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How the New York Times can fight BuzzFeed & reinvent its future

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If I ever run into New York Times executive editor Jill Abramson (unlikely as it might be) I will sure as hell let her know that she is absolutely right to be excited about what her paper did with Snow Fall, which in my opinion was one of the first truly post-tablet storytelling experiences. At the Wired Business conference in New York earlier this week, Abramson said:

“Snow Fall” is now a verb.  “Everyone wants to snowfall now, every day, all desks,” she said. Reporters are waiting for time to “Snow Fall” their bigger story.  She said that the story originated from the sports desk — and took “months and months and months” of time —  but Snow Fall-type projects can come from anywhere.

Snow Fall, in case you missed it, was a multimedia project that included a gripping six-part story by John Branch, one of the Times’ Pulitzer Prize-winning writers who was intrigued by the growing number of skiing fatalities. The stories were presented with interactive graphics, videos and bios of various snowboarders and skiers. It is brilliance personified and was rewarded with 2.9 million visits and 3.5 million page views within the first six days after publication. (The Times doesn’t reveal the total traffic it received since its release in December 2012.)

Snowfall cover image

Snow Fall (and other such attempts) represent a great opportunity and the future for news organizations like The New York Times, especially as they are right now in a losing battle for attention with upstart competitors that include everyone from BuzzFeed to The Huffington Post. If you are the New York Times management, it is time to take a gamble: spend $25 million on creating 100 Snow Fall-like projects.

Money for something and clicks for free

In fact, it is important that our media brethren at the Times think even bigger than that, eventhough it would also mean taking a more prosaic, mercantile and business-like perspective to what they do.

They need to NOT think about Snow Fall as an add-on — as something that makes traditional content more web- or mobile/tablet-friendly — and instead treat it as a brand-new kind of media product that is created especially for the multiple device/many-screen world.

I have been involved with online publishing for a very long time — 18 years to be exact. And in that time I have seen the incumbent media make the same mistake again and again. They’ve often tried to adapt the content they’ve created for newspapers and magazines to the online world. And when they did embrace online, even then the online reporters were asked to do the same thing they did for the newspapers or the magazines.  (The Times, to its credit, published Snow Fall first online, and then in print three days later, which suggests it had a pretty clear understanding of the digital potential of a project like this.)

Yes Dorothy, the Internet is different

The internet is and will always be an immersive, interactive and communal platform. Many publishers continue to treat it like the old two-dimensional medium. Every time we have some major news events, such as the recent Boston tragedy, the social web brings the consumers of content into our newsrooms and makes them part of the process. It is one of the reasons why most of the big media still don’t get blogs. Sure, some writers like David Carr or Paul Krugman are an exception, but look at some of the Times blogs and you see they are just news stories (or features) retrofitted for the blog medium.

Federal agents descend on the home of a suspect-at-large in the Boston Marathon bombing. Getty Images
Federal agents descend on the home of a suspect-at-large in the Boston Marathon bombing. Getty Images

Blogging is a way of editing the world and presenting it to my community, and that means everything from photos, links, tweets and videos, in addition to sharing my raw thoughts and fully packaged features, scoops and even basic news. Every act of sharing tells you what I am interested in and what I am willing to learn and talk about.

There is a failure in the media business to understand that the medium and the content are intertwined much like those lovers on the walls of Ajanta and Ellora caves. It was one of the many reasons why Rupert Murdoch’s The Daily failed to impress me. It didn’t really invent a new form of storytelling for the tablet.

Now take all of that as context and then understand why I keep harping on the point that Snow Fall-type products are a brand new media, a whole new style of storytelling and a model for 21st-century journalism — one that doesn’t sacrifice the best of our profession, but takes it by the scruff of its neck, and drags its bloated, aging body into the new world and revives it with a shot of adrenaline.

Mr. Excel meets Ms. Editor

Getty Images
Getty Images

However, that is only part of the story. The trick is not to get married to just the oohs-and-aahs of the Snow Fall, but to think of it as a business opportunity, much like the way Hollywood studios creatively monetize their blockbusters. My question is why can’t newspapers and magazine companies take the same approach and build a business model that actually factors in various opportunities that something like Snow Fall can offer?

So instead of starting with a newspaper story and adapting it to different formats, the Times should start with the Snow Fall. If you look at Snow Fall closely, you can see a cohesive approach to content, one that adapts and morphs to not only the medium of access, but to diverse business models — much like the movies.

Snowfall 2

From my own experience at magazines, I can tell you producing features isn’t cheap and can easily cost tens of thousand dollars, depending on the publication. The longer the lead time and higher the profile of the story, the bigger the costs. So from that perspective, spending some more on the post-tablet version of the feature shouldn’t break the bank.

The current editorial effort is to create something for a day or two of attention in the newspaper and hopefully for tens of thousands of pageviews. Why not start with the apps and e-readers (both paid), then follow up with the web version and then get to the newspaper. While apps and selling e-reader-oriented content might involve the Times learning new tricks, the company doesn’t need to change much for the latter two channels.

Blame my enteprenurial tendencies, but when I was experiencing Snow Fall, all I could see was stunning brand-advertising opportunities, that went beyond the dumb, commoditized advertising the Times is forced to put on its website. Why not embed a tasteful Land Rover ad or throw in one for Moncler? That is native advertising that actually allows organziations like the Times to live by their ethos and maintain the fidelity of their brand.

Hollywood, Baby

Now, let me explain why the Times can do it. And for that I will point to Hollywood again. One of the reasons why Hollywood studios succeed with the multi-tier approach to their “product” is because they do their best to ensure that they create an optimum experience. And they can do that with the right story, the right stars, the right production values and, most importantly, they have distribution. And gobs of money.


The Times and other big media companies have a lot of those same capabilities. They have great stars (real people, for god sake, are better stars than anything Hollywood can produce — see the Cleveland samaritan), they have great storytellers (editors and reporters, whose Pulitzers are testimony enough) and they have the ability to create the right production values (photographers, visual artists and designers). The Times also has a big audience – 35 million monthly visitors to their website in the U.S. alone, according to comScore – which means it has a lot of attention, which can be channeled effectively to promote new concepts.

Distribution Matters

Just as blockbuster movies get a lot of attention from media, Snow Fall got a lot of attention from the rest of the media community. Those millions of monthly visitors and lots of advertising space on print means distribution isn’t really a problem. And despite the financial headwinds, many of them — including the Times — still have a lot of money to try and finance a few dozen Snow Falls.

It isn’t clear how much money the Times spent on Snow Fall, but let’s just assume it was a small fortune. (Yes, I asked them and got this response: “We can’t disclose details about costs. Really, this is a newsroom effort. The business side works with the newsroom, of course, to provide the infrastructure and technology they need to tell stories in innovative ways.”)

And in exchange, it got a few million page views, but I am guessing they also built a nice backend infrastructure to create more such projects. As a result, the next Snow Fall is going to cost less, with most future spending going to the creative: words, photos, other multimedia elements and design.

So what will the Times (or someone like them) need to get it done? Simply put, a departure from the incumbent thinking, embracing today’s reality and re-imagining the work flow of a big city newspaper. In other words:

  • Re-imagining its business model to factor in the reality of today’s world and forget the legacy of newsprint.
  • Create a new breed of “producer” who can switch between Excel and content.
  • Create a whole new breed of a journalist — one who has old-school values but also the ability to tell a story that works in many mediums of today.
  • Build an editorial creative machine that works differently from a print-centric editorial group.

Now, if they can actually overcome their angst — and it hurts me to say this — they can change the conversation in the media business away from the increasingly shallow content and instead bring the focus back to quality and in-depth journalism, which is their stock in trade. If the New York Times management were feeling bold, it would put $25 million to work on creating 100 other Snow Falls and basically change the reader’s expectations of what long-form digital content and journalism are in the new century.

So if you want to fight BuzzFeed and HuffPo, there you go, Jill!

33 Responses to “How the New York Times can fight BuzzFeed & reinvent its future”

  1. Brad Hill

    Some of the comments here pivot on the distinction between newspapers and magazines, which I believe misses the point. The NYT is a media brand, and further definition should start with a blank page. There is no need to sacrifice its journalistic, daily-news roots, or existing talent assets, to start a new content division as Om suggests. Digital media companies do that sort of experimentation and investment all the time.

    I would pre-sell upcoming packages to primary and secondary sponsors — not rely on standard display rate-sheet eCPM. This should be conceived, produced, and sold as a premium opportunity.

  2. Om Malik, with regard to the subheading, “Yes, Dorothy, the Internet is different,” an appropriate response, while thinking of the print edition of The New York Times, might be “Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus,” [The Sun, September 21, 1897].

  3. Dan Farfan

    You might as well get ahead of the pack and start replacing “web” (such as in your 2 column graphic) with “internet.” “Web is a box we accidentally trapped everyone in, with a very tight lid called browser.”

    That which displaces web, will be much, much better at everything web became with its afterthoughts.. and will enable seemingly magical things effortlessly that web can never come close to offering.

    Search google and NYT’s site for “snow fall” to “immerse” in the failure that is web. Web in its unfortunately, but predictably, forever-hobbled way doesn’t even know the difference between the “it” and the “about it.” Small children make this distinction before they barely begin to wield spoken language itself.

    If “publishers” (or even one) were to really ponder the lessons of “Snow Fall” in context of the lessons of web, they’d come quickly to the realization that their best hope of not being left behind (off the table, out of the loop, not in the room or in the discussion in any way shape or form) again when that which displaces web is developed…. is for them to do it themselves.

    Else, it’ll be another 20 years of victimhood (“Oh golly, our margins this, or readers that, or advertisers… yada yada”). And please, who in their right mind believes incumbent media can survive the next two decades worse than the last two?

    Web’s had a marvelous ride and it has moved a lot of 1’s and 0’s around while being worshiped from all corners as the internet’s rightful king. Ya know what trumps bits and bytes? Storytelling. Ya know when? Probably soon before or just after the same interval that which preceded web as king was king. Email. 1973. Do the math.


  4. Now a few (rhetorical) questions: Why doesn’t the NYT put the Snow Fall behind its paywall, and thus, increase its subscription base to 800K or even 1 million? What is it, the brand (in this case the NYT) or the stories that people buy or are willing to buy? Do people engage with the brand, through its paywall, or do they engage with stories?

    The questions are rhetorical, at least to me, because in today’s buyers market, it is the high-quality, user-engaging story that is king, not bundled and paywalled content, not the brand, even though the brand and its reputation can help with distribution of such individual stories.

    I agree with Om that “snowfalling” is a great business opportunity that requires a new and flexible business model — paywalls are opportunity lost.

  5. Bryan Goldberg

    Hey Om,

    Thoughtful piece, but it isn’t going to work.

    Snowfall was a critical success and a huge commercial failure. It wasn’t even sponsored, which is borderline laughable. As somebody with deep media experience, I can tell you that to release a project of that scope and *not* have a major commercial sponsor is more than laughable — it’s unforgiveable.

    Were it to be sponsored, there would not have been enough inventory to run the $250k inventory needed to break even on the production costs. And that was with 3.5 million pageviews, which would not happen over-and-over if this became a weekly thing for them.

    Snow Fall was a wonderful symbol of what ISN’T working in the media right now. Absolutely terrible integration of tech, editorial, and sales. A complete over-focus on some aspects of the project, while completely ignoring others. One cannot even call it a ‘step in the right direction’, because the direction is unclear.

    Om, you are a terrific tech blogger, but Media and Tech are very different businesses, which is why Silicon Valley is no media town. :)

    • Bryan

      Thanks for the thoughtful comment.

      You make great points, but if you read the post, I am making a case that they need to think of this a different “media” package and use tier-ing to make money. In fact, as I suggest they need to tap different channels for making money. I think you are focusing just on advertising – and while I am suggesting that they need to look beyond just pure CPM advertising and thinks of different tools of monetization: mobile apps, ebooks and possibly podcasts.

      Yes, the Times did a terrible job of making no money or capitalizing on the big buzz around SnowFall and the ensuing page views. But that doesn’t mean they can’t learn from that experiment and build a business that looks at many facets of monetization.

      PS: As an aside I have been part of the Internet media long enough. For instance, I helped start in 1997. I started this company in 2006, at a time when it wasn’t too fashionable to start media companies. So, yes I do understand technology and media.
      Also, You are a terrific entrepreneur, with original ideas and I wish you good luck to you in your next company. On one thing, I definitely agree with you: Silicon Valley isn’t a media town.

      • Bryan Goldberg

        Thanks Om!

        Maybe I’m too much of a ‘cheerleader’ for advertising as a business model, that I get naturally skeptical of ‘paid content’ and ‘other revenue’. The subscriber numbers are probably meaningful, but they must lose so much potential revenue by paywalling everything, making it hard to find on Google, etc. Same thing for ESPN Insider. I like the NYT approach to paywalling, hope it works for them. It’s really quite brilliant and gives them the best of both worlds. But there is only one NYT.

        Back to your post — I don’t think that everyday users would pay much to get a weekly dose of the Snow Fall formula. It was really the type of thing that appeals to a very small percentage of the populace.

        The solution for publishing — be in NYT, Time Inc., or anyone else — is to get the cost structure under control. These companies make a lot of revenue, there is no excuse for them to be spending as much as they are. Journalists hate to admit that the problem is spending — because THEY are the reason for the woes — and so people act as though innovation is necessary to solve this problem.

        I, for one, don’t want to see innovation in what content looks/feels like. I love the written word… it was great 4,000 years ago, and it’s great today. My hope is that we can innovate what happens behind-the-scenes, so that publishers can make a profit and readers can have a great reading experience. Even if all they get are static black-and-white words on a page.

        Your kind words were much appreciated — your success back in 2006 was one of the few bright spots that encouraged the SV community to take a chance on our website. But now that I’ve been through it once before, I am gonna make the hop to NY for future media projects :)

        With Gratitude,

  6. I think the copmparision of movie distribution and content distribution is flawed somewhere.
    Keeping the movie distribution as it is, I would say, publishers would have the following mediums to push their content through.
    1) Apps or mobile (html 5)
    2) Web
    3) Tab (if it lasts any longer)
    4) Google glass????
    5) Print???? naa
    6) Social media (it wont generate revenue though)
    7) Distribution platforms like flipboard which allows shared revenue
    Guess this is it. As of for now and for a long time as well.

  7. Fritz Nelson

    The lucky part for journalists (new & old) is that at the heart of this is basic story telling — but obviously a much different one that does require new skills, but also a commitment from media companies (or in this case NY Times) to take the time (and spend the money) to build these. In some ways, Snow Fall was as much a product as it was a story. There’s a place for both. But it feels like there’s great fun ahead on the content and the business side of media.

    The Editor/Excel aspect is intriguing. I wonder whether there really is a palatable model here for the bold and the brave. Watching IronMan 3 and hearing that Jarvis gets his data from the “Oracle Cloud” and later seeing Oracle gear in the background (classic product placement of course) . . . is that where we want to go? Or is it just paid access to the story, or the app where it appears? And if it’s the former, then media has to also plan that into the product, er, story building.

    • Fritz

      You got it. Yes, it is a story. yes, it is a great piece of journalism. But treat it like a product and you start to not feel so despondent about the future. I think it is a different mindset that is needed.

      On the product placement, well, why go that far when you can actually build a better way of selling the product, either as a paid model or as an advert. Either way, it is time to experiment – a lot!

  8. I disagree with the comment by realjjj…Snowfall would have been far more expensive and less interactive just a short time ago. The Web and web controls have come a long way and I agree with OM that Snow Fall showed the future. We wrote it up just after it came out:

    We said in our piece that Snow Fall showed us the future and I stand by that, only wishing that the NYT had launched 100 Snow Fall’s, as Om suggests.

    Are you listening, NY Times?

  9. Patrick Conroy

    The New York Times needs to branch out. The “Truth” was lost in their reporting of our nation’s news long ago. It obviously fits the type of reader in that part of the country…low information readers.

  10. @Om could you expound further on “Create a new breed of “producer” who can switch between Excel and content.” As someone interested in both the business and editorial side of the product, I found this specific point you made very interesting.

    • @PK

      When I think of this new type of executive, I think of how Hollywood has producers who find the balance between creatives and commercial. Similarly if there is a person who can define what are the creative needs, what is the budget and figure out how best to come up with the optimum product factoring in the constraints.

      It is not a publisher. It has to be someone who is part of the creation process, but at the same time, like the janus man can go and address the commercial part of the endeavor.

      Frankly, this is making me write a different post. But need to think this through.

  11. There was a great talk at the BarCamp News and Information last month where Joey Marburger was talking about Snow Fall and what the Washington Post has been doing with the idea lately — most notably their Cycling’s Road Forward piece.

    As a front-end developer, it’s fantastic to see responsive and html5 techniques being applied to one-off pieces — really letting each have a voice all its own, and displaying beautifully regardless of the medium.

  12. The NY Times and the rest of the journalism world needs to stop yap-yap-yapping about Snow Fall and start DOING more work like it. The navel gazing — here at the inflection point between old and new media — is utterly endless. Stop talking about it and get to work!

  13. Mikey Smith

    I love the Newspaper/Hollywood analogy, but have you considered that Tiers 3 and 4 might be the other way around. I’m not sure if it makes a substantial impact on how we think about this model, but from an audience size and ad/direct revenue perspective I think it might be more useful to think of the web in terms of broadcast and newsprint – a “status” product – in terms of PPV.

    • Mikey

      I think the problem is that the world today thinks about 3-4 first. I
      argue that in order to leverage what they have in abundance (for now)
      — attention and distribution — the paper has to look at 1 & 2 and
      then seriously figure out how to grow that and make it their primary

      The 3 & 4 are part if the legacy thinking — my two cents.

  14. Didn’t I read that Snowfall originated in the newsroom ( with reporters and storytellers) not in the vast digital kingdom the Times carries? Maybe that’s a part of the recipe?

  15. Raf Weverbergh

    I agree with realjjj that the NYT is not a magazine. And, for that matter, magazines are hardest hit now. There is just too much content.

    I also wonder if you don’t overestimate the power of the Hollywood model. Hollywood studios are all trying to find “franchises” and “tentpole” productions that they can milk forever in derivative sequels (Die Hard V or whatever it was named) – the closest thing they can find to selling a subscription.

  16. louhoffman


    I enjoyed your post.

    I think your overarching message to NY Times is to experiment (and perhaps think bigger).

    Regardless of the industry, it’s tough for the old guard to have the strength/chutzpah to experiment and push for change.

    In the case publishing, that’s what leaves the door open for the BuzzFeeds, HuffPo’s and GigaOms of the world.

    Still, I would love to see the NYT take your advice. Still contend some of the best storytelling in journalism takes place in the NYT Dining section each Wednesday.

    • Hi Lou

      Thanks for your thoughtful message. I am betting that facing such a dire future that faces many publications, the Times will do make bold moves. I think they have enough data on their hands to know that it is a good way forward and also the right way forward.

      It also is a good way to think in terms of augmenting their current information ecosystem which is good, but faces growth challenges.

      That said, in addition to Food, I would too like to see their Fashion and Lifestyle sections get in the act as well.

  17. realjjj

    You are not being objective just because you liked Snow Fall.
    Snowfall was something that could have been done a long time ago , nothing innovative about it.It got some attention because ,someone finally made a multimedia article that’s more than an embedded video+text.
    Snow Fall is what an online magazine should be but NYT is not a magazine.They can become a mag but that would be a fundamental change that kills what NYT is. So, it can be a side project and there are plenty of options on how to market it.
    They should better what NYT is today, starting with the layout, headlines ,content discovery.
    If i made a news site today i would try to find a way to put as much information in as little text as possible and maybe offer the option to expand the item and read more details on it.
    Twitter does , in some ways , that but maybe it can be done better.
    There is just too much information, it takes too long to acquire it and social networks only add to that burden. Long form … anything might become too niche for someone like NYT.
    Mobile devices are another problem, less bandwidth ,smaller screen,more on the go reading.

    • @Realjjj, all good points, but perhaps you’re missing the point — Snow Fall is intentionally a long-form narrative feature that offers something more than the typical news sound bites.

      Like Om’s perspective here, I too appreciate the complementary role of creative and substantive feature content produced by legacy news organizations.