Patrick LaForge, editor of news presentation at the New York Times, today tweeted out a shift in responsibilities:
The Express Team received an introduction in an extensive internal memo yesterday from New York Times management, including Executive Editor Dean Baquet. “The Times has a glorious tradition of rewrite, which has long prized speed, accuracy and a deft turn of phrase,” reads the memo, in part. “In the digital age, this craft is more important than ever. We want our digital platforms to be destinations for readers who are accustomed to finding news through the churn of social media.” The newspaper in recent months has beefed up its rewrite staff and claims that the squad has “quickly become an indispensable early-warning system, putting us ahead of rivals on stories like the death of Sandra Bland. It has ensured that we remain competitive on topics that are sparking conversation, from Cecil the Lion to the Dallas teen arrested for bringing a clock to school.”
In an e-mail chat with the Erik Wemple Blog, LaForge says that his team will bring together a number of New York Times functions: “We currently have two small, separate rewrite teams, one a descendant of the old night metro rewrite desk that I used to oversee a decade ago, and a second one in the morning that grew out of the NYT Now and Watching operations,” he wrotes. “We also have some people who file overnight copy from Europe and Asia, plus some experts from our apps, search, social, mobile and other digital teams who have dipped into this work now and then. Our goal is to bring our efforts under one banner and expand them.”
How much expansion? Staffing levels for the Express Team have yet to be determined, says LaForge.
Just how it’ll interact with the newsroom is a bit more clear. Integrating the team will be a delicate operation, considering that the Times has upward of 1,000 editorial staffers; turf has had 164 years to be declared. That is perhaps why LaForge stresses that the role of his uber-rewrite division is to “support, not supplant, coverage on the desks with subject expertise. Their reporters are sourced and know the subjects better than anyone. We’ll be there to help get a jump on breaking news. That might mean assisting a correspondent or stringer in the field, which is a traditional rewrite role, or offering help in an all-hands breaking news event. It might mean jumping on a story that is still developing, that we’re still figuring out. And we’ll cover some of the trends and breaking news that bubble up online and might fall between the cracks of our traditional desk structure.”
So does the New York Times move too slowly on breaking news situations? “Speed is important,” responds LaForge, “and I think we’re pretty fast on many types of news, and we’re also dedicated to accuracy and sound judgment, which sometimes makes us look slower than we really are.” That particular claim looks a bit grand in light of the paper’s failures with the Hillary Clinton e-mail story, in which haste and a lack of sound judgment resulted in mistakes. But yes, the Times otherwise has earned a reputation for thoroughness.
The Express Team won’t jump on everything in a sprawling effort to gin up junk traffic for nytimes.com. “A lot of things that break quickly are not as important or interesting as they might seem at first glance,” writes LaForge. “We want to be able tell our readers which stories deserve their attention. These are busy people who take news seriously. They want to know the truth of the matter and why they should care about it.”
The memo launching the paper’s Express Teams is among a series of documents charting the New York Times’ protracted digital migration. In a massive 2014 “Innovation” report, Times journalists showed that they could turn their legendary investigative discipline on their own workplace, citing a number of institutional roadblocks and frustrations in making the most of the newspaper’s content online. The report lamented the paper’s substandard social media presence, poor coordination with web teams in preparing stories and a lot of other problems.
Just last week, the paper issued an 11-page strategy memo outlining goals for the digital age. Digital revenues have more than doubled in the past five years, to $400 million, it noted, and they need to reach $800 million by 2020. “I think what we’re finally seeing, what we really understand, is there’s a huge opportunity for us in the digital life of the world,” said Baquet in a recent interview with Brian Stelter of CNN. “We want to build up — we need to get a bigger audience internationally. We need to increase our audience domestically. And we can do that.” The newspaper just surpassed a million digital subscribers.
“While most of our competitors chase scale, our unique business model is built on directly asking our most loyal readers to help us pay for our massive newsgathering operation,” noted the recent strategy declaration. The model requires that the paper “deepen the engagement of our current readers while building new relationships with readers around the world,” notes the memo, and clearly LaForge’s team is a part of that imperative.
All this digital strategy/business model stuff, however, doesn’t weigh too heavily on LaForge, who stresses the fun of digital transformation. “I like to quote Russell Baker of The Times: ‘serious journalism need not be solemn.'”
The memo from Times management:
A Note From Dean, Susan, Kinsey and Cliff:
The Times has a glorious tradition of rewrite, which has long prized speed, accuracy and a deft turn of phrase. In the digital age, this craft is more important than ever. We want our digital platforms to be destinations for readers who are accustomed to finding news through the churn of social media.
In recent months, we’ve been experimenting on the News Desk with an expanded rewrite staff whose job is to ensure that we’re covering the web’s most compelling and fast-moving stories. The team has quickly become an indispensable early-warning system, putting us ahead of rivals on stories like the death of Sandra Bland. It has ensured that we remain competitive on topics that are sparking conversation, from Cecil the Lion to the Dallas teen arrested for bringing a clock to school. These editors helped to run thelive blog on the recent school shooting in Oregon.
Now, we’re moving forward with even more determination by bringing in a newsroom leader to take over and enlarge this initiative.
It would be hard to imagine a better choice. He is an editor steeped in our values — his name is among those on the cover of the revised New York Times style guide. But he is also such a newsroom trailblazer on Twitter that he is widely cited around the web as the inventor of the phrase, “retweets are not endorsements.” He loves breaking news, and edited hundreds of deadline articles as a founder of the City Room blog. But he also enjoys a puckish post or two. Well before anyone had heard of listicles, he wrote, “The Top 10 Reasons We Deleted Your Comment.”
We’re talking, of course, about Patrick LaForge.
Patrick embodies the best of our newsroom. He arrived at The Times in 1997 as a copy editor, and in the years that followed regularly earned raves from reporters for his knack for a story, his command of language and his collaborative spirit. He rose to deputy editor on Metro, where he helped to make City Room an engine of digital innovation. In 2009, he became director of the copy desks, overseeing the newsroom’s largest department, where he has revamped the role of copy editing for the digital age.
Patrick has driven change at The Times, and now we are asking him to reimagine rewrite. To begin, we’re going to give this arm of the News Desk a new name: the Express Team.
The name reflects a modern mission. The Express Team will cover news that readers are searching for and talking about online, but also push that news forward rather than just repackaging it for clicks. This new team will quickly and smartly weigh in on the issues and questions that are attracting attention across the day and around the world.
The team will use a variety of digital techniques and formats to serve readers, including text, photos, video and content from social media. The team will experiment with different story types – Q & As, lists, charts, very short videos — and develop new formats for how these stories will be presented.
The Express Team will be integrated into the News Desk and have deep ties to our social media editors. As it pursues stories, it will be a close partner with the desks and departments to ensure that backfield editors around the newsroom can help guide the reporting.
The team is here to supplement – not supplant – the work of desks and departments.
Patrick will begin his transition to the new job immediately, and Susan Wessling, who has worked closely with Patrick overseeing the copy desks, will temporarily take over his duties there.
We’re truly excited about this initiative. We believe that the Express Team will serve as a model that demonstrates the power that comes from combining New York Times talent with digital-first storytelling in the social media era.
– Dean, Susan, Kinsey and Cliff