Summary:

Martin Nisenholtz is leaving the New York Times Co. (NYSE: NYT) after 16 years as the driving force behind its digital strategy. His plan to…

Martin Nisenholtz, SVP of digital operations, NYT

Martin Nisenholtz is leaving the New York Times Co. (NYSE: NYT) after 16 years as the driving force behind its digital strategy. His plan to retire as SVP of digital operations at the end of the year was a surprise to many but was known by some internally. NYT Chairman Arthur Sulzberger, Jr. and CEO Janet Robinson said in a staff memo (full text below) that he will stay through a transition but made no mention of a successor. That’s because there won’t be one, according to sources familiar with the situation.

Robinson is likely to take on most or all of Nisenholtz’s direct reports, including the well-regarded research and development group led by Michael Zimbalist and struggling About.com. It’s as much a statement about the NYT‘s structure as it is about the role of digital in the company.

When Nisenholtz joined as president of The New York Times Electronic Media Company in 1995, the web was nascent and the digital media as we know it now barely existed despite numerous pioneering efforts. Nisenholtz wasn’t the first to push the Times towards a digital future nor was he alone but he was the one given the mission and eventually the resources to make it succeed. Today, no matter how slow the progress has felt at times — or to many in the newsroom, how fast — the NYT has an integrated newsroom with an understanding that digital, while it may not always be first, is equal.

On a larger scale, digital now accounts for more than one-fourth of the company’s advertising revenue; 28.6 percent in Q311. Nisenholtz’s departure, announced via the staff memo and in the NYT‘s Decoder blog, comes during the first year of what appears to be a successful launch for the NYTimes.com metered paywall.

Meanwhile, another part of his strategy — once-thriving About.com — has been experiencing considerable difficulty, while the company has been divesting some digital investments.

The news of his decision to retire quickly drew comments about his influence on digital media. Om Malik thanked Nisenholtz for being “generous with his time and advice” to him as a “young media-industry entrepreneur.”

Dave Winer, the “father” of RSS, credits Nisenholtz for the spread of RSS 2.0 for news delivery:

It was his decision, to license the flow of NYT stories to UserLand Software, in March 2002, that made it possible for us to provide their huge story flow to users of our product.

We also decided to make this flow available to our competitors, most of whom didn’t exist yet. That was when the arguing stopped in the tech world, and we all got busy developing software. And the publishing world had a leader to follow, and that’s what they did. This was made possible by an act of faith by an exec at the Times. That person was Martin.

Nisenholtz’s acceptance of RSS from the content side showed the kind of open mind and willingness to experiment that led to a variety of forward-thinking digital moves by the Times, including the Times Reader, early Kindle subscriptions, the embrace of Twitter and the freemium app strategy.

(I wrote about those early days of RSS OJR in 2004.)

That embrace always was coupled with an understanding that the company, led by its flagship paper, needed to make money from digital, and that eventually it would rely on it. Nisenholtz tried numerous variations on the subscription theme including TimesSelect, the ambitious, flawed effort to put columnists behind a paywall. TimesSelect lasted for two years, bringing in $10 million in subscription revenue but hampering the site from growing traffic.

The acquisition of About and the application of its SEO knowledge to NYTimes.com plus the expansion in internet access and interest showed that more money could be made from growing the site than from the subscription revenue. Eventually the Times found a different solution to its quandary, launching a new digital subscription earlier this year that requires payment to access more than 20 pieces of content a month while leaving the site open for access from social media links.

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Memo from NYT Chairman Arthur Sulzberger, Jr. and CEO Janet Robinson:

To Our Colleagues,

When Martin Nisenholtz joined The New York Times Company in 1995, we had zero Web page views. Indeed, we had zero Web users. Further, we had no Web revenue. Today, thanks in large measure to Martin’s vision and leadership, our digital numbers are dramatically different.

We note this and are writing to you because Martin has informed us that he plans to retire at the end of the year, after 16 years of service to The Company.

He leaves a lasting legacy that will be felt for a very long time. He developed a strong roster of executives and a deep bench of managers who are recognized leaders in our industry. Together, they will continue to execute on our digital strategy with teams comprised of the best and brightest experts on the Web, social media, design, digital devices, engineers and research and development.

Over the coming weeks, Martin will be meeting with his direct reports to ensure a smooth and seamless transition of his responsibilities.

While Martin will remain with us and engaged through the end of this year, we want to take this moment to thank him for his many years of service and dedication. Please join us in wishing Martin and his family a very healthy and happy future-in print, online and across multiple devices.

Sincerely,

Arthur + Janet

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