The New York Times has shuffled the executive deck chairs, but it’s still on a collision course

Asleep at the wheel

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.

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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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