January 17, 2017

Three years ago, The New York Times published its innovation report, an unsparing assessment of the newsroom’s many weaknesses. Nearly 100 pages long and full of words like “worrying,” “shrinking” and “upheaval,” the report described a New York Times that was in a digital standstill while competitors like BuzzFeed, Vox Media and The Washington Post were racing ahead.

Today, The New York Times released the results of another self-examination, and the prognosis looks much better.

The 2020 report, which clocks in at 37 pages, describes a newsroom that has made major strides to fill the gaps outlined three years ago: The Times’ digital audience is growing rather than shrinking; the newsroom has embraced data and analytics; there’s a clearly defined digital strategy.

Yet some nagging remnants of the Times’ print heritage still remain. The newsroom is still organized around old newspaper sections. They’re still publishing “dutiful, incremental pieces,” the kind designed to fill a daily print edition. And too often, the news report “remains dominated by long strings of text.”

While the original New York Times innovation report felt like a full-body MRI that detected major problems, the 2020 version comes across as a thorough physical that reveals a patient in relatively good health. The paper’s stated goal to double its digital revenue to $800 million by 2020 seems within reach (it pulled in $500 million last year) and an encouraging trend line shows that revenue from consumers has outstripped ad dollars.

Most of the report is devoted to laying out a series of goals for areas including visual journalism, reader engagement, newsroom training and diversity. But the recommendations were prefaced by a memo from Executive Editor Dean Baquet and Managing Editor Joe Kahn that contained several important pieces of news:

  • The New York Times will dedicate $5 million to coverage of the Trump administration’s effect on the world. They’ll use the money to bankroll additional investigative and subject-area expert reporters. The coverage will go beyond the White House, extending to encompass “the stability of the global order that prevailed since World War II and America’s place in that world.”

    It is about what happens when a group of business moguls who built empires bring their free market philosophy to bear on everything from education to healthcare and national defense, and how that philosophical change will affect people’s lives. It is also a story about power in New York, as one of the biggest names in one of our largest industries actually takes over the country, often running it from from a penthouse on a heavily guarded 5th Avenue.

  • Cuts are coming to editing jobs. This is part of an overhaul that will change the Times’ editing system, which was designed with many layers of redundancy in a print-centric enterprise. Gone will be the old Times practice of shuffling stories from editor to editor, with each copy editor making relatively insignificant changes to each story.

    We must move away from duplicative and often low-value line editing. It slows us down, costs too much, and discourages experiments in storytelling. Backfielders, department heads, News Desk editors and, yes, the masthead spend too much time line editing and copy editing, moving around words with little true impact on a story. Copy editors, meanwhile, spend too much time editing and re-editing stories that should be posted quickly.

    This editing overhaul will coincide with the release of a new content management system, called Oak, that will allow editors and reporters to build stories with visual elements and examine what the final product will look like ahead of publication. These changes will result in fewer editors, so the Times can maximize the amount of working reporters.

  • A dozen new visual-first journalists are coming aboard. As part of the Times’ push to accelerate its multimedia efforts, the bosses are hiring roughly 12 new journalists that will infuse video, graphics and interactives into the news report. By the middle of the year, each major news desk will be paired with a deputy editor that has a “full range of creative skills” to promote non-traditional storytelling.

    …The majority of our report is fairly traditional, and we should broaden the ways we tell stories. The broader mobile landscape is increasingly a visual one — think of Snapchat, Instagram, YouTube — and we know that our mobile audience wants Times journalism to incorporate visuals even more fully into our work. This will make our report better, but it will require significant focus.

  • Major stories will be tackled by thematic teams. Another relic of the print-centric approach to covering the news: Major stories are sometimes tackled by reporters and editors who work for different departments and report to different bosses. Healthcare, for example, is covered by journalists from five different departments who work for different print sections.

    Going forward, that will change, according to Baquet and Kahn. Stories like climate change, health and gender will be covered by teams of reporters and editors who will work closely with one another for maximum efficiency. Editors are betting this strategy will lend itself to more nuanced coverage from journalists who truly know their beat:

    Creating more coherent teams should make our coverage more authoritative and sophisticated — and allow it to rise above the competition. Leaders who truly own these subjects must develop a compelling journalistic and audience vision, along with competitive benchmarks, to which they can be held accountable.

  • Lack of diversity remains a problem: Increasing the amount of racial, ideological, gender and socioeconomic, sexual orientation and geographic diversity is among the priorities listed in Kahn and Baquet’s memo. There are too few journalists of color at The New York Times, and many staffers noticed a significant gender disparity — there remains “a perception among women that The Times is primarily run by and written by men.”

    Below the leadership level, we have made some progress in recent years with a diverse set of stellar hires. But we need to make much more. And while recruiting more diverse talent can help, we can also do a better job developing the people who already work here.

    Technology, Product and Design recently underwent a focused diversity push, including unconscious-bias training, diverse interview panels, structured mentorships and critical analysis of diversity metrics. In just a year, these groups have already seen positive results.

  • More fully separate print production from digital newsgathering: Journalists at The New York Times remain beholden to an enormous newspaper that needs to be filled with copy on a daily basis. By beefing up the newsroom’s print hub (where production happens) and redesigning the newspaper, the Times hopes to liberate its journalists from the departmental obligation to the ink-and-tree edition, which still pulls in two-thirds of the company’s revenue, according to the report:

    The full realization of a muscular, autonomous print hub is the central change The Times is making to free up coverage teams to reshape our digital report for a digital audience, and in order to give print the attention it and our readers deserve. Only if the print hub is truly separate from the departments — and only if the entire newsroom understands how the hub operates — will we get the benefits of such an arrangement.

  • Create (another) innovation team: Baquet and Kahn also call for a task force that will take on big ideas that surface throughout the newsroom. There are some caveats: Each idea must have a “strong journalistic backbone” and “find new audiences or help us connect deeper with our existing ones.” Most should also help the newsroom make money, according to the memo.

    We can’t pursue every idea; but we must pursue some of them. Every corner of the newsroom has ideas for what those should be, but they don’t have enough places to pitch them. We will form a new team to solicit those big ideas, and bring the best of them to life. We believe this team can help foster a culture of innovation and experimentation across the newsroom, and can encourage journalists to think beyond their current beat.

One consistent thread throughout the report is the Times’ laser focus on its subscriber business. At several points in the document, the report’s authors reference reader support as the justification for undertaking major journalistic initiatives: One section notes that The Times is “not trying to win a pageviews arms race.”

But focusing on subscribers will ultimately be a win for advertisers, too, the Times notes:

But by focusing on subscribers, The Times will also maintain a stronger advertising business than many other publications. Advertisers crave engagement: readers who linger on content and who return repeatedly. Thanks to the strength and innovation of our journalism — not just major investigative work and dispatches from around the world but also interactive graphics, virtual reality and Emmy-winning videos that redefine storytelling — The Times attracts an audience that advertisers want to reach.

The full report conveys a prevailing sense that, although The Times has made significant progress toward its goals since the innovation report was published in 2014, the work of newsroom transformation is never-ending. In this way, the 2020 report serves as another blueprint for legacy newsrooms looking to embark upon the difficult process of continuously reinventing themselves.

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Benjamin Mullin was formerly the managing editor of Poynter.org. He also previously reported for Poynter as a staff writer, Google Journalism Fellow and Naughton Fellow,…
Benjamin Mullin

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