To coincide with the release of “Page One: Inside The New York Times,” NPR’s David Folkenflik edited a book by leading thinkers about where media is headed. In this essay, former New York Times reporter Jennifer Lee describes how the Times has adjusted to the seismic changes in media.
For years, the third-floor waiting area of the old New York Times building at 229 West 43rd featured a massive replica of the first page of the first edition of the newspaper. Dated Thursday, September 18, 1851, the newspaper back then was known as The New-York Daily Times. (I love the hyphen.) It was priced at one cent.
I must have walked by that replica thousands of times before I finally paused for a closer look. It was made up mostly of blurbs, many of them just a few sentences long. None was more than five paragraphs. The international news consisted of dispatches from Turkey, Bremen, Bavaria and Prussia, in most cases summarizing local publications rather than offering original reporting. The local New York City reporting was quite chatty, with headlines like “Disturbance by Rival Blacksmiths,” “Run over by an Ice Cart,” and “Women Poisoned.”
Even non-news was news back then. A short dispatch titled “False Alarm” read: “Item gatherer failed to discover the first spark of the fire.” And I was taken with a brief from another edition: “Not Dead.-Mr. John Overho, of Prince street, who was reported to be beyond all medical skill on Saturday, from the effect of coup de soleil, we are glad to learn is likely to recover.”
But what struck me most that day, as I studied that front page, was a single thought.
This looks like a blog.
The New-York Daily Times was aggregated and chatty. It had flexible means of gathering information, and did not take an arm’s-length relationship to its audience.
It reminded me that newspapers have evolved —and evolved again. The stentorian style and not-reported-here syndrome were not always the way.
My first Times job was as a college intern Web producer. I arrived just a few months after the article “The New York Times Introduces a Web Site” ran on January 22, 1996. So my first perspective on The Times came through a digital lens. The best perk was staking out firstname.lastname@example.org as my e-mail address.
Back then, the front page of the site was a massive, imagemapped gif file, which could take an excruciating five minutes to load if you were overseas. But The Times was keen on maintaining its visual style. Since the Web was not mature enough to offer online publishers that kind of control, the paper’s solution was to turn fonts into images. Web producers had to undertake painfully repetitive hand coding, almost like a high-tech assembly line. So I, like others, taught myself some basic perl script to automate some of the processes.
Four years later, in 2000, I started my full-time reporting career at The New York Times as a technology writer. I still recall having to define the term “blog” to the readers as “short for web log,” which, we hastened to explain, “often compiles entries chronologically.” By the end of the 2004 election, the need for that shorthand was largely over. Within another three years, The Times was rolling out blogs in earnest. That idea would once have made many in the newsroom wince: most blogs were initially considered more driven by opinion than by reporting.
City Room, the new metro blog where I worked, felt like a little start-up within The Times. The agility of blogs really landed on the managers’ radar when the City Room post on the death of the actor Heath Ledger in 2008 racked up 1.78 million page views. It was the most viewed article ever in the history of The Times Web site at that point — in large part because The Times blog was the first news outlet to report his death (thanks to the speed of my then colleague Sewell Chan), giving us a head start on the story and a destination for worldwide interest.
Since stepping back from the daily newspaper churn, I’ve devoted a good deal of my energy personally and professionally to thinking about the infrastructure needed to create accountability journalism in the new media world.
Newspaper culture most resembles that of the military or hospitals. Papers are designed for a systematized rapid response, optimized for crisis situations. The structure is command and control, even though on the reporter level it doesn’t always feel that way.
The most vivid example of this occurred on September 11, 2001. I had been at The Times just nine months, and apparently looked so youthful that my coworkers still often asked where I was going to college. On that day of tragedy, the machinery of The New York Times snapped into place to respond to an event that unfolded before the vast majority of us had even set foot in the office. The choreography spanned the metro, business, foreign, national, Washington, photo and graphics desks. Even our culture reporters were recruited to do on-the-ground reporting. In the chaos, we found order. After all, journalists — like firefighters and police officers — are people who run toward a crisis. That crisis triggered a miraculous, months-long marathon.
But that kind of synchronicity came with a trade-off: a dependency on established process and culture. And like any body with a hardy immune system, it often rejects new presences as foreign.
For The Times, adapting its processes to the new realities of an interconnected information ecosystem requires shedding or altering the outdated parts of an organization’s sensibility while keeping its essential principles. And that Herculean task involves qualities on which few newsroom leaders were evaluated as they ascended the editorial and managerial ranks.
As one programmer in a news start-up described the challenge to me: it’s not the technology, it’s the people. It’s a trick to find people who have enough gravitas to have credibility in the world of legacy media, but are fluent in the dynamics of technological reality.
After leaving The Times, I downloaded and read Clayton M. Christiansen’s classic book, “The Innovator’s Dilemma.” I paused when I realized the scenarios he was describing in the hardware industry mirrored what was happening to legacy media outlets. The dominant players were structurally unable to transition in the face of disruptive technology because their strengths — brand, processes, quality — became their weaknesses.
In our case, news blogs were upstarts. They took smaller profit margins and embraced flexible standards on how to gather the news — and what and when to publish. Those choices — unburdened by weighty tradition — gave them a foothold that allowed them to move upmarket into the mainstream. They eagerly experimented, took risks and forgave failure.
The established brands, because of their cost structures and their focus on brand and reliability, were slow to enter new markets. Once they did, they struggled to be nimble enough to catch up.
For the legacy media organizations, the very things that created their record of credibility — like not publishing something until they are confident it is true — run counter to a world where speed becomes a competitive advantage. The caution about posting an item about a developing event, sometimes just as rumor, on The Times Web site until it had been independently confirmed ensured the paper’s standards are secure. It largely prevented The Times from circulating uncertain facts, but it also meant sometimes readers had learned about breaking news somewhere else.
That fierce devotion to the newspaper’s brand pervaded all departments, across the organization. I wrote a Sunday Style piece about the “man date,” the way in which many straight men socialize, one on one, without the crutch of professional sports or business. When the story generated interest from Hollywood screenwriters, a lawyer for The Times helped me sell the movie option based on the idea of the “man date,” which I appreciated. But she told me her highest concern was “protecting the brand” of the institution. I tried to puzzle out how you would even calculate the impact of the insecurity of heterosexual men on The Times’ brand.
Inevitably, questions and even tensions arose when the ingrained Times culture rubbed against emerging digital sensibilities. For years, getting a story published on page A1 of The New York Times — the holy grail for most reporters — was a protracted ritual that involved two meetings with a large cast involving increasingly senior editors. The process by which the stories were pitched and debated took hours over numerous meetings across all the different departments.
In comparison, the process of getting a story onto the home page of The New York Times Web site often involved lobbying a 20-something gatekeeper, generally via instant message. The editors of blogs, who had no guarantee their content would even appear in the paper, were strategic about what we would lobby for — and when to do it. The right home page “refer” could send page views soaring.
When I started working on the City Room blog, I asked to see the traffic numbers, a standard metric for any Web site. I was told reporters weren’t allowed to see traffic numbers because we didn’t want to become too much like television, too ratings-obsessed. Indeed, it made us wince when Gawker tied compensation to page views. But those figures can provide a real-time evaluation of how useful our readers found what we posted. (A little reporting paid off: I found someone on the business side to give me an account for the Web stats, through a lead I met on the elevator.)
Now and then, The Times also struggles with meshing its standards and those widely accepted elsewhere. I was told more than once never to link to Wikipedia within New York Times blog posts, even though Wikipedia is sometimes the best (and indeed sometimes the only) resource on a topic. Some Wikipedia entries are flawed, but many are very good and there is a reason why they generally rank so highly on Google searches. Rather than having a reporter or an editor assess our links on a case-by-case basis, a blanket edict was put into effect.
A friend who works as a copy editor there has tried for years to launch a collaborative wiki version of “The New York Times Manual of Style and Usage,” which could allow for much more agility and knowledge sharing on continuing, breaking news stories. The software was built and the entries were ready, but the wiki has been stymied within The Times bureaucracy.
Yet elsewhere, the culture was shifting. Talking Points Memo helped change the tone in its persistent coverage of the U.S. attorneys’ firing scandal with its willingness to say: This is what we know. This is what we don’t know. Can you, the audience, help us? The pieces came together in large part because of audience expertise and examination of legal documents. And the story kept being propelled forward, ultimately leading to the resignation of U.S. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales.
Slowly, reporting practices reinvented and rethought outside The Times started to reverberate meaningfully within the institution. The vitality and prominence of the Lede blog, by Robert Mackey, with a focus on breaking global news stories — documenting in real time developments concerning an earthquake in Haiti or protests throughout the Middle East — show The Times’ willingness to draw upon and promote high-quality information from elsewhere on the Internet.
The Times has sought to maintain its dedication to quality while encouraging a more dynamic metabolism by creating a five-editor rapid response copy desk under Patrick LaForge that swoops in to handle blog posts and other content across the Web site for the various sections. Often they clean up each piece to meet The Times’ more stringent standards after it’s been posted.
But journalists’ competitive sensibilities do help drive change. The metro desk broke the Eliot Spitzer prostitution scandal in 2008 with a Web-first mentality; despite the lamentation of at least one veteran editor who said scoops should be saved for the print edition, the paper stayed with a Web-first mentality, breaking one development after another online. The Times’ coverage — both online and print — was cited by the judges who awarded the paper a Pulitzer Prize.
The twin imperatives of news on the Web have long been immediacy and intimacy. News organizations know how to break news, so immediacy has been the easier of the two to adopt. But the quality of intimacy has proved harder for these organizations, as established titles — as brands — to grapple with. Too chatty and there isn’t enough gravitas. Too stiff and users aren’t engaged.
For a long time, it felt somewhat gauche for Times journalists to create their own Web sites because it was seen as self-promotional, unless they had a book coming out. In 2003, a friend bought me jennifer8lee.com and jenny8lee.com for my birthday but I sat on them for years, uncomfortable doing anything with them. When I created a blog for my book in 2007, I purposely chose to put it at fortunecookiechronicles.com.
Twitter, a platform both intimate and immediate, ultimately released journalists’ individual voices from the constriction of their host institutions. Its emergence made Times management focus on the potential gains to be enjoyed through social media.
The original @nytimes Twitter feed was set up by a newsroom engineer named Jake Harris, who wanted a way to get the RSS feeds on his cell phone. He ran the automated feed out of a computer under his desk, until it lost power one weekend and he got an e-mail informing him that a consumer had complained. From then on, it became an official feed. (Times folks will often reserve digital rights on behalf of the institution. In fact, nyt.com was registered by technology reporter John Markoff around 1991, before the World Wide Web came into being and nytimes.com was registered.)
Journalists are ideal Twitter users. They generally have something interesting to say, often original or newsy. And they are recognizable both as individuals and personalities.
Many of us signed up for Twitter out of curiosity in mid-2007. It felt like stepping into a cocktail party where you didn’t know anyone, so it took a while for many of us to return.
Once we did, we discovered we had a way to constantly update our own voices on the Internet. The 140-character length focused our thinking to a far more specific point than our lengthier bylined articles, but the links back to our own articles gave it a professionally justifiable purpose.
And in this case, activity bubbling up organically from the newsroom merged with top-down strategy in The Times newsroom.
In early 2009, the top leadership of The Times newsroom sent invitations to newsroom staff to submit new ideas to generate revenue. That alone was a sign that crisis had opened management up to new processes. In response, I wrote a memo about Twitter, which was circulated among editors. Jonathan Landman, then deputy managing editor, announced the creation of a social media editor, a role filled by Jennifer Preston, a significant statement about these new communications tools. But the early Twitter feeds created by Jake Harris and a young marketing employee, Soraya Darabi, had set the stage for a strong Times social presence. The Times now maintains over 100 Twitter accounts, not including those of the journalists themselves, for its blogs, sections and key topics of interest.
If you think of legacy newspapers as department stores — with all kinds of news available behind a single storefront — the future of news is looking more and more like a mall. A single complex aggregates a lot of niche products sold under separate brands — some favoring quality, others volume. That targeted branding is useful in a world where our content is disaggregated and reassembled via Twitter and Facebook feeds. The microbrands can have their own Twitter accounts, Facebook pages and YouTube channels. This aggregated mall model is already peeking out (some more successfully executed than others), and not only thanks to AOL’s acquisition of The Huffington Post and TechCrunch. In the two years since I left, The Times has accelerated its drive to showcase micro-brands in blogs such as the City Room (about New York City), the Caucus (politics), Well (personal health) and the revamped DealBook (on the financial markets).
Few readers would click to “like” The Times’ national section on Facebook. But they do become Facebook fans of the Caucus or DealBook. And in the process, The Times has served up evidence it recognizes the strength and value of treating individual reporters and features as micro-brands.
This is a noticeable change from my early days at The Times, when the reporters reflexively deferred to the institution. It was considered unsavory to appear on television too much, or otherwise be perceived as self-promotional. But a few years ago The New York Times communications department started calling reporters to book them for television and radio interviews, and the marketing department started to create Twitter accounts and Facebook pages for many of its reporters.
A lot has happened since The New-York Daily Times first reported on Mr. Overho’s “coup de soleil.” The newspaper’s dedication to quality, and the talented people exemplifying that dedication, persist. But the news has changed. The people reporting, editing and presenting that news have changed. The way readers receive the news has changed.
And so, too, has The Times.
Excerpted from “Page One: Inside the New York Times and the Future of Journalism,” edited by David Folkenflik. Available from PublicAffairs, a member of The Perseus Books Group. Copyright © 2011.