NYT 2020 Report Tells Us Industry's Transformation Is Far From Over
On Tuesday The New York Times published a report that outlines its newsroom strategy and ambitions from now until 2020. The report, “Journalism That Stands Apart: The Report of the 2020 Group,” builds on the work initiated in The Times’ 2014 Innovation Report. It reveals the publisher’s continued efforts to divorce itself from print-centric practices and adapt to an increasingly mobile- and digital-first world. The report calls on The Times to transform how it reports the news, how its newsroom is staffed, and how its internal teams work with one another.
Magazine publishers have dealt with these types of transformation issues for years, and the strategy outlined by the 2020 Report echoes digital initiatives many have implemented. What’s illuminating for magazine publishers is the process that surrounds the report. As The Times' second major transformation report, it reveals that the work of change is difficult and never truly finished. And it is fascinating to see how one of the largest, most respected, and in some ways, one of the most legacy-encumbered U.S. media institutions is grappling with the challenge of transformation.
A group of seven journalists conducted the research that makes up the 2020 Report. It is the culmination of a year’s worth of interviews with Times readers and staff and was conducted at the request of executive editor Dean Baquet. The result is an outline of The Times’ growth strategy, which places particular focus on online subscription revenue. While the newspaper boasted $500 million in digital advertising and subscription revenue in 2016 -- more than Buzzfeed, The Gaurdian, and The Washington Post combined -- the newspaper readily admits that this is not enough to support itself in the future. To maintain its growth trajectory, The Times must significantly expand its subscriber base. The report admits that subscriptions are especially important because growing digital ad revenue has proven difficult.
The Times is not the only publisher to struggle with digital advertising. Head of digital strategy Tom Standage predicted that The Economist will cease to sell digital ad inventory by 2025, and that going forward it will earn the lion’s share of its revenue from its readers. He added that the notion that digital advertising could ever replace declining print revenues is “a fantasy” that too many publishers still cling to. Even digital-first companies, like Medium, are considering distancing themselves from traditional digital advertising because it inherently detracts from the reading experience.
Changing Its Content
The report argues that the best way for the Times to improve how it reports the news is to focus on creating content that is unique and impactful to its audience. “We devote a large amount of resources to stories that relatively few people read,” states the report. More often than not, those stories are short news pieces that add little context and have few or no visuals. According to the 2020 Report, “They frequently do not clear the bar of journalism worth paying for, because similar versions are available free elsewhere.”
In order to differentiate its content, the 2020 Report recommends creating more visual journalism. To accomplish this goal, The Times has rolled out an improvement to its CMS, which will make adding visuals to stories easier for reporters. The Times also plans to train more of its newsroom staff on how to create and embed visuals within their content.
Interestingly, the report does not specifically mention video as a key to this visual strategy, despite the fact that video is becoming an increasingly important revenue stream for publishers. Buzzfeed, for example earns, 50% of its revenue from “social video.” Those are video series like Tasty and Nifty, which are optimized for social feeds. It will be worth watching how the Times’ adjusts its video strategy going forward, and whether it will continue to experiment with new video technology like 360-degree video.
Changing Its Staff
One of the most significant changes recommended by the 2020 Report is to hire more content creators, particularly videographers and photographers. That will mean significant turnover within the newsroom, due to budget restrictions. The report explains, “The 2020 Group does not make this recommendation lightly; we also believe it is among the most important recommendations we are making.”
An internal memo released with the report, written by Baquet and managing editor Joe Kahn, sheds a little more light on these changes. According to the memo, 12 visual journalists skilled in creating interactive graphics and video will come on staff. “The broader mobile landscape is increasingly a visual one — think of Snapchat, Instagram, YouTube — and we know that our mobile audience wants Times journalism to incorporate visuals even more fully into our work,” write Baquet and Kahn. To make way for these reporters, The Times will be letting go some of its editing staff. In particular, the newspaper publisher wants to eliminate redundant back-end editing, where multiple copy editors make minor line edits. The 2020 Report claims these types of changes add little value to an article.
Changing Its Processes
The process changes the 2020 Report detailed are similar to the transformation struggles many legacy publishers have grappled with in recent years. The Times wants to set clearer goals so that teams understand what they’re striving for. The newspaper publisher wants to track progress towards those goals and set better metrics for success. Instead of holding up pageviews as a yardstick, The Times wants to develop new metrics for success, like the ability of an article to attract or retain paying subscribers. That is a metric that SVP of data and insights Laura Evans is currently working to measure and disseminate to Times staffers.
It will be interesting to see what metric Evans uses. Many publishers have used metrics like time spent, scrolldown, and shares to indicate reader interest and loyalty. Condé Nast, for example, has placed a greater focus on measuring whether readers return to a certain piece of content over the span of 30 days, and uses that metric to ascertain the value of the piece. But none of these metrics are specifically tied to revenue, as The New York Times suggests its measurement will be.
Cross-departmental collaboration is another goal for The Times, and another that magazine publishers are striving for. In particular, the 2020 Report urges newsroom and product teams, ie. developers, designers, and product managers, to work together more often and toward the same goals. The newsroom is often focused on short-term goals, like making the day’s news as compelling as it can be, while the product team tends to focus on long-term goals, such as how the news should be presented in the future. According to the report, the two teams should set these goals together rather than working independently and sometimes at odds.
At Publishing Executive we’ve seen how important collaboration is to the success of a publishing organization. ALM Media market segment strategy leader Sarah Snell Cooke explained in a blog post last year how important it is for sales and editorial to work together in order to identify new revenue opportunities. Likewise Hearst VP of data science Rick McFarland told Publishing Executive in a 2015 interview that breaking down silos between groups is critical for disseminating data insights and improving business practices based on those insights. Increasingly publishing initiatives touch every part of the organization, often simultaneously, making communication and collaboration more important than ever.
The New York Times’ 2020 Report isn’t a revelation of drastic strategy change. Many of its proposals -- using content analytics to inform editorial strategy, creating mobile friendly, visual content, and building loyalty through quality content -- are lessons magazine publishers have learned and begun to implement. But what the report hits home, and what magazine publishers should take from the ambitions of The Times, is that the work of change is never really done. Real transformation takes constant assessment and adjustment, particularly as new technologies and disruptive platforms emerge. We are in an era where we must constantly reiterate our goals and the strategies we employ to reach them. Each reiteration brings publishers that much closer to maximizing the opportunities of digital. The digital bar continues to be raised, and publishers must rise with it.
Related story: Why Talk of Transformation Is Often Short on Action