I started my career in a newsroom and I remember very vividly it was not a place for innovative thinking. Other than a clever headline or turn of phrase in a story, the culture of news has long been about facts, credibility, and deadlines. Free thinking was usually reserved for the bar after those deadline.
So, you could imagine that I read with interest, WIRED’s March 2017 cover story on the newspaper’s effort to reinvent itself, “How The New York Times Is Clawing Its Way Into the Future”. Sprinkled through the story are some choice nuggets about the internal struggle between new ideas and traditional ways of thinking, not to mention the strategy to harness those ideas. (Emphasis here, and throughout this post, will be mine):
Over the next few years, finding new digital revenue became the Times’ top business priority, and in 2014, Sulzberger, by then an editor on the metro desk, was tasked with overseeing an internal assessment of the paper’s digital efforts to date. The result was a 97-page document known as the Innovation Report, which found that editors too often said no to programmers and product designers from the technology group. “The newsroom has historically reacted defensively by watering down or blocking changes,” read the report, “prompting a phrase that echoes almost daily around the business side: ‘The newsroom would never allow that.’
Not to get off on a sidetrack, but if the report has just stopped with it’s intended audience — senior staff and leadership, it might have gotten buried. However, that wasn’t to be the case. The report as leaked to Buzzfeed and published, minus a few pages, in May of 2014. Joshua Benton of Nieman Lab felt compelled to write about it because “one of the most remarkable documents I’ve seen in my years running the Lab.”
You could certainly stop here and read the entire Innovation Report — it is a case study in dysfunctional culture. The Nieman Lab piece linked above highlights some of the juiciest takeaways. But, for now, let’s go back to the WIRED piece, because it has the benefit of almost three years of hindsight at this point.
The privileging of print journalism over the web, the sclerotic approach to change, the lack of coordination between the growing number of digital disciplines and specialists—Sulzberger and his team laid it all bare, lighting a digital-first fuse that still burns today. “It’s not like I’m the first person who came into this newsroom and said, ‘Social media is something that needs to be accounted for in our future,’” Sulzberger says. “But it wasn’t until the Innovation Report that those points really landed.”
All in all, the leak is probably the best thing that could have happened to the Times. It established accountability or at least the appearance of outside pressure to change it’s business and it’s treatment of employees and ideas. So, how has that gone?
THE TIMES IS a big organization, with about 1,300 journalists, and management has created a number of task forces to workshop new approaches to reporting and storytelling. One committee, the 2020 Group, studied the newsroom for a year, and its report, published in January, detailed how Times journalism should evolve over the next three years. (Among the recommendations: Greater emphasis on visuals, greater variety of formats and voices. They also announced that the Times would be introducing an alternative metric to pageviews that would “measure an article’s value to attracting and retaining subscribers.”)
Visuals, variety, and value. Ever notice how often innovation strategy produces considerations like these? Especially when done by committee.
Another division, Story[X], was created last spring to experiment with emerging technology like machine learning and translation.
Can’t believe that’s actually its name, but there you go. Sadly, this is the only reference to Story[X] in the WIRED piece, but I did find, from a Politico piece, that it’s really just a rebranding of The Times’ former R&D Lab, but with a great focus on VR initially. They hired a new chief in September 2016.
And then there is the Beta Group, the experimental arm of NYT whose first effort, developing a paywall, was called a success and not a success. But, what about Beta?
Central to Perpich’s original vision was having Beta’s product people work alongside designers, developers, and—most radically for the Times—editors. No one on Beta has an office; instead, each product is assigned its own conference room lined with whiteboards covered in colorful diagrams, design mock-ups, and Post-it notes where members of the team immerse themselves in what they are trying to build.
Sounds a bit like a permanent design thinking lab. Except the results sound alot like the Times’ versions of things that already exist.
In addition to Cooking and Crosswords—two of the original Beta apps—the group is now working on Real Estate, an app for home listings; Well, a health and fitness blog the group wants to turn into a suite of personalized training and advice services; and Watching, a vertical dedicated to TV and movie recommendations. The newest addition to Beta was an acquisition: In October, The New York Times paid $30 million for the Wirecutter, a gadget review site.
What this all comes down to, however, isn’t ideas, it’s language. What was holding the Times back from trying new ideas wasn’t the ideas themselves, it ewas the Tower of Babel effect among staff.
“Working hour by hour, day by day, with software developers and designers and product managers—to me that was a real revolution, a kind of epiphany,” says Clifford Levy, who won two Pulitzers at the Times before being promoted to the assistant managing editor overseeing digital platforms. “This is standard operating procedure in Silicon Valley, but it was radical here.”
And the radical shift was felt, and heard, throughout the newsroom. “It is not incorrect for me to say that I had no idea what people were talking about in my first couple months,” says Sam Sifton, the Times’ food editor, who started working with the Beta Group to launch the Cooking app back in 2013. “‘We can iterate on that.’ What? We spoke different languages, different cultures.” Still, Sifton has embraced his new digital mission, agreeing this past November to host a text message experiment called “Turkey Talk” to help cooks with their Thanksgiving dinners.
Still, there is a fight of the old guard vs. the new thinkers still going on. Common language is a problem because there isn’t a common set of values. There’s an ongoing clash of what it means to be “Timesian”:
Which is to say, a “Timesian” way, a shorthand you frequently hear for what the Times can and cannot do in the interest of protecting its exalted status (and nowhere is it more exalted than within the Times itself). What Timesian means or doesn’t mean often depends on who’s defining it, but it’s typically in the same general neighborhood as authoritative, or maybe stuffy. Editors are infamous for their lengthy divinations on whether new headline styles are sufficiently Timesian, and, per the Innovation Report, nothing slowed down a new initiative more than when management deliberated on just how Timesian it was or wasn’t.
It’s been Dolnick’s mission to drum up enthusiasm in the newsroom for testing out new applications, from VR to livestreaming, without worrying too much about the Timesian thing.
Dolnick appears to be a bit of a tech convert, going from reporter jobs to headed up some of NYT’s digital efforts, including a successful meme the NYT pushed out based on the Olympics. Not very Timesian, right?
But, it’s not all full speed ahead, of course.
Even as Sulzberger boasts, “We employ more journalists who can write code than any other news organization,” there are some at the Times—usually those who can’t write code—who chafe at these endless waves of experimentation. “When we’re told this is the new best practice, everyone marches in lockstep,” says one editor who asked to remain anonymous. “Facebook Live? Yep! Video? On it! The New York Times isn’t a place where people say no, and we’re flat-out exhausted.”
Facebook Live has been particularly vexing for NYT journalists. (I’m also not quite sure what the point is, other than to somehow integrate the brief, happy life of Vine.)
Over the next few months, the Live team recruited more than 300 Times journalists to livestream anything and everything: press conferences, protests, political conventions. It was too much for some, and the public editor of the Times, Liz Spayd, said as much in a column headlined “Facebook Live: Too Much, Too Soon.” Spayd complained that some of the videos were “plagued by technical malfunctions, feel contrived, drone on too long … or are simply boring.” She urged editors to slow down, regroup, and wait until the Times could stay true to its past model of “innovating at a thoughtful, measured pace, but with quality worthy of its name.” (Timesian!)
Well, time may not be on some folks’ side.
The alternative is stark. For most of the last year, the Times offered buyouts to employees, in part to make room for new, digitally focused journalists. As one editor (fearful of being quoted by name) put it: “The dinosaurs are being culled.”
The story, and others related to it, provide a fascinating glimpse into a global, respected brand fighting for its future, despite have a mostly sterling name and reputation to trade on. As we see over and over, companies choose to house innovative thinking inside newly-christened departments, special initiatives, or projects that may or may not have the goal being legitimate, sustainable “things” on their own.
The case of the Times is such an interesting confluence of factors: social media and technology tools, the democratization of news and how citizens consume (or contribute to it), nserious concerns about the financial model and viability of the entire industry, and a culture chasm bot just between journalists and developers building tools, but journalists and digital experts, journalists and executives, and journalists and journalists themselves.
Thanks to the Pew Research Center, we know that increasing numbers of citizens want to digitally their news visually (almost half). So, to the extent that NYT can continue to experiment with ideas around news and content being more visual and more virtual, it will be interesting to see how a stalwart can harness their ideas while trying to shape the culture among professionals whop have been told the industry is dying for the better part of the last two decades.