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

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Getty Images

Getty Images

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.

Hollywood-vs-print-media

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!

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