The New York Times’ Innovation Report: The medium is the message
The most revealing part about the New York Times' "leaked" innovation report is not its research or insights, but why it entered the public domain at all.
Last week was quite the week for the Grey Lady. Already gripped by the scandal surrounding the firing of the newspaper’s Executive Editor, the institution now has to deal with the release of a scathing, 100 page, internal report on the future of the New York Times. In raw, unrelenting detail the report lays bare the struggles of an institution trying to drag itself into the digital world – shattering the illusion that the early success of the Times’ paywall marked the completion of that journey. While it is not yet clear why such a revealing report was publicly released (allegations that it was in response to Jill Abramson’s firing feel unconvincing), it is sure to be a rallying cry for newsroom across the globe, leading media commentators to call it one of the key documents of this media age.
But for all this report is, there is at least one thing it is not: ground-breaking. True, in an industry increasingly dominated by online competitors like Buzzfeed or Huffington Post, one might expect many of the lessons to be somewhat less than revelatory. What is perhaps less expected is that many of the report’s key elements are old news to the Times itself.
Take for example one of the central tenets of the report that for too long the Times has been guilty of simply trying to lazily replicate what it’s done in print. The content, layout and even the editorial organization is all designed for what is essentially a different product tailored to a different set of consumers. To summarize the issue:
“The digital edition was not tailored to digital readers. It has been almost assumed that The Times’ success formula in print would work equally well in digital. So the digital edition was really a thin version of the print edition…lacking the “feel” and news [relevance to the] digital reader. It was a newspaper run by remote control.”
That is a damning indictment of the Times’ strategy if you’ve have ever heard one – and it sounds as though few insiders would disagree.
The only problem is that the above was not written 2014. It’s from 1969. Though the sentiment and lesson were the same, at the time, it had nothing to do with digital editions but instead the failed launch of a new paper edition targeted specifically to the American west coast:
“The Western Edition was not tailored to Westerners. It has been almost assumed that The Times’ success formula on the East Coast would work equally well on the West Coast. So the Western Edition was really a thin version of the New York edition…lacking the “feel” and [relevance to the] region. It was a newspaper run by remote control.”
The passage comes from Gay Talese’s The Kingdom and the Power, a masterpiece about the inner workings of the Times’ from one of the most cherished reporters in its history. Talese’s tome tracks the institution from its revival under Adolph Ochs, through its flourishing in the 1920s, to the internal strife of the 1950s and the newspaper strike of the 1960s. It paints portraits of the key personalities who shaped the Times – from managing editor Clifton Daniel, to the charismatic James Reston as well as multiple members of the Sulzberger family – and builds a captivating narrative of an institution coming of age just as America was emerging as the preeminent global power.
But as fascinating as Talese’s work is, its value extends far beyond the role it occupies in college journalism programs; Kingdom is unintentionally revelatory as a strategic document. It catalogues the ups and downs of the business’ fortunes throughout the era, including the evolution of its content, the experimentation with new business models, and even the ways the Times’ struggled to adapt to technological change.
If these challenges are starting to sound familiar, you’re not alone. The failure of the Western Edition is but one example of an immensely valuable strategic lesson described in Kingdom appears to have been lost to time, only to resurface again in the recent Innovation report.
Take the example of longform journalism – something the Innovation Report does not explicitly address but is clearly cognizant of (from the report: “Is the 700-1100 word story, the sweet spot for print, the right length for digital readers?”). It’s a common refrain that internet has shortened our attention spans, radically changing the need for shorter content. However, per Talese, this trend is nothing new:
“…Younger reporters who wrote concisely and well had to be favoured over older men who could not. The Times could no longer afford to print long dull columns…merely because the Times was the paper of record. The emphasis was shifting to sharper writing, faster reading, saying more in less space, saying more in less space, saving time for readers…It would be a painful adjustment for some.”
If the New York Times viewed readers’ preference shift away from long form journalism in the context of a long-term social trend that’s existed since the 1950s, rather than merely a byproduct of the internet,the appetite for a wholesale stylistic throughout the organization would undoubtedly be greater. Instead, the same journalistic formula persists.
As a further example, take the matter of the frayed relationship between the newsroom and the business functions of the Times. The report’s authors put forward the unvarnished – even scathing – views that each half of the institution has for the other. To the newsroom, the business side is too short-term focused and inflexible on anything without bottom-line impact. To the business side, the newsroom is stubborn and a hindrance to any proposed evolution in the institution’s strategy. Again, Talese noted this relationship is not unique to the digital age:
“…[op-ed editor] John Oakes [preferred] it that way, liking the clear line that separates his editorial-page staff from the rest of the newspaper, protecting it from the commercial ambitions of [the head of advertising] Monroe Greene, and the sprawling bureaucracy of [managing editor] Clifton Daniel on the third floor.”
In fact, it was not uncommon for the two sides to hardly know one another:
“The chain of command under [general manager] Amory Bancraft included many corporate administrators who had been there for years, had their names printed atop the editorial page every day, yet were practically unknown outside the Times – in fact, with few exceptions, these executives were unknown to most Times reporters in the building… Each day [the secretary treasurer] Francis Cox came and went at the Times and of the more than five thousand Times employees perhaps a few dozen knew who he was.”
Again, the lesson here is that the rift is not merely temporary or byproduct of the recent leadership, but embedded in the DNA of the institution. The necessary work of bringing the two sides to the table to plan content series, promotions and products is not just difficult but it runs contrary to the institution’s entire heritage.
Other recommendations from the report also bear a striking resemblance to the thinking of Timesmen in Talese’s day, such as the suggested expansion of the Op Ed section to include more content from highly qualified and respected thought leaders. The always forward-thinking James Reston appears to have been of similar mind, albeit 50 years earlier:
“Reston sometimes wondered, during moments that he regard as slightly heretical, if the world was not becoming too complex and serious a place to be left to the reporting newspapermen. The United States had been a world leader for two generations during which it had produced a large base of brain power in the universities, the foundations, big business and other centers…and yet, Reston thought, they were not sharing with other Americans a great deal of what they knew…it was not enough that such men as these wrote occasionally for the New York Times’ Sunday Magazine.”
Even the very formation of a group such as the one that authored the Innovation Report, with a mandate to step away from the day-to-day distractions of life at the Times and think deeply about its future, is deeply rooted in the traditions of The Times:
“Within a few years [Sunday Editor Lester Markle] would take on such newer responsibilities as chairmanship on The Times’ “Committee of the Future”…this committee, whose membership included other executives and research assistants, was to ascertain what effect social changes and technological advances would have on newspapers in general…and how The Times can best meet the challenges of this scene.”
Perhaps version 3.0 of the committee is only another 40 or so years away.
Beyond the snark, however, what does it mean that the most recent look under the hood at the New York Times’ strategy bears a striking resemblance to an account from the Vietnam War era? The modern report is still extremely insightful and shows an institution becoming more open to address some of the most existential questions about its business – a common criticism of the Times for years. Is that not to be commended?
Indeed it should be, but it must also come with a word of caution. The Timesmen of Talese’s day were an intelligent lot and, while steeped in the traditions of the period, were plenty capable of wrestling with the toughest challenges facing their business. That neither they nor decades of successors could address these issues or even retain every lesson from past missteps says less about the challenges themselves and more about the institution’s unwillingness to change. Indeed, as the report indicates, overcoming the forces against change may be the most difficult challenge facing the Times.
But, perhaps, this is where the authors of the latest report have learned a lesson or two from Mr. Talese. Kingdom was released as a series of articles in Harper’s magazine as non-fiction by a former New York Times reporter (Talese quit in 1965 while Kingdom was first published 4 years later). As former insider turned outsider, they could be more easily dismissed by the recalcitrant entities within the Times. As revealing as it was of some of the issues at the Times, it could never catalyze change inside the Times on a grand scale.
By contrast, the recent report suffers no such caveats. It carries with it both the blessing of the headmast and the penmanship of the heir-apparent to the Sulzberger throne. It also continues a trend of airing the institution’s dirty laundry in public that began with the deeply revealing 2011 documentary, Page One. Ultimately, it is the clearest statement of what Times executives appear to have been thinking for years, but reluctant to commit to in public for fear of the internal repercussions.
If that fear and reluctance is now gone, the changes that have been foretold since Talese’s day may finally come.