The New York City media tends to get a little excited when covering one of their own. We’ve seen that recently in the coverage of the dismissal of Executive Editor Jill Abramson, the first female editor of the New York Times. I think Lewis DVorkin at Forbes online had the right response: download the leaked Times Innovation Report and re-read “The Kingdom and the Power” by Gay Talese, in which he quotes a NYT executive from a generation ago: most of our staff are “cathedral-builders, not stonecutters.” The coverage of Ms. Abramson’s departure suggests that sentiment is still in the air at the newspaper.
Much more important than the termination, whatever the editor’s legitimate grievances, the Innovation document suggests that the paper has much deeper problems than egos in the newsroom. The NYT deserves credit for the clarity and honesty of this report. Having read and written my share of these white papers, I was astonished that the paper did not whitewash issues and shone a rare light on the interaction between the business and newsroom sides. The report is brutally honest about the dangers posed by fast-rising competitors, including Vox Media, BuzzFeed, the Huffington Post, and others. The report also acknowledges that website and news app traffic are declining. The authors of this paper understand the need for audience development, unlocking the power of data, and the importance of management agility.
The Times’ digital solutions appear to be focused, specific and probably late to the game. I was a little surprised to read about a renewed effort to make better use of “evergreen” content through tagging, metadata and structured data. By their count, the paper has 14,723,933 articles in its archives, dating back to 1851. The need for more structured data has been in the publishing air for decades, spearheaded by IDEAlliance and others and embraced by companies including Time Inc. Media companies have known that this is money in the bank as well as a way to deepen and personalize content. It makes good sense for the report to recommend organizing the content by relevance rather than data. For example, articles about art and culture have a long shelf life. What an amazing perspective this company is sitting on.
The authors come out in favor of the “stonecutters,” suggesting that the paper’s staff needs to push back against perfectionists and focus on “minimal viable products;” not everything has to be perfect. The report notes that The Verge has redesigned its home page 53 times in the last year. It also points out that Gawker “plundered” a NYT story about “12 Years a Slave” and milked it endlessly. The Times tends to publish an article and forget it. Their digital rivals carve out content in chunks and spoon feed an audience.
The management advice is familiar: reward entrepreneurs; kill off mediocre efforts; and focus on projects than are “replicable” rather than one-offs. The gutsiest and most challenging part of the report is about Unbolting the Newsroom, which is an effort to build an audience-based collaboration between the business side and the newsroom, focused on reader experience. There is still too much talk of tradition and turf and the church and state separation. The report suggests appointing evangelists who can help push the newsroom to embrace their digital futures. This seems to be like a Super Committee. The report says this with a straight face.
I think this well-charted effort might be a fantasy, and not for a lack of trying. Lewis DVorkin, quoting from the report, puts his finger on the contradictions the NYT faces. “We still have a large and vital advertising arm that should be walled off.” No company can win in the digital arena with this kind of restraint. It seems a little surprising, given the recommendations of the leaked Innovation report, that the Times would appoint a new Executive Editor with little digital experience.
I’ve been thinking about the impending Time Inc. spin-off from Time Warner and how this company is trying to get out from under its legacy media shadow. The New York Times might find some lessons here. Even though Time Inc. might have been, by some measures, overstaffed with recent C-level staff lacking in digital acumen, its fundamentals are solid. Time Inc. embraced early on the idea of structured data and generating income from its archives. I know first-hand that this wasn’t always considered a high priority in-house (or in the publishing community for that matter) but the technical staff waged this battle and won. Deep tagging of content significantly increases its value, especially as screens proliferate and advertisers seek more specific and personalized solutions.
I’ve noted before that I think Time Inc. has had a somewhat muscular definition of “church and state” separation that was not always consistent with the fast-changing demands of the digital business. That issue has been rendered moot by the new reporting structures at the company. That Time magazine and Sports Illustrated ran a small Verizon ad on the cover of a recent issue suggests that this is a new beginning. As a long-time editor, I’m not appalled at this development.
One gets the sense that a more streamlined Time Inc. will be able to move faster. The recent purchase of Cozi, a free home-management app and website for meal-planning, calendars, and shopping, will likely be the first of many. It has 10 million users and gives Time Inc. a leg up in the productivity category.
When I read the Times Innovation report, I thought that the company had a lot of digital catching up to do. When I read a report by Internet guru Mary Meeker about Internet Trends, delivered at the Code Conference recently, I realized that the newspaper and the rest of us better hurry up. Not surprisingly, print is almost absent from this report but Meeker notes that “print remains over-indexed,” which means that there is a disproportionate relationship between the amount of advertising spent on print and the actual time consumers spend with print (19% of total advertising vs. 5% of consumer time spent). The metrics for radio, TV, and the Internet are much closer and more consistent, except for mobile. Consumers spend 20% of their media time on mobile and this platform gets only 4% of the advertising. Meeker says this gap represents a $30 billion opportunity for mobile in the USA.
I’ve heard the word “disruption” in media circles so often that these days it seems quite tame. One could infer from Meeker’s numbers that advertisers are spending too much on print, though the print guy in me would say that the “over-index” exists because of the intrinsic value of print (engagement etc.). I’m not sure how long I can hold out on this. As display advertising gives way to more emphasis on programmatic sales, this print “over-index” will surely get more scrutiny.
If Meeker is correct, the Brave New World that we’ve been ploughing through for the last two decades will become even more interesting or frightening, depending on what chair one is sitting in. Please don’t believe the hockey stick predictions for mobile growth, but do think about the fact that now there are almost as many mobile phone in the world as televisions. And in 2013, 25% of web usage was via mobile.
Just as I’m getting used to multi-purpose apps, Meeker tells me to pay attention to apps as a service layer that only opens when they have something to say to me that is informed by context, location sensors, history of use and predictive consumption. Perhaps someone will remind me to buy “Mother Jones” magazine.
Meeker indicates that industry verticals are likely to change given the marriage of content, community, and commerce. She cites Houzz, a site that brings together photos, professional consumers, and products in an ecosystem devoted to home renovation and design. This sounds like a magazine to me.
The NYT Innovation report and the Meeker perspective, though different in intent, reside at distinct ends of a digital and existential divide. But she has a lot to say to and about content companies. According to her research, two-thirds of Digital Universal Content is created by consumers in the form of videos, social media, and image sharing. That’s staggering.
As the authors note in their report, the NYT is perfectly positioned to experiment with collections comprised of videos and articles, such in the heavily-reported sex-trafficking, building at the same time a new frame around old content. The newspaper might learn from medium.com, founded by Evan Williams, ex-chairman of Twitter, which is built around specific content verticals written by people knowledgeable in specific fields (I contribute). This could be a good way to extend the brand in a managed, professional way. Their fine professional journalists can’t do everything.
Or buy the company. Lots of them.
The path to a digital future is probably not through the committee room door.
(The Mary Meeker presentation can be found at recode.net).
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