The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The 9 sentences that matter in the New York Times’s new mission statement

On Wednesday, the New York Times released an 11-page memo entitled "Our Path Forward" that was co-authored by 10 of the company's biggest bigwigs.  It's half chest-pounding braggadocio and half mission statement about how the Times plans to adjust — and prosper — in this new digital age of journalism.

I imagine the writing process went something like this:

It's worth reading (or at least skimming) in full. But just in case you don't have the time or inclination to do that, well, I did it for you. Below are the nine sentences —in the order they appear in the mission statement — that are worth paying attention to.

1. "Our first two million subscribers — including our more than one million newspaper subscribers — grew up with The New York Times spread out over their kitchen tables. The next million must be fought for and won over with The Times on their phones."

Mobile is the future of news consumption. According to a 2015 Reuters study, two-thirds of all people with smartphones are now using them to consume news on a weekly basis. And the trend line on mobile as compared to desktop or tablet is striking. This chart comes from that same Reuters report:

And, according to the Pew State of the News Media study published earlier this year, 39 of the 50 top digital news sites get more traffic from mobile than from desktop.

2. "We must also help guide readers through a world awash in information and choices and make it easier for them to make decisions that enable them to live active and ambitious lives."

This seems to me to be a really nice distillation of the mission of journalism in the digital age. When I first started writing The Fix — 10 years ago this fall! — I described myself as a tour guide wading through the swamps of politics. I think that's an even more relevant description today since the last decade has seen exponential growth in the pace and volume of news in a given day, hour or even minute.

The goal of journalism amid that swirl is to pluck the things out that we think people would be interested and to explain why — and to be flexible enough to occasionally make changes to our calculus of what people want or need based on what they are telling us they want or need.

3. "We must carefully guard the excellence of our journalism while showing a willingness to change much of what we do and how we do it."

If the last sentence laid out what journalism should be moving forward, this one highlights how hard it is going to be to get there. Read between the lines of this sentence, and you get something like: "We need to keep doing the sort of journalism we have made our brand on while, simultaneously, changing it all."

That's an oversimplification, of course. But it's important to note that the hope that creating good content — "good" in this case meaning of value to people and the way they live their lives and look at the world — will lead to a sustainable business model is just a hope at this point. There's no business model out there for a media company to make a profit unless that media company is invested heavily in native advertising. (More on this later.)

4. "We are shifting from a pure broadcast model to develop one-to-one relationships with readers that tailor the way they experience our content, while still retaining our unique editorial judgment in setting the day’s agenda."

This speaks to the importance of online community building to the future of journalism. I wrote a bunch about this Wednesday in a piece about the potential for journalists using annotation, but the key takeaway is:  Reporters need to think of themselves as not an island unto themselves but as the leader of a long line of people when thinking about and executing stories. Journalism is increasingly becoming a collaborative effort between engaged readers and reporters willing to listen — a semipermeable barrier in which discussion and disagreement is not only encouraged but begun early enough in the process that it influences the final product.

No longer are we as journalists decreeing the news to the masses from the mountaintop. Instead we are down with the masses, trying to figure out what exactly is going on at the mountaintop.

5. "In less than two years, [T Brand Studios] has become one of the fastest growing parts of our business, producing work for more than 50 marketers across nearly 100 campaigns."

Native advertising — essentially having companies pay for the Times (or the Post or BuzzFeed or Vice) to lend its know-how and brand credibility to an ad campaign — is the largest area of growth for all media companies. "T Brand Studios" is the Times's native unit and, as the memo notes, will be expanding into a full-blown ad agency in the near future.

Spending on native ads will near $8 billion in 2015, according to calculations made by Business Insider, and could reach $21 billion by 2018.

Native advertising is not, of course, "big J" Journalism. But it is the way — or one of the major ways — that media companies can make real money at the moment and at least take a run at profitability. As a result, every media company that is paying any attention is growing its native advertising unit.

That will strike fear in the hearts of many traditionalists. But if native ads can allow people like me to keep doing what I am doing, I say more power to them — as long as I don't need to be involved with the writing or production of it.

6. "We have created a print-focused desk in the newsroom to assemble the newspaper at the end of each day."

I am old enough to remember when things were totally reversed: There were a handful of "web people" who were tasked with managing the Web site while the bulk of the staff was aimed entirely at the print newspaper. The recognition inherent in this sentence is that we are all digital journalists now — whether we all like that description or not. The print newspaper is a legacy product that will remain the go-to medium by which an older generation of people consume the news and a certain segment of advertisers try to reach audience. But there's no debate that the future of journalism is online and, more specifically, on mobile.

The future of the newspaper — at least as I see it — is a sort of compendium of the best journalism done online by a news outlet in a given day.  The challenge, of course, is that some of the best journalism done by a news outlet online during a given day — GIFs, interactive charts etc. — isn't portable to a print product.

7. "Instead of blindly chasing page views, we must thoughtfully build an audience of loyalists."

My guess is that this is a shot at The Post, which has made considerable page view and unique visitor gains since Amazon founder Jeff Bezos bought the company and began pouring his personal resources into it. Regardless, I think it creates a too-facile choice between getting lots of people to read your content and building up a committed community of readers that you can then sell a bunch of other products too.

The reality of the modern mediascape is that it's a both/and proposition. There's no question that as subscription models become the rule on every major media site, cultivating loyalists willing to not only pay for content on a monthly basis but also spend money on other products — a book of Times recipes, for instance — is of huge value.

It is also true, however, that simply deepening loyalists' association with a media brand isn't enough. You have to grow audience too — and hope that in doing so you convert some of those new arrivals into loyalists. The Times acknowledges that in its mission statement — that it must double its number of engaged readers by 2020.  To do that, you first need to simply find more readers and then turn them into engaged readers.

8. "Our goal — indeed, our responsibility — is to prove there is a business model for the kind of ambitious, original, high-quality journalism that is essential for an informed society."

This is obviously more aspirational than evidence-based at the moment. But nonetheless, it rightly captures the sentiment of all of us in journalism today. What we know is that the old print model — heavily dependent on classified advertising — isn't working anymore. What we don't know is whether there is a sustainable business model that can replace it.

To date, no one has found one — unless you consider native advertising the future of journalism, which I don't. The Times, The Post and everyone else is wishing and hoping that the sort of journalism we all got into the profession to do can survive and thrive in the new world of consumption. But it's very much an open question at the moment.

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