The recently leaked 96-page, digital innovation report from The New York Times has a lot to offer for publishers on both sides of the Atlantic. A special task force was given 6 months to look at the Times’ digital strategy and decide how they should proceed. With a little help from Nieman reporters, here are 14 questions for IIN publishers based on the report.
1. Taking full advantage of your model? “I don’t think we really understood the power of the data and the audience understanding that came with the subscription model,” said The Financial Times’s C.E.O., John Ridding. “We’ve been able to build a system of understanding our readers.”
2. Spending less time working on your homepage? That’s okay. They are becoming less important. “Only a third of our readers ever visit [our homepage],” the Times report said. “And those who do visit are spending less time: page views and minutes spent per reader dropped by double-digit percentages last year.” Our recent conference has a very nice homepage with rotating slides, informative blog posts, tweets and quotes. But I send people directly to the schedule page, the attendees list or the registration page—saves a click.
3. Paying attention to your audience’s online habits? I’ve written before here that in some ways it’s easier to start from scratch as a digital entity than transform from a print one. (See Buzzfeed or Huffington Post.) The report says that “the vast majority of our content is still published late in the evening, but our digital traffic is busiest early in the morning. We aim ambitious stories for Sunday because it is our largest print readership, but weekends are slowest online.”
4. Thinking enough in digital terms? This is a really interesting quote: “We should [be] thinking as hard about ‘second hour’ stories as we do about ‘second day’ stories.” Digital involves such a different mindset. Apparently, the Times keeps its innovations to certain desks: graphics, interactive news, social, and design. They are not integrated enough with places like news and sports.
5. Involving your IT and digital people in overall strategy? “The reason producers, platform editors and developers feel dissatisfied is that they want to play creative roles, not serve roles that involve administering and fixing. It would be like reporters coming here hoping to write features but instead we ask them to spend their days editing wire stories into briefs.”
6. Taking enough time to strategize? ‘We just don’t do strategy,” the report quotes. “The newsroom is really being dragged behind the galloping horse of the business side.” The day-to-day can be so overwhelming. If you don’t get away, then it can consume you. Assign a separate task force to look at your future. “…it took a group removed from the daily flow of the newsroom—NYT Now—to fundamentally rethink our mobile presentation.”
7. Collaborating enough? Sales and marketing. Marketing and editorial. IT and editorial. “Increased collaboration, done right, does not present any threat to our values of journalistic independence.” The Times does not do personalization well. “It’s possible we’re using the entirely wrong algorithm,” said Boris Chen, a data scientist on The Times’ personalization team. But editors, he said, must help him understand what is wrong so he can create a better alternative.
8. Putting on enough events? “There is no reason that the space filled by TED Talks, with tickets costing $7,500, could not have been created by the Times.” Use your brand to create events. Most publishers will tell you that events attract an audience that’s different from your subscribers. “NPR has made its journalists the centerpiece of shows that travel to large concert spaces in cities and college towns.”
9. Incorporating social media into your day-to-day work? ProPublica reporters submit 5 possible tweets when they file stories, and editors meet about social strategy for every story package. Reuters constantly looks for underperforming stories to bolster. “Our journalists want maximum readership and impact but many don’t know how to use social media effectively,” the report said.
10. Making clear who is responsible for social media? “Right now, they are unsure of whether spending time on social represents doing work or avoiding it.” Film critic A.O. Scott is torn between engaging with readers and moving on to the next story. “It raises the question, when is pushing it forward the better substitute for doing more work?” “At The New York Times, far too often for writers and editors the story is done when you hit publish,” said Paul Berry, who helped found The Huffington Post. “At Huffington Post, the article begins its life when you hit publish.”
11. Fully tagging your editorial and structuring your data? “…we floundered about for 15 years trying to figure out how to create a useful recipe database.” The Times spent “a huge sum to retroactively structure the data” and that still costs them in search.
12. Jumping on ideas that succeed and repurposing enough content? Mashable plays up this quote from the report: “…we rarely think to mine our archive, largely because we are so focused on news and features.” They also point out that the most popular Times online story ever was a quiz that determined where the reader was from based on how he or she talked. But it did not lead to a quiz template.
13. Connecting enough with your audience? “Deepening our connection with [readers] both online and offline is critical in a world where content so often reaches its broadest audience on the backs of other readers… Our competitors are launching new products or features as betas, and then using vital feedback from readers—rather than another round of internal feedback—to improve.
14. Planning enough around your best stories or information? “I don’t feel like we sit down when we have a big project, a big story, and say, ‘How do we roll this out?’” said one top editor.
Ronn Levine began his career as a reporter for The Washington Post and has won numerous writing and publications awards since. Most recently, he spent 12 years at the Newspaper Association of America covering diversity, Newspaper in Education, marketing and leadership before joining SIPA in 2009 .