How the NYT innovation report came to be

Amy O'Leary's first thought when she heard The New York Times' innovation report had been leaked was "Shit, I'm going to get fired."

O'Leary, one of the report's co-authors, told the Online News Association conference Friday evening she was at a journalism conference in Amsterdam on May 15 when her neighbor contacted her to say, "huh, Myles got ahold of your report." Tanzer, a BuzzFeed media reporter, she said, had brought some KFC to her house the previous December, and had tweeted this:

"I thought, Oh shit, this is like a smoking gun," O'Leary said. "Myles Tanzer and I had chicken together."

The initial terror passed when the report, prepared for a small group of newsroom leaders, filtered out to the newsroom following Tanzer's towering scoop. David Barstow, a top reporter, told her the report was packed with "holy shit reporting." That was reassuring, she said.

The report began when then Executive Editor Jill Abramson asked Arthur Gregg Sulzberger to start a project, O'Leary said. NYT Now and the Times' refreshed Cooking apps came from business-side ideas, she said, and Abramson wanted to see if the newsroom "should step back and come up with some great ideas of our own."

At first they tried to come up with a product, like an app, for instance, she said. But after two months they realized they wanted to pivot toward what would become the report, which Abramson signed off on.

"Everyone thinks it was meant to be this complete, exhaustive exegesis on The New York Times," O'Leary said. "It wasn't our role to examine the business model of the Times. ... This was a persuasive document. We weren't trying to cover the universe with it."

O'Leary somehow tweeted her presentation as she gave it, recapping the report's five main recommendations.

Nieman Foundation for Journalism boss Ann Marie Lipinski moderated Friday's chat. She asked the panel, which also included newsroom strategy editor Tyson Evans and assistant managing editor Alex MacCallum, why it's so hard to bring significant change to legacy organizations.

A newsroom is like a factory, O'Leary said. "It's really difficult to use a factory and rearrange the factory equipment at the same time."

The Times has enthusiastically embraced the report's challenges and cautions, the panelists said. "The Times is going to get comfortable even testing the concept of a/b testing," MacCallum said, trying different headlines and presentations.

Evans said that reporters' "eyes bulged out of their heads" when he told them a push alert on mobile was more important than landing a story on the front page. You could see the gears in their heads turn and their legs start dancing, he said: "Oh I've totally miscalibrated my sense of vanity here."

O'Leary offered an example of Times departments working together to promote an exclusive video about Ali Hussein Kadhim, who escaped an ISIS massacre. The foreign desk, the marketing department and other stakeholders met on the project, getting a full Arabic translation for it and timing a social media campaign to the Arabic world's morning.

It had 50 times the viewership of the average New York Times video, O'Leary said, without endangering "the core journalism that we all live to do."

  • Andrew Beaujon

    Andrew Beaujon reported on the media for Poynter from 2012 to 2015. He was previously arts editor at and managing editor of Washington City Paper. He's the author of the 2006 book "Body Piercing Saved My Life," about Christian rock and evangelical Christian culture.


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