Five Key Takeaways From The New York Times' Innovation Report

For a moment, let’s not focus on the delicious irony of Buzzfeed breaking the second biggest news about The New York Times this week. The site -- which many a Times staffer probably sniffs derisively at -- uploaded the paper-of-record’sentire 91-page “Innovation Report” that calls for de-emphasizing print in favor of a more sophisticated approach to digital. If you’re in digital, it’s even more intriguing than the news on Wednesday that executive editor Jill Abramson had been unceremoniously shown the door.

More than anything else, the report points to the Times’ lackluster, scattershot approach to digital innovation, particularly in audience development, an imperative when so much content and readership comes from the act of sharing. In one of its many trenchant-but-obvious observations, it points out  that “our digital content needs to travel on the backs of readers to find new readers.”



So, let’s drill down on what an essential document this is to any organization concerned with content distribution and the organization-wide integration it takes to get there, both of which the report covers exhaustively. To that extent, even for those who aren’t –- as I am –- a Times-a-holic, it’s worth a read, because it is built upon dozens upon dozens of interviews not only with Times staffers, but with external people who are boldfaced names in digital and know what they’re talking about, even if who said what is often unclear. The interviewees include Pandora CEO Brian McAndrews, Simulmedia CEO Dave Morgan, Randi Zuckerberg, Publicis’ Rishad Tobaccowala, Weather Channel CEO David Kenny, Business Insider CEO Henry Blodget, Slate editor-in-chief Jacob Weisberg, and Appssavvy CEO Chris Cunningham. (Oh, and inexplicably, Fabio, too.)

While the Times, like any company, is dysfunctional in its own unique ways, the report should resonate with virtually any organization trying to realign around digital content, in an era when it’s hard to get heard. Here are five key takeaways:

1.     Be prepared to kill your sacred cow. Even to someone more familiar than most with the Times, it was shocking to read how much time, effort and emotional energy is still focused on Page One. And this is true even though most Times readers read “the paper” online and only a third of online readers ever access the home page. Reporters and section editors are judged on how often they make Page One; internal documents are circulated about what’s going to be on it, and deadlines are structured around it. Marketers may not have a Page One, but they do have sacred cows holding them back from real communications priorities.

2.     Don’t let the big digital picture suffer because of day-to-day concerns. Among the report’s multiple refrains is how the inherent day-to-day-ness of working at a news organization inhibits long-term thinking about adapting to technological change. When stories are breaking all around you, it can be impossible to look beyond the immediate. The report’s solution -- and one that many organizations could use -- is to hire a strategy team devoted to looking beyond tomorrow.

3.     Look at the posting of each piece of content as its beginning, not its end. The Times, perhaps as much as any organization, sweats the details before its product -- the news -- goes public. The hard part is that it should; that’s how it became the most respected news brand there is. But there’s a considerable downside to this strategy. The focus on the content itself -- from reporting to graphics -- has led to a mentality where little attention is spent on amping distribution once a story has gone public. As the report points out: “Desks meticulously lay out their sections but spend little time thinking about social strategies.” One telling statistic: Less than 10% of Times’ traffic comes from social; Buzzfeed gets sixfold more social traffic.

4.    Think of real-time, content-driven ways to drive more content distribution. Two words: Michael Sam. The report analyzes how the Times simultaneously broke -- and blew -- the news that the University of Missouri football player was coming out. Sam gave the story to two news outlets: the Times and ESPN. As the report says, “Our package was well-executed and memorable, but some of our more digitally focused competitors got more traffic from the story than we did.” It suggested an hour-by-hour content strategy, ranging from having an Op-Ed ready to go soon after the story published, to hosting a Google+ Hangout with another gay athlete to writing the backstory about the Times interview with Sam. (A reporter did, but he was with SB Nation, not the Times.)

5.     Talk to your competitors about their successes and failures. No organization will share everything, but one of the most illuminating quotes in the entire report was this one from New York editor Adam Moss: “I talk to [Gawker CEO Nick] Denton all the time. We both talk to Jacob [Weisberg.] We’re constantly telling each other what’s working, what we’ve experimented with. About half the choices I make come about because someone from another site tells me something worked, and so we adopt it.”

In narrowing these takeaways to five, I feel like I’m doing the report – and those who read this column -- a fundamental disservice.  It’s a rich document that also has key passages on implementing real-time insights, integrating departments, hiring and retaining top digital talent,  building templated tools to make opportunities easier to implement, and cultivating a culture that isn’t afraid to fail.

Which leads me to my sixth takeaway: Read the whole document. You’ll be glad you did.

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