New York Times Media

Dissecting the New York Times' 2020 report: 13 lessons from a premium content business

By Stephen Waddington, chief engagement officer

January 26, 2017 | 5 min read

A report from the New York Times tells the story of a business squaring up to rapid change. There are lessons for anyone working in marketing, media or public relations.

New York Times

A team of seven journalists is leading the transformation of the New York Times. It’s responsible for transforming the media operation from print to digital.

The so-called 2020 group has just published a three-year plan headlined Journalism That Stands Apart. Its goal is to build a digital business that is large enough to support the newsroom.

It’s an informative and forthright document written by a team of journalists whose future depends on its success.

There are lessons for anyone working in a content business seeking to build communities on the internet.

1. Digital transformation

Too often digital innovation in a traditional organisation is a bolt-on or workaround. This is a good practice approach to change management but successful processes and workflow must be rebuilt from the ground up if digital is to deliver optimal benefit to an organisation.

2. Purpose

The New York Times has staked its purpose as an authoritative and vital destination for citizens. These qualities have led people to subscribe to its print newspaper, and most recently devote space to its app on their smartphones, and subscribe to its newsletters.

3. Business model

Premium content pays. The New York Times, like the Financial Times and the Economist is a subscription-first business. These organisations aren’t seeking to maximise clicks and sell low-margin advertising. The clear focus is on quality journalism.

4. Digital revenue drive

Quality is a strategy that is paying off. The New York Times has more than 1.5 million digital-only subscriptions, up from a million a year ago, generating $500m in digital revenue. It has also more than a million print subscriptions.

5. Style and form

The content published by the Times often reflects conversations built up over many decades, when it spoke to readers once a day and cultivated an air of detachment. Today it must apply its values to new forms of journalism. This means a change of writing style to a more casual, direct form, that engages the reader.

6. Visual reporting

The 2020 report states that too much of daily reporting is dominated by text. It suggests that the publisher needs be more comfortable with photographers, videographers and graphics editors playing a primary role in covering stories, rather than a supporting role.

7. How to help

The Times' features strategy dates to the creation of new sections around ad income in the 1970s. The attraction for readers was its ability to offer useful advice about what to cook, what to wear and what to do. The modern twist on this genre is acting as a how-to guide to modern culture and society.

8. Community

The Times has developed one of the most civil comment sections in the new business. Readers are very much part of a community. They want to talk with each other, not only about food, books, travel, technology and crossword puzzles but also politics and foreign affairs.

9. Metrics

Goals and metrics need to be shared across the business. Multiple staffers told the 2020 group that they were frustrated by the lack of transparency and understanding of newsrooms goals. This leads to a lack of innovation and risk taking.

10. Staff engagement

There’s a related point. The best-performing forays into digital journalism have depended on distinct visions established by department leaders and enthusiastically shared by members of the department. It provides clear guidance on what the department does and what it doesn’t do.

11. Training

The 2020 newsroom group’s survey uncovered a deep desire among reporters and editors to acquire new skills. Training will allow them to combine their expertise and knowledge with powerful new storytelling tools.

12. New talent

The Times doesn’t have the right mix of skills in its newsroom to carry out its plan for change. A few areas are especially important: visual journalists; reporters with domain expertise; and back editors with expertise in sharpening ideas.

13. Diversity

It is critical that the newsroom at the Times represents the communities on which it reports and represents. It needs more people from outside major metropolitan areas, more younger journalists and more non-Americans.

Stephen Waddington is chief engagement officer at Ketchum and visiting professor in practice at Newcastle University. He tweets @wadds

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