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Summary:

The departure of executive editor Jill Abramson has drawn a lot of attention, but the New York Times has a much larger challenge ahead of it, as the paper’s own internal report details — its culture is out of sync with reality

The venerable “Grey Lady,” as the New York Times is often called, dropped a rather large bomb on the U.S. media industry Wednesday, when the paper announced that executive editor Jill Abramson had been abruptly dismissed from her post by publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr. due to what he said were concerns about her management style. The news set off a frenzy of speculation about the real reasons behind her departure, but the bigger concern is what these executive changes will mean for the newspaper’s digital future — and the initial signs are not good.

Abramson’s replacement is Dean Baquet, a former managing editor at the Los Angeles Times who was fired after refusing to engage in wholesale staff cuts at the struggling paper, and who got his start as an investigative reporter at a newspaper in his home town of New Orleans. By all accounts, Baquet is a well-liked editor with a collegial attitude (although he is known to have had at least one angry outburst that involved punching the wall of Abramson’s office).

Baquet may well be a more appealing manager than Abramson, who has been described by some at the newspaper as “pushy” and “brusque” (although as many critics of the Times have pointed out, these words are often used to refer to female managers who fail to conform to certain stereotypes about how women should behave). But is he what the New York Times needs right now? It doesn’t look that way — and if anything, as the paper’s own internal innovation report describes, the challenges are intensifying, not receding.

A paywall doesn’t fix everything

Some may see the Times as a spectacular newspaper success story, thanks to a paywall (or metered subscription plan, as the paper prefers to call it) that is bringing in about $150 million a year from subscribers. But those revenues are still barely making up for continued declines in print-advertising revenue, and in any case those subscription numbers are starting to flatten out — hence the introduction of new apps and services like NYT Now and NYT Premier.

NYT newspapers

In many ways, however, these efforts seem more like an attempt to repackage the paper’s existing content rather than a brand-new way of thinking about what the job of a “newspaper” is in a digital age or how best to do it. They are like the NYT’s celebrated feature Snow Fall, which was a fairly traditional story with very nice packaging, but not much more that that.

An internal report on the paper’s digital challenges — which Capital New York wrote about recently and BuzzFeed managed to get a copy of (ironically enough, a printed copy) — paints a very different picture of the Times than you might get from all the positive coverage of the paywall. The report, which was co-ordinated by Arthur Gregg Sulzberger, son of the paper’s publisher, describes a company that is hamstrung by its traditional culture, and falling behind its digital competitors:

“They are ahead of us in building impressive support systems for digital journalists, and that gap will grow unless we quickly improve our capabilities. Meanwhile, our journalism advantage is shrinking as more of these upstarts expand their newsrooms. We are not moving with enough urgency.”

Sulzberger’s report is right about the expansion of these new competitors — this week alone, Quartz (unit of Atlantic Media) announced that it is increasing the size of its newsroom by 50 percent, and First Look Media is also hiring a significant number of staff. Vox Media has been building up Ezra Klein’s site (also called Vox) and Mashable is also expanding under former NYT editor Jim Roberts, while BuzzFeed has been adding investigative journalists.

Editors remain unfamiliar with the web

The innovation report criticizes the NYT on a number of other fronts as well, including “focusing too much time and energy on Page One” and a “cadre of editors who remain unfamiliar with the web,” as well as a general obsession with print deadlines and a failure to think about changes in the way we find news. These are not unusual problems — a recent report by the Sanford School of Public Policy called “The Goat Must Be Fed” details similar issues at a number of papers, both large and small — but the Sulzberger report is right that they must be solved before the Times can truly succeed in a digital marketplace.

New York Times building logo, photo by Rani Molla

New York Times building logo, photo by Rani Molla

The biggest takeaway from the Sanford report is a crucial one for the Times: namely, that “culture eats strategy for breakfast,” as Peter Drucker said. In other words, all of the best-laid plans for online features or new journalistic ventures are nothing if the paper’s dominant culture is still print-focused — and that is why some are so concerned about Dean Baquet’s appointment, despite the fact that he has endorsed the Sulzberger report’s conclusions in an internal memo.

According to several current and former NYT staffers who have worked with him, Baquet’s main focus is and always has been the print version of the newspaper. “Dean thinks that digital disruption has ruined the news business. He lives for print and for printed words,” said one. Even in the profile of him that ran in the Times following his appointment, he said the job of the executive editor is to “protect” the print newspaper and its venerable history:

“The trick of running The New York Times is that you have to keep in mind that it is a very powerful print newspaper with a very appreciative audience. You have to protect that while you go out there and get more readers through other means.”

A print focus is a recipe for failure

With all due respect to the Times and its history of great journalism, Baquet’s comment is a recipe for disaster. A focus on and/or obsession with print is exactly why disruption guru Clay Christensen has argued that the digital side of a media company like the Times should be separate from the print side (a structure the NYT used to have, one that Jill Abramson helped dismantle) because traditional print-focused executives will inevitably be reluctant to preside over the disruption or downsizing of the thing they love.

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This is also why digital-first or digital-native ventures like BuzzFeed and Vox and others will almost always win — because they have no legacy business models or emotional attachment to “the way things used to be done,” whether it’s the photo desk or the Page One meeting or the Pulitzer nomination race. Some may argue that they also have little commitment to journalistic principles like getting the facts right, but there is little or no evidence that those principles are somehow directly connected to being a print publication.

A print-focused culture is also a danger for a paper like the NYT in other ways — for example, it prevents the company from either keeping or attracting those with the skills it needs to succeed online. As the Sulzberger report puts it: “While we receive accolades for our digital efforts like ‘Snowfall,’ we nevertheless are at risk of becoming known as a place that does not fully understand, reward, and celebrate digital skills.” Many of those who have left say they did so because they felt unwelcome or unrecognized next to their print counterparts.

The NYT’s publisher has said that his dismissal of Jill Abramson had nothing to do with the way she handled the digital challenges facing the paper, but he is wrong in one fairly critical way: unless the Times figures out how to solve some of the problems mentioned in his son’s innovation report, changing the person in the executive suite will accomplish exactly nothing.

Post and thumbnail images courtesy of Thinkstock / Svitlana Pavzyuk as well as Rani Molla and Thinkstock / Janie Airey

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  1. First, a question: Does the guy who is asleep at the wheel in the photo that accompanies this article work for the New York Times? If not, then how do you justify the photo?
    Second: Rather than all this discussion about “digital first,” how about a discussion that centers on “customers first”? Most companies have multiple product lines to suit a variety of customer needs. Should be the same for media organizations. Some like it digital; some like it print — what’s so hard about that?

    1. I agree the customer should come first, and one platform doesn’t necessarily replace another. As for the photo, it is a kind of visual metaphor if you will :-) appreciate the comment.

    2. You’re criticizing a stock photo on a blog post. Genius.

  2. I wouldn’t be too quick to assume that ventures like Buzzfeed and Vox will almost always win.

    If you look at Buzzfeed (NYT seems particularly concerned about them), do they produce … well … anything of real quality? Listicles. “Native Advertising.” There’s no journalism there. And blog networks like Vox produce great, insightful stuff, but it’s opinion — smart opinion, but opinion nonetheless. What’s totally missing is journalism.

    In my mind, there’s going to be a reckoning at some point. Consider the following scenario:

    1) Old-guard institutions have massive production costs (staff, printing, distribution), get fat and happy on subscription revs + premium-priced advertising. Don’t feel any need to experiment in less revenue-producing venues (and when they do, it’s in the form of really crummy paywall concepts).

    2) Upstarts, lacking the startup costs of traditionally published media throw spaghetti against a wall until they find their audience, stick to the formula, throw up some advertising, start making some real change. Free entertainment for the reader.

    3) Upstarts realize that they’re producing little of real value, have daddy issues and want to become respectable outfits, so they start playing with investigative journalism.

    4) That stuff’s expensive, and between the VC money burn and the fact that ad dollars just don’t support high-quality investigative journalism, they have to figure out how to make it work just like any other publisher.

    In my mind, the real question is whether companies like the NYT will figure out how to be meaningfully present in digital realms before Buzzfeed, etc. figure out investigative journalism, or if the reverse will be true. But on both sides, it’s going to be rocky for a while.

    And I think this situation will play out. The commentariat has taken over television news, the successful online plays aren’t particularly journalistic in nature, and there’s actually a dearth of real, honest-to-god journalistic production happening.

    I wouldn’t count out the NYT yet. They have the newsroom bit figured out, and I can only assume that their employees exhibit all the digital behaviors they’re so flummoxed by. They need a bit of introspection, for sure, but I think they’ll be able to get there. Existential threats have a way of doing that.

  3. Nice insight Matthew and I think a few more issues are at play. One, is display is dead. Not just in print but nearly everywhere, so look for monetization there. Two, newspapers are only viable as local resources. Too many easily available specialists and insiders to compete with make sure your coverage doesnt draw much buzz beyond the local readership and locally related issues.

    Their value proposition does not warrant investment at paywall unless you are a New Yorker, sorry to say. Such is landscape for many large publishers unless they carve out a new position as a specialized or unique go to resource.

    Just the way it is.

  4. Rafael Bonnelly Friday, May 16, 2014

    Brilliant article! It describes exactly what I’m seeing at several publishing groups. You said it in a previous article, its very hard for traditional media managers to propose focusing their efforts in a business (online advertising) that currently represents less than 10% of their revenues. But digital is not online advertising, and that is what most of these media companies don’t understand.

    I work with several media companies across Latin America, helping them transform their businesses in order to compete against the onslaught of digital players popping up in each of their markets, and the only ones really making a difference, are the ones creating separate teams and companies to manage their brand portfolios.

  5. Muhammad Abd Al-Hameed Friday, May 16, 2014

    The Times finds it difficult to adopt digital developments. It will find far more difficult to adopt a new idea that will create a revenue stream using both paper and digital operations.
    It needs an open mind more than anything else.

  6. Good analysis. And you didn’t even parse the impact of ad revenues declines (eg, no more classified ads)–areas that were used for years to subsidize the entire journalistic enterprise. Without that support in place the journalism cannot be sustained at the same levels as in teh past.

  7. Bernard Gershon Saturday, May 17, 2014

    Good points. One key one is the archaic “Chinese Wall” which exists at the Times between editorial and business – it is ludicrous and kills innovation and generating new ways to make money!

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