Some of us recognize within the pages of the report evidence of what I would call ‘explanation fatigue.’ You cannot reinvent the wheel in news organizations and move on to building the driverless car; you have to explain the original wheel’s reinvention every day, in different ways, to every person who is not ‘up to speed.’
It is exhausting, demoralizing, often futile, and it takes up time that needs to be spent thinking about what’s really next, not what the newsroom is next prepared to engage with. The internal pain on display in the report resonates everywhere. In one of the most candid staff responses to the report, leading interactive developer Derek Willis listed his own frustrations with leading innovation, suggesting that journalists have an individual responsibility to sharpen their own skills, rather than wait for improvement to be institutionally conferred.
If the Times wishes to continue down the dead-end path of merging newsrooms to do two things, print and digital simultaneously, it can look forward to many more years of falling behind the best digital practices. If instead it takes heart from the fact that in digital ventures such as The Upshot it has the seeds of a journalistically glittering digital future then it might orient the newsroom on a slightly different path. Because you cannot really produce innovation in digital whilst fighting the gravitational pull of print. It is too significant a force in terms of resource and workflow.
‘Innovation’ is clearly a starting point for what will be a prolonged period of reshaping The New York Times. The report makes it clear that in journalism we are not moving from one place to the next, but learning to live with perpetual motion.
But what is missing from the report is a central and key strategic question: What is the New York Times in a digital world? It can and should be more than BuzzFeed in a seersucker suit. The ‘Innovation’ team should follow their own advice and not make the current set of insights and criticism an end point, don’t publish and walk away, but rather see through the tougher strategic challenges of creating a news organization that fits into a dramatically altered world of information and discussion. Editors after all come and go, but the tide of progress is never going to turn.