The ouster of Jill Abramson from the New York Times comes as the newspaper is digesting a report by a panel of New York Times staffers on digital transition. Totaling 96 pages and titled “Innovation,” the report reads like an unabridged New York Times investigative project. It notes, “In effect, we did a deep-dive reporting project on our own paper and industry.” The full report, written by an eight-person panel and headed by A.G. Sulzberger, was obtained and posted by BuzzFeed.
Among the central findings of the report, no surprise, is that print imperatives drive the work of the New York Times, to the detriment of digital imperatives. “The habits and traditions built up over a century and a half of putting out the paper are a powerful, conservative force as we transition to digital — none more so than the gravitational pull of Page One.” It cites audience development — putting New York Times content in front of readers — as an area in which competitors are beating the New York Times.
*The first sentence is reassuring: “The New York Times is winning at journalism.” The rest of the report is dedicated to addressing the areas in which the paper is losing (i.e., digital stuff). For example: “Huffington Post and Flipboard often get more traffic from Times journalism than we do.”
*The panel interviewed everyone, including Esther Dyson.
*Like any good panel report, this one indulges bureaucratic visions: “There should be a senior newsroom leader in charge of Audience Development, but this effort should be everyone’s job.” And: “Our suggestion is to create a small strategy team with the central role of advising the masthead.”
*Simplistic view of BuzzFeed? Check! “And can’t we just dismiss the BuzzFeeds of the world, with their listicles and cat videos?” A “cheat sheet” on competitors in the report takes a more sober look at the site, and it later notes that the social engagement of BuzzFeed and other outlets sets them apart — “often in spite of their content,” notes the report in a particularly arrogant moment.
*Fact: Only a third of New York Times readers visit the homepage.
*Fact: New York Times alerts reach 13.5 million people, or a dozen times the print subscribership.
*Wow: The report laments poor promotion of stories at the New York Times. In one case, staff spent a year producing a series titled “Invisible Child” but the marketing and PR people were alerted too late to promote it before it was published. The story’s reporter, too, didn’t tweet about it for two days, according to the report. The paper’s Twitter feed is run by the newsroom, Facebook account by the business side.
*Hey, why isn’t the New York Times a big player in the events business?
On one level, the report is a compendium of stories and details that make media critics salivate. For instance: The report tells the story of Libby Rosenthal, a reporter who wanted to alert readers to a fresh story in a series. According to the report, “someone had to pull the email addresses by hand from comments posted on her previous articles.” Such “manual labor” shouldn’t be required, and the report cited the need for an automated tool for doing this work.
And don’t think that the New York Times doesn’t curse Gawker. One section of the report is fronted by the tale of Oscar night, when the New York Times tweeted a story from 161 years ago about Solomon Northup, “whose memoir was the basis for ’12 Years a Slave.’ After it started going viral, Gawker pounced, and quickly fashioned a story based on excerpts from our piece. It ended up being one of their best-read items of the year. But little of that traffic came to us.” Darned aggregators!