to go to the press.
The “business side” and the importance of economics One consistent theme in the report is the centrality of the business/newsroom divide in Times culture. To someone who’s never been a professional journalist, this divide seems quite strange. The primary benefit, of protecting editorial independence from advertisers, carries with it a host of drawbacks that more conventionally organized companies don’t face. To list a couple: Teams producing product (the newsroom) and teams marketing it (the business side) have limited interaction. It makes for too little marketing, with “discovery, promotion and engagement  pushed to the sidelines,” and a disjointed marketing approach. After all, “sharing our journalism requires editorial oversight.” (25) Both duplication of effort and failure to use existing capabilities to their fullest. The perfect example: “Our Twitter account is run by the newsroom. Our Facebook account is run by the business side.” (45) The report doesn’t say explicitly that the Times takes this divide more seriously than its competitors, but it’s not hard to read between the lines. Several competitors have built what the Times calls “digital-first newsrooms” (58), while the Times has seen web developers who are considered part of the business side quit after they weren’t allowed to speak with journalists. For example, Michael Wertheim declined what on its face was a promotion to lead audience development because of a perceived lack of newsroom buy-in. (25)
Not all media practices can be reduced to the economics of the media business, and indeed the main reason for firewalling off the business side is clear enough: protecting editorial independence. But clearly the traditional economics of newspapers in general and the Times in particular are important contributing factors. For one thing, as a newspaper the Times has traditionally been more dependent than its new online competitors on advertising, though the report recognizes this is increasingly less true with the growth of subscription revenue (60). Its authors don’t stop to consider the long-term effect on their “church-state divide” (68) of subscription growth and “digital-first” (7), but it could be profound.
In particular, in the brave new world of the Internet, it’s worth considering the difference between programmatic and direct advertising. Programmatic advertisers, a category that doesn’t exist at all in print, may not bring in as much revenue, but also don’t seem to pose any threat to editorial independence. (After all, they don’t even know where their ads will run in advance.) As direct advertising becomes a smaller and smaller share of revenue, correspondingly larger amounts of the business side should be able to cross the firewall.
Allowing them to will, in any case, become more urgent for the Times in the future. The new digital technology raises the cost of maintaining the traditional business-side firewall because of the geater complementarity of skills between business and editorial. When stories consisted only of text and photos2, the newsroom could produce them fairly autonomously with traditional skills. The Internet, by more tightly coupling content with its presentation3, requires either a) that the newsroom waste money duplicating technical skills that already exist on the business side, or b) fail to take full advantage of the new technology. Fortunately, there’s a third option, which the report enthusiastically recommends: collaborating with business-side units. Doing so will cause the “church-state divide” to gradually fade in importance over time.
New York Times Company. (March 24, 2014). Innovation Report. Retrieved from http://www.niemanlab.org/2014/05/the-leaked-new-york-times-innovation-report-is-one-of-the-key-documents-of-this-media-age/.