As City Room ends, Times must find new ways to innovate

The New York Times is saying goodbye to what was once one of its most ambitious projects for the digital age: City Room, the blog about all things New York City, and the home for quirky and often participatory news that didn’t seem quite Timesian enough for treatment as bona fide Times articles.

In a note to readers on Tuesday announcing its demise, the blog’s authors promised: “We are not really dying: Our DNA has spread throughout the newsroom.” But that is only half right. The Times was innovative when blogging was considered digital innovation, but now the paper needs to do even more. 

The creation of City Room was a critical factor in culture change at the Times. Sewell Chan, the young wunderkind assigned to lead the blog when it launched in 2007, recalled in an email to me this week:

When I look back on stories from then, I’m struck by how many things the blog did that are just second nature at The Times now: keeping readers abreast of big, breaking news events through constant incremental updates; embracing social media as a tool for discovery and conversation (and not merely promotion); relaxing our tone and style to take note of buzzy, occasionally quirky, topics.

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City Room was launched at a pivotal moment for the newspaper, which had a shiny new building to occupy where, for the first time, its print and digital operations would share space. Then executive editor Bill Keller called this the “integration” of the newsroom.

The Times often portrays itself (and is often thought of) as a leader in digital innovation, but like other publications, it faced some major challenges as journalists were beginning to adjust to the new demands of the Web. Now, it’s taken for granted that a journalist will write multiple updates for a breaking story, but in 2007, many journalists would have refused.

Colloquially dubbed the “innovation czar,” then-deputy managing editor Jonathan Landman wrote more than 100 email memos to the staff between 2007 and 2009, chronicling the potential of the Web.* Yes, in 2007, the Times needed someone to remind people weekly that the Web was important, integral to journalism, and also, the future. (Landman left the paper in 2013.)

The Times also needed some kind of project to demonstrate the power of the Web, and City Room was it. As I’ve chronicled in my book about the Times and digital innovation, respected reporters were assigned to be City Room bloggers to make it clear that online was just as important, and could be just as exciting, as print. Chan, one of the paper’s stars, went on to become a deputy Op-Ed and Sunday Review editor and was recently named an international news editor. In 2010, Keller told me how internal rewards and examples such as City Room helped the integration process:

“People would look at what this kid [Chan] was doing and saw that it was really neat. We were leading by example in the newsroom. And when someone did something really great, we let other people know about it.”

City Room was a home for experimentation with multimedia and user comments, and contrary to pretty much any other feature in the newspaper, City Room actually linked out to other publications. It was decidedly different from the rest of the Times, written in a more casual style, and unlike many newsroom blogs of the time, its content was not ultimately intended for the print publication; the blog was, instead, its final destination.

As the blog’s own goodbye letter notes, City Room was hugely successful, with “20,000 posts, 425,000 reader comments and perhaps 100 million clicks.” The blog featured weird and wonderful content, as the Times recalls, including a webcam of a red-tailed hawks nest in Washington Square Park, a request for haikus about New York City, weather stories, and New York history.

The end of City Room is in line with the Times’ decision to kill off its formerly bloated compendium of blogs–at the peak, there were more than 80. Many of these blogs had disappointing traffic, and they ran on Word Press, not on the Times’ main content management system.

Last year, the paper ended The Lede blog, which helped pioneer live-blogging and validated incorporating social media like embedded tweets into legacy newsrooms’ breaking news coverage.

But as Mathew Ingram pointed out last year, ending some of the Times’ best blogs could hurt the newspaper’s hard-won culture of experimentation. He argued:

In the end, I think that while the motivation behind killing off blogs might be the correct one—that is, a desire to get away from the format as a specific destination and find a way to get everyone to experiment with blog-style writing and reporting, regardless of where they work—the risk is that the latter simply won’t happen. In other words, some of the momentum that having a blog gives to the skills I mentioned above will be lost, and along with it some of the innovation that blogging has brought to the Times.

With its constant updates and social media prowess, the Times has made great strides toward elevating its digital operation. Lately, I’ve even detected what may be a slight loosening in terms of story choice and style (one recent example: “Dogs Hurting the Most have a Special Place to Heal”). The newspaper has changed. Everyone writes for the Web now.

But as recently as February, the Times acknowledged that it still has a way to go. Executive editor Dean Baquet had to reinvent the Page One meetings to coax top editors away from focusing too much on the print product. The recent Times memo lauding the success of its digital revenue did not talk about newsroom culture, but did celebrate the creation of the audience development team. Newsroom culture change is not a given (consider the paper’s efforts at forced change, like blocking desktop access to its homepage so that everyone in the newsroom had to read it on a mobile device). Times journalists must learn to wrestle with analytics in a meaningful way, and communication between the interactive team and more traditional reporters is not always perfect. And the digital environment means that a new challenge is always on the horizon.

City Room was a vibrant, exciting destination for Times readers and a critical place for Times experimentation. The blog helped the newsroom become more open to digital journalism. As it ends, we can look back and see how far the Times has come, and also that the need for digital innovation continues.

*An earlier version of this story inaccurately stated that Jonathan Landman, a longtime Times editor, was hired as a “designated culture change evangelist.”

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Nikki Usher is an assistant professor at George Washington University’s School of Media and Public Affairs and a Tow Fellow at Columbia. She is the author of Making News at The New York Times.