The New York Times’ digital limbo

An author says the paper's digital efforts are stuck in 2010

The New York Times innovation report provides an inside look at the paper of record in the US—and fanned the firestorm of coverage in a week that saw the dramatic exit of top editor Jill Abramson.

What’s shocking to me about the report—having conducted a five month ethnography of the newsroom over 700 hours for my book, Making News at The New York Times—is, the way it reveals how little, really, the Times has changed in the four long years since I was there in 2010.

And ironically, the report, for all its merits, actually misses some of the good innovations and practices that actually are already happening at the Times and which the report suggests it should get started on right away.

So here is some cultural and historical context for the report based on my newsroom observations.

First, the report’s discussion of social media and how to promote the paper sounds in 2014 an awful lot like it did in 2010—basically a mix of bravado from the top and confusion among the rank-and-file.

In 2010, Arthur O. Sulzberger told an audience at the London School of Economics that The New York Times was the “most social” company in the world, ahead of even Google and Facebook based on the number of accounts and the number of followers at the company.

By 2011, at South by Southwest, Jill Abramson was talking about the Times’ successful development of “sub-brands,” namely star reporters. The Times pointed to people like media reporter Brian Stelter, who had by then carved out a name for himself (and found himself an object of newsroom envy) mainly because of his many bylines and high profile across social media.

Times brass pointed to Stelter, tech reporter David Pogue, media bigfoot David Carr, and foreign correspondent par excellence CJ Chivers to demonstrate what was going right at the paper. The problem is, in 2014 Stelter and Pogue are gone, and the Times hasn’t really added to, or advanced much beyond the names it had held up as shining examples four years earlier.

Another example: In 2010, I asked standards editor Phil Corbett for a copy of any formal or written standards the Times might have governing social media policy for its reporters. He declined. In 2014, the innovation report turns up the fact that in fact there actually were none, and that explains why journalists have often come across as confused about what is and isn’t allowed.

In 2010, that meant Hiroko Tabuchi tweeting her frustrations about covering Toyota was a no-go, at least sort of. She had been covering what seemed like a never-ending stream of stories about Toyota’s faulty brakes from Japan, working on New York time, and finally got fed up with the company’s harsh media restrictions. She tweeted about her frustrations, and got a lashing from the public editor. Flash forward to 2014: Reporters still don’t have a sense of what is ethically appropriate.

Next, there’s the problematic dominance of print concerns over digital ones. In 2010, I watched as top editors, including Jill Abramson, authoritatively ran the editorial meetings with solid, insightful questions, but focused far too much on the print paper at the expense of the Web.

In my observations of Page One meetings (about a month’s worth), I almost never heard anyone mention the homepage other than Jim Roberts, who was then the assistant managing editor, who gave a very quick briefing about what had been up throughout the day. The section editors rarely commented, if ever. Roberts explained to me:

It has happened [discussion about the Web in Page One meetings], but it doesn’t happen that often. We go into that meeting and … the website is displayed in larger-than-life fashion. If someone had an issue, I’m pretty sure I would hear about it. I think some of it is just a matter of just their own interest, and some of it is a matter that they seem to think that we are doing okay.

In the end, though, print, Roberts told me, was what still mattered.

My spot in the newsroom as an ethnographer was primarily on the business desk. But I was given largely free reign to spend as much time as I wanted observing the entire newsroom, as long as I didn’t reveal sources or competitive advantages, from business decisions to story tips.

This gave me the chance to observe the amazing, meticulous discussions among editors on the focus of each story. Many of these stories were indeed little masterpieces, which would be posted online late in the day on their way into print. The hunt for the display story—which would dominated the business section front—was a constant, time-consuming preoccupation—and the importance of laying out the section front was seen to be a valuable way to signal the importance of what editors thought mattered. The attention of the “backfield,” the section editors in charge of editing content and shaping stories, was primarily, if not entirely, focused on print.

And reporters told me, just as the innovation reports mentioned, that the main thing they kept tabs on were their Page One bylines. After all, they said, it was Page One bylines, not blogs or anything else, that mattered for promotion and that counted in end-of-year performance evaluations. And, remarkably, according to the 2014 report, this continues to be the case.

The paywall was announced during my time in the newsroom, and most people knew it was coming. But it still shocks me that those in the newsroom have failed to anticipate some of the consequences—including loss of traffic to the homepage.

There has been speculation on whether homepage is dying, but one reason not discussed in the report seems quite simple: If you are asking people to pay for content when they read your stuff, then coming to the home page becomes useless for them unless they want to pay. This is further amplified by the fact that readers can get all the articles they want via social media.

I could go on, but I think it’s also important to pause and note some of the smart innovations that have in fact been happening at the Times and which the innovation reporters, for all the hundreds of people interviewed, managed somehow to miss.

First and primarily, the Times may not need as big of a “reader experience” team as the report seems to think. A one-man analytics team, James Robinson, whose formal title is director of news analytics, does a pretty good job acting as a bridge between journalists and data, explaining their meaning and utility.

His rudimentary programming efforts are being developed into something more by former Guardian developer Alistair Dant, and have resulted in improvements in tracking reader behavior on the homepage. The efforts also have resulted in a tool to show how to better link stories with related topics (and helping solve the Times’ problem in connecting stories with similar content across the site) and an effort to mine audience data to improve a demographic-specific promotion strategy—which sounds like a scalable way to build advertising and loyalty.

And Brian Abelson, a 2013 Knight-Mozilla fellow, had been working intensely on using statistical models to help predict traffic.

These efforts at improving the use of analytics are already happening, with efforts to bridge the kind of culture gap with the newsroom that so concerns the report’s authors.

Second, I would argue the Times already has a responsive and reactive breaking news team, contrary to the report’s suggestions that it doesn’t. From David Joachim, Mark Getzfred, Mick Sussman and others running the ship in New York, these editors are responsive to crafting and posting news on the home page as appropriate and as it develops. You can find clear evidence of this in my book.

And Times reporters are hardly unused to jumping on rapidly breaking news—and not just on the blogs. Rather, journalists post incremental stories throughout the day (though they’re often not thrilled about having to do this) and work toward making their work responsive to the breaking news environment.

The report also missed the significance of the global dimension of the Times—which is that a constant flow of rich, 24-7 news is in ready supply from The International New York Times (née International Herald Tribune) outposts in Paris and Hong Kong.

In this and other ways, the Times’ innovation report misses the resources and capabilities it already has. There are also existing solutions inside the newsroom that do not require a wholesale reinvention or reorganization.

But for the moment, those solutions are at most potential that needs to be realized. Basically, for the newsroom as a whole to see the massive changes it wishes, the paper needs to move past 2010.

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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. Tags: , , , ,