The newspaper’s lingering preeminence keeps pulling legacy media downward. Their inability to challenge the old sovereign’s status precludes every step of a critically needed modernization. (Part of a series).  

This column was scheduled to appear in the next two or three weeks. Then, on Thursday, the thick Innovation report by an ad hoc New Times task force came to the fore. Like many media watchers, I downloaded its 97 pages PDF , printed it (yes) and carefully annotated it. A lot has been written about it and I’m not going to add my own exegesis on top of numerous others. You can look at the always competent viewpoint from Nieman Lab’s Joshua Benton who sees The leaked New York Times innovation report as one of the key documents of this media age. (Other good coverage includes Politico and Capital New York — I’m linking to the NYT tag, then you’ll have all the stories pertaining to Jill Abramson’s brutal firing as well).

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This report is important one for two main reasons:

— The New York Times is viewed as one of the few traditional media to have successfully morphed into a spectacular digital machine. This backdrop gives a strong resonance to the report because many news organizations haven’t achieved half of what the NYT did, whether the metric is the performance of its digital subscription model, or its achievements in high-yield advertising – all while keeping its impregnable ability to collect Pulitzer prizes.

— We rarely, if ever, see an internal analysis expressed in such bold terms. Usually, to avoid ruffling feathers, such reports are heavily edited – which ends up being the best way to preserve the status quo. Even more, mastheads tend to distance themselves from endorsing conclusions coming from the “management crowd” – a coldly demeaning phrase. But, it the Times case, the report was expressly endorsed by the top editors (Abramson and her then second-in-command Dean Baquet who now leads the shop.)

Let’s then focus back to this column’s original intent: Why reinvent the newspaper, quickly and thoroughly.

Until last week, the reference on the matter was an email sent in January 2013 by Lionel Barber, the Financial Times editor (full-text in the Guardian), in which he sets a clear roadmap to shifting resources from print to digital:

I now want to set out in detail how we propose to reshape the FT for the digital age. (…)

[We] are proposing a shift of some resources from night work to day and from print to digital. This requires an FT-wide initiative to train our journalists to operate to the best of their abilities. And it requires decisive leadership. (…)

On unified news desks, we need to become content editors rather than page editors. We must rethink how we publish our content, when and in what form, whether conventional news, blogs, video or social media.

 A year later, key numbers for the FT are impressive:

— A 2013 profit of £55m ($92m, €67m) for the FT Group (which includes the 50% stake Pearson owns in the Economist Group); that’s an increase of 17%, while sales are slightly down by 1% to £449m ( $755m, €551m)

— 415,000 digital subscribers (+31% in one year) who now account for two-thirds of the FT’s total audience (652,000 altogether: +8%, including a staggering 60% growth in corporate users at 260,000)

— A rise in digital subscribers that offsets the decline in advertising now accounting for 32% of FT Group revenue vs. 52% in 2008.

— For the first time, in 2013, FT digital content revenue exceeded print content.

The FT might be on sale – but its management did quite well.

Echoing Lionel Barber’s view of resources reassignments are the equally strong terms from The New York Times’Innovation Report:

In the coming years, The New York Times needs to accelerate its transition from a newspaper that also produces a rich and impressive digital report to a digital publication that also produces a rich and impressive newspaper. This is not a matter of semantics. It is a critical, difficult and, at times, painful transformation that will require us to rethink much of what we do every day. [page 81] 

Stories are typically filed late in the day. Our mobile apps are organized by print sections. Desks meticulously lay out their sections but spend little time thinking about social strategies. Traditional reporting skills are the top priority in hiring and promotion. The habits and traditions built 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] has become increasingly clear that we are not moving with enough urgency. [page 59]

The newsroom should begin an intensive review of its print traditions and digital needs — and create a road map for the difficult transition ahead. We need to know where we are, where we’re headed and where we want to go. [page 82]

These quotes from a news organization that never gave up on great journalism will be helpful to those who desperately struggle to transform newsrooms. It is also a plea for the necessity of dumping the obdurate print-first obsession:

— It precludes modernizing the recruiting process as journalists are still too often picked for their writing capabilities while many other talents are needed.

— It limits audience development initiatives. In today’s print-oriented newsrooms, most writers and editors consider their jobs done once the story is filed in the CMS (Content Management System). Unfortunately, in every fast-growing digital media outlets such as Buzzfeed, The HuffPo, Politico, Quartz, Vox Media, now part of the competitive landscape, throwing the story online is actually just the beginning. The ability to cause a news item to reverberate around the social sphere is now as important as being a good writer.

— As stated in the Times report, convincing the masthead on the mandatory resource-shifting in only part of the journey; most of the transformation’s weight lies on the shoulders of the rank and file in the newsroom.

— At the NYT as everywhere else, the old guard (regardless of age, actually), is the main obstacle to the necessary rapprochement between the editorial and the business side. For instance, by rejecting the idea that Branded Content would greatly benefit from the newsroom expertise (although everyone agrees that a news writer should never be asked to write advertorial), or that a conference is indeed an editorial initiative directed to a valuable audience segment, such conservative postures are actually shrinking the company down to its most fragile component.

— The same goes for the analytics arsenal. I heard scores of examples in which newsrooms call for more dashboards and indicators, but seldom use them. Editors should be supported by tactical analytics teams (including at the editorial meeting level) that will provide immediate and mi-terms trends, as well as editorial decision-making tools.

One of the most difficult part of the transformation of legacy media is not addressed in the Times Innovation report nor in the FT’s exposé. It pertains to the future of the physical newspapers itself (the layout of the Times remains terribly out-of-date): How should it evolve? What should be its primary goals in order to address and seduce a readership now overwhelmed by commodity news? What should be the main KPIs (Key Performance Indicators) of a modern newspapers? What about content: types of stories, length, timelessness, value-added? Should it actually remain a daily?

(To be continued…)

frederic.filloux@mondaynote.com