The New York Times and innovation: are they asking the right question?

The New York Times did a kind favour to the rest of the news media when, amidst the storm provoked by the sacking of its editor Jill Abramson, we got to see a report on the paper’s lack of progress in digital journalism by a group of its younger editors.

I don’t need to describe “Innovation” further for you: it’s been capably done elsewhere (see also here). Instead, I want to ask the question which I haven’t yet seen put, perhaps because it makes people a little nauseous. Is it actually possible for a big, mainstream newspaper to make the transition to being, principally, a digital platform for journalism? Not just make the transition slowly, painfully and with embarrassing mistakes but…not make it at all.

I’m by nature an optimist and I recently I wrote a book which, among other themes, looks at the regularity with which journalism re-invents itself when disrupted. But having read the 96 pages of the NYT document, even my faith in the future was dented.

As many other readers have said, it is a brutally frank self-examination. But for all the bravery involved, a number of questions just aren’t there. With all the fervour of tribesmen waving a talisman to ward off evil spirits, the authors repeatedly praise the outstanding quality of the NYT’s journalism. A touch smug, an outsider might think, but hardly controversial.

But nowhere do the authors ask what journalism now is. The gulf between the information-poor world when the NYT was founded in 1851 and the information-saturated world of the 21st century is vast. If the NYT intends to go on reporting the world, which might seem a plausible guess, how do they know what kind of reporting is going to be found valuable by their readers in 5, 10 or 25 years’ time?

There’s no question that the journalists of the NYT find what they produce valuable and they are joined by a large number of readers. But they must know – although this is barely mentioned in the report – that they are staring at falling print advertising income and weak digital income. There’s a reason why the NYT, currently worth around $2bn, is now valued at a quarter the sum it was a decade ago. And that reason isn’t the global financial crisis.

The lack of any curiosity about what journalism might be runs parallel to a huge misunderstanding about what digital technology does for journalism. For the authors of “Innovation”, the innovatory discoveries they most want is better ways of getting NYT journalism to readers who will get more out of it. Worthwhile aim, but a limited one.

The overwhelming impression given by the young guns of the NYT is that they don’t want to ask any question which might pose existential questions for their own institution. How do people learn about the world now? How does information really move and why? How do we use these flows to tell people what we think they should know? Does “journalism” have a role in this?

There is a different approach to this and the best summary comes from the venture capitalist Michael Moritz, using the example of the South African entrepreneur Koos Bekker and his company Naspers. As Moritz puts it, what Bekker did was ride the technology wave, principally by buying hi-tech companies to run a string of experiments about what people want and need to know and how they now satisfy those requirements. What the NYT did was fight the wave of disruption.

Rebalancing a print-origin news business to be a “digital first” operation isn’t easy anywhere anytime. “Innovation” describes a huge problem with the internal culture of the NYT, many of whose staff, in the view of the authors, don’t get the scale or velocity of the change needed. But I’m not sure that the authors fully grasp it either.

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