The New York Times innovation report is great, but it left out one very important thing

A shockwave hit the media industry in May, when an internal “innovation report” prepared for New York Times executives leaked to BuzzFeed. The report makes for fascinating reading, in part because it is a snapshot of a massive media entity that is caught in the throes of wrenching change, unsure how to proceed. But while it contained many things of value, it glossed over one of the most important factors for the paper’s success — and that is whether the content itself, the journalism that the New York Times produces, needs to change.

This question came up recently in a post by Thomas Baekdal, an author and media analyst. In it, Baekdal made the point that the “quality journalism” the innovation report continually refers to — the bedrock, foundational value of the New York Times — is never questioned. In other words, it is assumed that the journalism itself is fine as is, and all that needs to happen is that the paper has to do a better job of marketing it and engaging with readers around it. But is that true? Baekdal says:

“This is something I hear from every single newspaper that I talk with. They are saying the same thing, which is that their journalistic work is top of the line and amazing. The problem is ‘only’ with the secondary thing of how it is presented to the reader. And we have been hearing this for the past five to ten years, and yet the problem still remains. There is a complete and total blind spot in the newspaper industry that part of the problem is also the journalism itself.”

Not just what kind of journalism, but how

Baekdal’s point isn’t that the New York Times produces bad or low-quality content, but just that the paper should be questioning how it reports and writes that content, and whether it meets the needs of the market — just as it is questioning whether its current business model and/or industrialized printing process meets the needs of the market. It’s not a trivial question, but it doesn’t really appear anywhere in the innovation report, at least not in any depth.

New York Times innovation report

This argument got some support this week from an interesting participant: Martin Nisenholtz, the former head of digital operations for the Times — the man who not only started the paper’s website in 1996, but later drove the acquisition of and other innovative efforts on the digital side. In a blog post, Nisenholtz defended Baekdal, and also provided a fascinating glimpse into what could have been an alternate future for the New York Times.

Nisenholtz, now a consultant and journalism professor, describes an interview that Henry Blodget gave to the creators of the Digital Riptide project (a group that included Nisenholtz). The former NYT executive said that one of the things he liked the most about Blodget’s interview was how optimistic he was about the future of journalism in the digital age — in large part because there is so much more of it than ever before, and much of it is of fairly high quality:

“We are awash in news from an almost infinite number of global sources, much of it of very high quality. For this reason, news providers can no longer force their readers to “eat spinach.” Instead, they need to work hard to entice readers with relevant and interesting content, structured for easy access. In a world of almost unlimited choice, the reader is king.”

The Times is no longer alone

As Nisenholtz suggests, that reality is the primary challenge the New York Times is facing: not just that it has to de-emphasize print and adapt to digital, or do a better job of engaging with readers around its content (although it very much has to do all of those things) but that it has to somehow grapple with the fact that it is no longer one of a privileged few — a tiny number of exalted media and journalism producers with a one-way pipe directly into the homes of readers, and therefore a large share of a kind of information oligopoly.

New York Times building logo, photo by Rani Molla
New York Times building logo, photo by Rani Molla

Now, the Times is just one player in a vast and differentiated media landscape — one that makes the previous era look like the Pleistocene Age. Not only does every traditional publisher now have access to the exact same market that the NYT does, but there are a host of new and more nimble players with the same access: dedicated news apps like Circa or Yahoo’s news digest, mobile readers like Flipboard and Zite, and digital-only publishers like BuzzFeed and more recent entrants such as Vox. Many of them do journalism in a completely different way. Nisenholtz’s view from 20 years ago is even more appropriate now:

“My feeling at that time (and today) was that ‘quality’ was – in large part – a function of the user experience, and that – particularly in the dial-up world of the mid-90s – Yahoo was doing that best for exactly the reasons that Baekdal outlines. Putting a newspaper on the web seemed very limiting.”

The competing product that is good enough

Many of those who work at the New York Times (and other legacy media organizations) no doubt console themselves by thinking that while their newer, digital-only competitors may be more technologically savvy, their product — i.e., their journalism — is inferior. And that may even be true in some cases. But as any student of disruption theory knows, the most dangerous competitor isn’t the one whose product is better than yours, it’s the one whose product is good enough.

tigers attacking

For many readers — especially those who only want to get a brief update about what is happening in the world, or who want news that is tailored to them in some way, or news that has more of a point of view — will likely look to other outlets, even if the objective “quality” of the Times‘ journalism is arguably better. This is the point I think Baekdal is making when he says that newspapers like the Times take more of a supermarket approach to journalism than their competitors. The market’s needs have changed, and it’s not clear whether the Times can change quickly enough to meet them (although apps like NYTNow and features like The Upshot are interesting experiments, and the Times deserves credit for trying them).

In addition to his thoughts on the state of digital media, Nisenholtz also describes a fascinating moment 20 years ago that could have changed the face of online media: as he describes it, when his digital team asked for financial resources to start the website, he also asked for a small sum to finance a “skunk works” research lab to experiment with the web — but his request was ultimately denied. At one point, Nisenholtz says, one member of the team even suggested that the Times should buy Yahoo (he says “we would probably have screwed it up,” but I’m not sure he could have done a worse job than a series of a Yahoo CEOs have).

Imagine what might have happened if the Times had started that lab when the web was young — what innovations could it have developed? What new directions could it have found for all that high-quality journalism? And now, the paper struggles to catch up to a market for digital news that may be permanently out of reach.

Post and thumbnail images courtesy of Getty Images / Mario Tama, as well as Rani Molla and Flickr user Abysim