In a new strategy document, the New York Times is taking aim at a staple of journalism — the forgettable news story. “Journalism That Stands Apart” is the product of the newspaper’s 2020 group, which is a team of seven New York Times journalists charged with plotting a map for the organization’s future. The institutional imperative is to double digital revenue to $800 million by 2020, a goal that requires securing more and more digital subscriptions.
Product improvements, note top editors Dean Baquet and Joe Kahn in a memo referencing the report, must come with fewer resources. “There will be budget cuts this year,” write Baquet, the executive editor, and Kahn, the managing editor. “We’ve been pretty open in saying that in 2017 we’re preparing to make some targeted reductions in the cost base at the same time continuing to make crucial hires we need to drive the report,” said Kahn last week in a chat with the Erik Wemple Blog.
Whatever happens with the newspaper’s staffing levels, reporters are being urged to swim upstream toward high-impact stuff and less clutter. “We devote a large amount of resources to stories that relatively few people read,” says the 2020 document. “Except in some mission-driven areas or in areas where evidence suggests that the articles have disproportionate value to subscribers, there is little justification for this. It wastes time — of reporters, backfielders, copy editors, photo editors and others — and dilutes our report. The most poorly read stories, it turns out, are often the most ‘dutiful’ — incremental pieces, typically with minimal added context, without visuals and largely undifferentiated from the competition. They frequently do not clear the bar of journalism worth paying for, because similar versions are available free elsewhere.”
Lame reportorial efforts are easily unmasked, the report concludes. “The Internet is brutal to mediocrity,” it says.
There’s one difficulty with the report’s verdict: Editors and reporters don’t commonly get together and say, “Hey, let’s do a dutiful and incremental story that few people will read.” Goals are generally a bit higher — perhaps the story will break some new ground or introduce a new angle to the coverage. Perhaps it’ll touch off a brainstorm for a bigger story. So implementing any ban on ho-hum news may be a touch tricky. Speaking as a longtime subscriber, the Erik Wemple Blog likes these pieces. Not every story that crosses our eyes needs to be a breathtaking experience.
David A. Fahrenthold, a Post reporter who scored a great deal of impact with his stories on Donald Trump’s charitable giving (or lack thereof), commends the New York Times’ recommendations as “smart” strategy. “In ye olden days, before social media, sometimes there was a value for beat reporters in writing these incremental inside-A or inside-Metro stories. They weren’t widely read, but you could use them to signal your expertise and your reporting targets to a narrower circle of insiders and officials on your beat. That could encourage those people to talk to you and trust your judgment, which eventually *could* help you find bigger stories that would reach a wider audience,” notes Fahrenthold via email.
In a world with social media, however, Fahrenthold writes that there are “easier ways to reach that small expert audience, without consuming as much time or manpower. Twitter, for instance, allowed me a way to update readers on my search for Trump’s charitable giving quickly — and save time that I could use for bigger takeout stories.”