Five lessons from The NYT Innovation Report

7 minute read

Earlier the month the advertising and media world stopped what they were doing to read what is potentially an industry changing report, all 97 pages of it.

It surprised everyone because not only was it an incredibly frank and honest account of the problems the New York Times faces in innovating, but the New York Times had been enjoying a reputation of being fairly innovative. It had what outsiders had deemed a very successful Labs project and had been investing heavily in digital products.

For those of us who do not have the workforce or budgets of the NYT, the report is somewhat a blessing and a curse. It shows that being so big means that no matter what budget you have, the legacy systems and culture will hold you back. On the other side, it offers everyone a moment of relief because the problems that the NYT face are familiar and the sense that even the media behemoths aren’t quite mastering it somehow makes us all feel part of the same club.

By admitting we’re all in the same club that means we all have to work to solve the problems, as a big or small businesses. The honesty of the NYT (whether the report was intended to be public or not) is something that should be adopted by all; a more open discussion will accelerate the speed at which we can all make digital disruption a positive.

With 97 pages to read it may be one best saved to read on the beach this summer but until then here are five lessons that apply to us all:


1. Mobile and social media has made sure that winning is not necessarily for the big boys

A key theme within the report is how often the NYT admits that it is starting to lose out to smaller, newer rivals such as Buzzfeed, Upworthy or The Huffington Post. Most notably it criticized itself for losing out on traffic to such titles for its reporting on Nelson Mandela’s death. It cites that after it happened a Huffington Post exec had said, “You guys got crushed. I was queasy watching the numbers. I’m not proud of this. But this is your competition.” (Page 43).


2. No matter how much is invested, culture is pivotal

With a labs project and many lauded digital projects, it was a surprise for all that the company was taking such a negative view on its digital efforts. Much of this can be down to a dire need for a change in culture, something businesses from all ends of the media spectrum can empathise with. One of the projects it is hoping to get underway soon is a total rethink of the newsroom culture and a closer aligning of the technical, commercial and editorial teams. There’s also a huge lack of consistency – the Twitter account is run by editorial and the Facebook by commercial (page 45). The aim is to extend the responsibility of reader experience to the newsroom as well as the other parts of the business (page 61).


3. Archive content is valuable

The New York Times, alongside many other media businesses, have recognized that the importance of the home page is diminishing (page 23). The report said “Only a third of our readers ever visit it. And those who do visit are spending less time: page views and minutes spent per reader dropped by double-digit percentages last year.” A part of changing this will be taking as much effort to distribute and package the content as it does to create it. Another side of this is also learning how to repackage older content, which can be just as valuable. According to the article there is 14.7m articles in the NYT archive, which have many opportunities to be re-used. It cites a Gawker repackaging of an old Times story, which was times for the release of 12 Years A Slave (page 28), an opportunity they missed themselves. In a world where all brands are required to think like a publisher, re-using content and resources can prove as lucrative as creating even more new content.


4. If you don’t do it yourself, a start-up will

This is a lesson many businesses are starting to learn. People and start-ups can be much quicker to spot needs and opportunities before those inside the brands do. For example, an augmented reality app, which put Ikea products into people’s homes to try out, was only officially adopted by the brand about a year later than the start-up version. For NYT it was a collection of stories on Flipboard, which rose to become very popular. Instead of spotting this opportunity, it was done by a reader (page 28).


5. Don’t invest in one off – create the tools to replicate

One of the celebrated digital project from NYT of recent years was a content experiment called Snowfall. It was a huge investment into digital content in all senses of the word. Since then start-ups have sprung up to help publishers do this style of digital content without building the complicated HTML5 framework themselves. In the report they admit that they invest to heavily in one off projects; “We have a tendency to pour resources into big one-time projects and work through the one-time fixes needed to create them and overlook the less glamorous work of creating tools, templates and permanent fixes that cumulatively can have a bigger impact by saving our digital journalists time and elevating the whole report. We greatly undervalue replicability.” (Page 36).