For the Times’ innovation report to stick, its journalists need to be on board

Doing journalism and keeping up with what is happening within journalism and the wider digital ecosystem at the same time is impossible

It is somewhat ironic that one of the authors of The New York Timesinternal memo on innovation is A.G. Sulzberger, the next heir in line to the publisher’s seat. To be urging faster, quicker, more radical change from a position conferred by primogeniture could be interpreted as starting from the wrong place, an impression which is compounded by the cover illustration of Renzo Piano’s beautiful but vastly oversized NYT headquarters soaring over midtown Manhattan.

However the imprimatur of A.G. Sulzberger and the supersized building serve to illustrate perfectly the Times’ dilemma. The report is an earnest and laudable attempt to square the circle of introducing a rapid and lasting culture of change whilst remaining, at core, the same.

How can it be more like BuzzFeed but not actually BuzzFeed? How can it be both Timesian and Huffington Postian? There is a strong sense of existential angst in the 95 pages of the innovation strategy memo, which is an important document, whilst being neither particularly innovative or strategic. In summary, the recommendations are that The New York Times needs to urgently shed its print-centric practices and grow its audience by being ‘digital first.’ The message is there needs to be a reset in culture and practice from everything from the homepage, whose declining numbers are featured as a red flag, through to the tricky topic of advertiser branded journalism. The worrying internal diagnosis is that the Times is failing at being digital by being a newspaper. (There are a number of excellent precis of the report and its recommendations, from Nieman Lab, Poynter, and others.)

Leading institutional change is a highly political and technically challenging endeavor, and it is to the Times’ credit that it has taken the task on through its own staff rather than recruiting external agencies. You only adequately learn by doing, not by being told. I spent a significant part of my time in charge of digital editorial operations at the Guardian involved in the same issues. The ability to move at the speed of change is limited in any organization. And in one that has the fixed daily requirements of a print deadline it is slowed to a crawl. It used to be a standard joke at Web conferences that the world of newspaper websites was the trailing edge of all digital publishing.

Yet the disciplines and judgment held by individual journalists in newsrooms are critical to any future success. ‘Innovation’ is a long, anguished howl on the subject of how hard it is to get institutional change to work at the necessary pace. Duke University’s “The Goat Must Be Fed” report from the reporter’s lab noted the same problems: Doing journalism and keeping up with what is happening within journalism and the wider digital ecosystem at the same time is impossible. Ultimately it comes down to this: Journalists are excellent at story decision, things in front of them that are happening right now. They are, however, often not very good at platform decisions, which need greater strategic thought, a lot more planning, and a clear vision of where they might end up. Increasingly, stories mimic platforms. Swapping story thinking for platform thinking is a critical challenge for the best journalists, and those who can do both will be the sort Dean Baquet will want to lead his rapidly evolving newsroom

This self-assessed need to improve is alarming for other legacy news organizations, because the Times, from its R+D Lab on the 28th floor, to its data installation in the lobby, is ahead of them all in digital by some way. And in terms of the shiny list of namechecked newcomers, the BuzzFeeds, Upworthys, and Voxes, it remains journalistically ahead, even in digital. The Times has a dizzying wealth of talent and deep thinking that others will struggle to replicate. If your digital thought leadership team includes Matt Boggie, Jacqui Maher, Mike Dewar, Amanda Cox, Derek Willis, James Robinson, Steve Duenes, and about a dozen others, your problem is not a lack of talent or understanding. It is a failure of others to realize what is important quickly enough. The loss of the charismatic Aron Pilhofer to the Guardian this week will cause an ache at the core of the organization—there is a deep pool of talent but it needs leadership.

Every single person who has been through the business of newsroom digital transformation recognizes that these problems aren’t new. News outlets across the globe have been grappling with similar issues since the late 1990s. Institutionally they have dragged their feet, largely because the apparent risks were too frightening and the advantages of first mover were unclear.

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.

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Emily Bell is Director at the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia Journalism School. Tags: , , ,