Dec 11

The meaning of the abrupt departure of the New York Times CEO

Recessions, or rumours of their return, concentrate minds. Late last week, the New York Times announced the departure of its CEO, Janet Robinson, in terms which made clear that this wasn’t her initiative and that it had something to do with the paper’s struggles to find a successful digital publishing strategy.

I suspect that Ms Robinson’s removal is a symbol of a debate not confined to the boardroom of the New York Times or, come to that, to the United States. A long period of economic uncertainty on both sides of the Atlantic is starving newspapers of both readers and advertising income. In Britain print circulation declines are accelerating and given that two of the largest year-on-year falls are for the Guardian and Financial Times, I don’t think this can be attributed to the phone-hacking scandal.

This pushes all newspapers and their publishers closer to one of the biggest decisions in their history, a momentous choice which is coming sooner than many expected. How much longer can they stay in print? When do they switch to digital?

When two British editors were asked last year how much longer they expected to be printing their papers, both said that the companies had bought their last printing presses. Since both had invested in new presses in the past few years, that gave the Sunday Times and the Guardian maximum time horizons of between twenty and thirty years as paper products. I doubt that many titles now think they have that long.

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Apr 11

Blogs, paywalls: trends and straws in the wind

Two signposts for two clear trends this week.

Last night a journalist whose form is live-blogging won the “Political Journalist of the Year” title at the UK Press Awards. This is Andrew Sparrow of The Guardian, who has carved himself a niche as the Westminster reporter who writes minute-by-minute bulletins of big political set pieces and crises. What makes Sparrow good is his blend of old skills and new form. He is fast, but he is also wise.


As I’ve heard him explain, he began as a normal political reporter and just evolved his live-blog speciality as he went along. He doesn’t think live blogs on any subject replace reporting of a more conventional kind; they complement and enrich it. His strength lies in a combination of “old” qualities (journalistic self-discipline, background depth) and the “new” digital opportunity to distribute updates frequently and instantly.

Second trend sign: people experimenting with paywalls. It isn’t a coincidence that at least two newspapers on either side of the Atlantic announced digital charges this week: in Wolverhampton and Tulsa (with perhaps San Francisco to come). This isn’t just a metropolitan rarity any more. And we had the first public appearance by the two head honchos at the New York Times, Arthur Sulzberger and Janet Robinson, since the paper announced its metered payment system.

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Oct 10

The New York Times goes all emotional

Twice in the space of a few weeks I have heard a top honcho at the New York Times make a speech with the crucial importance of emotional engagement as the main theme. In London it was Arthur Sulzberger (see here) and today at WEF in Hamburg, President and CEO Janet Robinson.

What is it with these NYT executives that they want so much to be loved? Robinson said that many digital websites had not fulfilled their potential because their connection with their readers wasn’t strong enough. And the missing link is emotion: they’re after the readers’ money (as of next year a charge will kick in after a so-far unspecified number of clicks in a month) but, even more important, they want to capture their hearts. Besides using that phrase, Robinson talked about expanding and maximising the “consumer experience”.

Language like this can only be the product of market research studies. Opinion researchers love studies of emotional temperature. But this preoccupation with filling the emotional hole still sits oddly with the other standard component in both the Sulzberger and Robinson speeches: that the NYT will never compromise on standards and quality. Isn’t some of that quality down to formality (chilly stuff like rules about how you do journalism)? They didn’t nickname the NYT the “Grey Lady” for nothing. Can you have warm affection and serious respect? Maybe you can, but if these speeches are going to convince, they have to tackle that question.

And a last piece of advice to the NYT’s executive floor: reading a prepared text is probably not the best way to forge an emotional  bond with an audience.