Now that the Washington Post‘s future seems assured, thanks to the arrival of a billionaire tech mogul, that leaves the New York Times as the main focus of the “how to save newspapers” crowd, and the New Republic has jumped into the fray with a list of suggestions for things the Gray Lady could do to ensure its survival. While not all of their tips are likely to have much impact, there are a couple that are close to the mark, and they are the ones that hint at monetizing people and relationships rather than just content.
In the piece, New Republic writer Marc Tracy says that based on conversations with about two dozen staffers, the Times newsroom seems to be open to change. He says he “emerged with the impression that most are buying into the new initiatives, many of them pushed by the well-liked [publisher, former BBC director Mark] Thompson. I also heard an appetite for further, bolder experimentation.” Tracy goes on to list some proposals that he says were inspired by these conversations, including:
Get into more readers’ wallets: Although the paywall has generated a substantial amount of revenue for the paper, Tracy notes that it “may now be hitting a paid-circulation plateau” and so the Times needs to start coming up with ways to “narrowcast” content, such as offering a daily news roundup or an app specifically for opinion writers.
Bring the magazine into the newsroom: Well-designed digital geatures like Snow Fall are popular, Tracy says, and so the weekend magazine with all of its feature and design skills should be folded into the main newsroom to make it easier to come up with similar offerings.
Cut the daily editorials and opinion: The Opinion section has a staff of 50, and much of that goes toward daily Notebook and Observer-style pieces that could be cut without anyone really noticing and probably save a lot of money, Tracy argues (it’s interesting to speculate whether this was one of the suggestions that Times staff themselves came up with)
Paywalls around people, not content
But the two proposals that I think are the most spot on have to do with finding and building on the voices and talent and personalities within the Times: in the first, Tracy says the paper needs to stop feeling morose about the departure of highly-regarded statistics blogger Nate Silver (who has gone to ESPN) and get busy finding another one. In the second, he suggests giving avuncular media writer and former bad boy David Carr a DealBook-style empire to build on. As Tracy puts it:
“As a full-time media columnist, part-time culture feature writer, sometime magazine contributor, occasional unofficial Times spokesman, and all-around Twitter savant, Carr is a smart candidate for this bet. Give him his own small crew, and turn them loose on an old-school New York Observer, mixing media- and entertainment-industry reporting and commentary with vaguely edgy cultural coverage.”
This is smart advice for a bunch of reasons (full disclosure: I consider Carr a friend), and most of those reasons I have tried to outline in a number of posts based on the idea that it’s better in the long run to build paywalls or monetization models around individuals and their relationships with readers, rather than blanket paywalls around undifferentiated news content. As good as outlets like the Times are, the value of the latter is rapidly declining.
Trusted filters have value
In an age when social connections and interaction are so crucial to the way we perceive the world, and when information overload has made trusted filters and usable insights even more imperative than ever before, I would argue that the single most powerful resource the Times has are people like Carr and Nick Kristof and even (God forbid) Tom Friedman — voices that are unique and compelling, and are therefore sought out by readers.
Relationships with those readers, once formed and strengthened, can be monetized in a host of ways that don’t feel as crass and inelegant as a blanket paywall: real-world events like conferences or personal appearances, ebooks, video and more — all the things that smart outlets like The Atlantic are doing. And because they are trusted voices, that monetization seems even more natural: in some cases, readers will almost beg to be allowed to pay for a closer relationship with the writers they love, instead of being forced to do so.
Here’s hoping that the Times puts more of its resources into those kinds of opportunities as it tries to evolve. If it doesn’t, some of those voices might just pull an Andrew Sullivan and monetize themselves.