Close on the heels of the sudden, unexpected, and largely unexplained departure of executive editor Jill Abramson, a leaked internal memo from The New York Times Co. reveals executives operating with
a siege mentality -- alarmed by continuing print declines, threatened by agile digital competitors and frustrated by obstacles to advancing digital strategy within the company itself.
The memo, first obtained by BuzzFeed, is titled “Innovation” and was composed in March by a committee led by A.G. Sulzberger, a reporter at the newspaper and son of publisher Arthur
Sulzberger, Jr. While acknowledging the superior quality of The New York Times’ reporting, the memo pounds home the message that “we are falling behind in a second critical area:
the art and science of getting our journalism to readers.”
Ominously, it’s not just a matter of readers migrating from NYT’s print to digital products, but
a loss of overall market share to other news organizations across both print and digital channels. “[O]ver the last year, The Times has watched readership fall significantly. Not only
is the audience of our Web site shrinking, but our audience on our smartphone apps has dipped, an extremely worrying sign on a growing platform.”
The new competition includes online
news organizations like The Huffington Post and BuzzFeed, both of which passed the NYT in traffic in recent years, as well as newer contenders like Circa, Vox and First Look
The memo then proceeds to explore several facets of the strategic challenge facing the NYT, including growing readership in a digital age and revamping the newsroom to support innovative
digital journalism techniques.
On the first subject, the memo breaks the problem of increasing the NYT’s audience into several core components, including discovery,
promotion and connection. But the basic message here is the need to raise the profile of NYT’s reporting in the digital media universe and then foster deeper, interactive relationships
with readers to maintain their loyalty.
According to the memo, improving discovery will require a new approach to organize a Web site and apps still based on print structures, as well
as maximizing content value (resurfacing evergreen content), and better control of data through tagging and structuring data more thoroughly and accurately (geo-tagging content consumed on mobile
Promoting the work will require participation by all members of the newsroom to better identify stories with greater potential readership, and better use of search and social
optimization tools. Deepening relationships with readers will require the newsroom to begin more actively “pursuing user-generated content” and events, as well as offering greater
personalization of content delivery.
Turning to the second main task, the memo states that the newsroom needs to be reorganized to cater more effectively to reader experience. The
proposed reorganization would give the newsroom access to -- and presumably some degree of control over -- departments and resources traditionally associated with the business side of the
NYT, including divisions devoted to “Design, Technology, Consumer Insight Group, R&D, and Product.”
However, the memo emphasizes that abandoning the traditional
separation of “Church and State” needn’t result in any sacrifice of journalistic integrity: “Increased collaboration, done right, does not present any threat to our values of
Finally, the memo calls for the creation of a newsroom strategy team that would advise editorial leadership on competitors’ strategies, new
technology and new reader behaviors. It also questions many of the historical legacies of the print newspaper -- including organizing mobile content by print sections, a continuing focus on layout at
the expense of considerations like social strategy, and an excessive concern with which stories get on the front page of the print edition, which remains a factor in reporters’ evaluations.