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Six Truths About The New York Times’ Innovation Report

Author: Mike Kuczkowski

On May 15, someone leaked a copy of The New York Times’ Innovation Report, a 96-page internal memorandum examining why the Times is falling behind in the digital journalism game to the likes of Buzzfeed, Huffington Post and Politico.

It was a meta-media moment, the leak of a key internal document from The New York Times, published first by Buzzfeed, then by Mashable and amplified by the whole digital media pack. Media prognosticators combusted with a combination of shock and awe. Shock, because it was a strikingly candid assessment, with a sharply critical tone, that may have explained the unexpected departure of Executive Editor Jill Abramson (it did not). Awe, because, well… it was a strikingly candid assessment with a sharply critical tone, written by New York Times staffers themselves.

The Neiman Lab at Harvard called the report “one of the key artifacts of the digital media age.” The debate that has followed has been wide-ranging, from praise of the report’s brilliant distillation of the concept of disruptive innovation, to Jill Lepore’s deconstruction and dismissal of the entire genre of disruptive innovation (most notably the work by Harvard Professor Clayton M. Christenson, author of The Innovator’s Dilemma) in The New Yorker.

The Times’ Innovation Report is a great read. There’s only one problem: It offers very little in the way of innovation.

The bulk of the report focuses on the Times’ cultural barriers to innovation, notably the wall of “Church and State” that exists between the business side (focused historically on advertisers, the report said) and the editorial side (focused on readers). There are fulsome examples of cases, like the Times’ Upshot, where innovation failed to tap all the resources it might have in order to be successful. (For an excellent summary of all the issues tied to the Times’ report, check out Vox’s storystream on the subject.)

[Disclosure: In 1998, I freelanced briefly for The Times’ Connecticut Bureau. I am a huge fan of the Times and have been an avid reader for my entire adult life.]

The Times’ Innovation Report fails to offer a compelling case for how the Times will compete in the future as the leading media property, regardless of channel. Here are the key issues, as I see them:

1/ Problem definition: The Times claims it is “winning” in journalism. I won’t dispute this claim, and it is supportable. But, it is also the heart of the issue. The definition of successful journalism is evolving, and everyone is struggling to keep up – including readers. That is the central problem The Times’ leadership should be addressing. What the Innovation Report offers up instead as its core problem is “the art and science of getting our journalism to readers.” This suggests better systems and training in content distribution and promotion, a manageable task. But, the report’s recommendations reach far beyond that solution set. I think they failed to confront the toughest reality: That the definition of great journalism is evolving, and the business model to support it is even harder to pin down.

2/ Audience insights: For all the talk about audience development and engagement, The Times’ report contains no data or insights whatsoever about its audiences, current or aspirational. This has always been the key to success for any journalistic – or commercial — enterprise. The Times has become the newspaper of record by delivering a definitive daily news report to its readers, satisfying their desire to be well-informed, on a general basis, about the events of the day. The playing field of that issue has changed dramatically due to the rise of digital competitors and a host of other factors. It may be that a host of other internal study groups are tracking audience desires and behaviors, cracking the code on the complexities of online, social and mobile personas. But the lack of mention here is glaring, and concerning.

3/  The Competition: I’ve got news for the leadership of The Gray Lady… Buzzfeed is not your competition. It may have a massive audience, but if The Times went head to head with BuzzFeed on “The 23 People Who Should Stay Away From The Beach For A While”, I think readers of both The Times and BuzzFeed will be quite confused. The Times must compete with upstarts from a position of strength. Can it do more to offer readers the level of context for important global stories? Absolutely. Does it have the resources and archives with which to do so? Unquestionably. The Times never went head to head with The Daily News and the Post in the tabloid circulation wars of the ’70s and ’80s, I don’t think a different strategy is warranted today.

4/ The Brand: The Times still does not appear to understand that its biggest asset is not its print edition, its talent or its content – it’s The Times’ brand. Few brands in the world are as instantly recognizable or as deeply understood. We readers have come to expect the most definitive, contextual, well-reported — if slightly left-leaning — journalism available. Period. The brand is far more valuable, in terms of its leadership, reputation for quality, credibility and tone, than any other media brand. The Innovation Report makes a reference to this, recommending a larger investment in Times-branded events, but this is presented as a tactic in search of a strategy. The strategy is, build and capitalize on the value of The Times’ brand, through a variety of available channels, experiments and revenue-developing activities.

5/ Defining Innovation: The report talks about innovation (and even gives a neat graphic treatment of disruptive innovation.) But it doesn’t actually define the term. And that’s challenging, because the Times has been innovative on a number of fronts, including data journalism, design and products. (Snow Fall, which has been widely praised, was a piece of beautiful journalism, from reporting to presentation.) It has not, in my view, done an excellent job of sustaining those innovations. The report goes into great detail on how The Times has failed to innovate – and how others have succeeded. It is likely that innovation at The Times means something other than a popular listicle. By failing to define the connected, agile, interactive and user-driven traits that The Times does value, the report leaves staffers and readers to wonder what innovation means in The Times’ eyes.

6/ Strategic Experiments: Ultimately, the business of innovation – particularly the kind of innovations meant to help a successful business change its business model in the face of uncertainty — is a matter of strategic experiments. Most organizations fail at this, which is why in the list of the world’s top 100 companies in 1912, only 19 remained on that list by 1995. I strongly urge The Times leadership to read 10 Rules for Strategic Innovators, by Vijay Govindarajan and Chris Trimble. They recommend setting up strategic experiments that are explicitly charged not with generating profits, but with learning how to succeed in new, hostile business environments. If their rules can be distilled to a mantra, it is this: forget, borrow and learn. Tough medicine for an operation as focused on profits as The Times, but good medicine nonetheless.

What does this all mean? There is little question that The Times is struggling to adapt to a world of online journalism that is rapidly evolving and unpredictable. I have no doubt that the internal barriers to innovation and experimentation are substantial.

I suspect the problem that The Times is trying to solve is far more complex and nuanced than the one outlined in the Innovation Report. I believe The Times wants to continue to be the definition of quality among general-interest, mass audience media outlets, in an age in which interests are ever more specialized, and audiences are fickle.

If The Times relies on the brand values that have brought them this far, I’m confident they can succeed. But, my faith is rooted more in my belief in The Times’ leadership and the strength of its journalism and staff, rather than any insights gleaned from its Innovation Report. In the end, The Times will succeed or fail based on its ability to evolve and innovate its journalism and related products for the needs of its audience. And, we’ll read all about it, most likely in The New York Times, but maybe in Buzzfeed, too.

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