Latest New York Times Report Provides New Blueprint for Digital Success

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Over the past few years, The New York Times has put out memos and reports that gauge what they believe needs to be done to continue to excel in this digital era. Despite the Times' enormity, I believe these have served as excellent guides for publishing entities of any size to follow. The just-released one is titled Journalism That Stands Apart, The Report of the 2020 Group.  

One particular takeaway that stands out for me is from this quote: “Our readers are hungry for advice from The Times. Too often, we don’t offer it, or offer it only in print-centric forms." In the past, we might see a feature on yoga, running or meditation—who’s doing it, what’s it about. Today the Times believes that people want to know how, where and when to do it.

This can definitely translate to B2B. We expect that the bigger opportunities are in providing guidance rather than traditional features,” the report says. In covering their niches, reporters must think engagement and involvement. Knowing about investing, farm products or construction isn’t enough anymore. There’s enough data to tell a reader more—why they should care and how they can act.

Here are 10 more takeaways from The Report of the 2020 Group:

1. Use more meaningful metrics than page views. “The newsroom needs a clearer understanding that page views, while a meaningful yardstick, do not equal success. To repeat, The Times is a subscription-first business; it is not trying to maximize page views.” The new metric the Times is working on will try “to measure an article’s value to attracting and retaining subscribers.” It is a different way of looking at your content. They also write that being in the Times just isn’t enough anymore. It has to feel like information you can’t get anywhere else.

2. Think visually. When the Times ran a story in 2016 about subway routes in New York, “a reader mocked us in the comments for not including a simple map of the train line at the heart of the debate.” First off, I guess the Times reads all their comments. Second, they still believe a digital-first mentality has not taken full hold. “The value of the Times does not depend on conveying information in the forms that made the most sense for a print newspaper or for desktop computers,” the report says.

3. Look for multi-talented people. “We also need to become more comfortable with our photographers, videographers and graphics editors playing the primary role covering some stories.” For organizations that cannot afford all these roles, writers and editors need to be trained to shoot video (and appear on video). The more people know about social media the better.

4. Vary how your digital content looks. “We have dozens of regularly appearing features built for the print edition but not enough for a digital ecosystem,” the report says. “We need more journalistic forms that make The Times a habit… through email newsletters, alerts, FAQs, scoreboards, audio, video and forms yet to be invented.” They also encourage a “more conversational writing style” to go along with those features.

5. Bury the silos. First, any communication between business and editorial was verboten. Then they needed to co-exist. Now… “The newsroom and our product teams should work together more closely… Each group needs a better understanding of what the other does.” Interestingly, they say that editorial has to think shorter term—tomorrow’s daily, the weekly newsletter—and can’t get involved as much as they should in design, longer term thinking, platforms, etc.

6. Build more communities. “We know from research and anecdotes that readers value the limited opportunities we provide to engage in discussion.” They cite a comment where a reader gets excited every time The Times approves one of her comments. It seems like Comments were out of fashion for a while. But now they’ve stormed back in. The report mentions some smaller places where the Times gets engagement—Opinion’s “The Stone” series; the Wordplay column; the stories of cancer survivors on Well; and Cooking—but it does sound like it has not been a priority for them.

7. Offer more training. “One recently hired reporter told us, ‘The ability to maneuver and be trained on different platforms would be ideal,’ adding that, ‘training is always haphazard.’ I love this one because that’s a role that an association such as ours can fill. The Connectiv Executive Summit takes place May 3-4 in Chicago. The SIPA Annual Conference goes from June 5-7 in Washington, D.C There’s also a full-day conference in Washington, D.C., on Feb. 23 on Customer Onboarding and Retention. Please let us know what type of training might serve you best (and we will always try to ask).

8. Edit more on the front end. “The Times spends too much time on low-value line-editing, such as the moving, unmoving and removing of paragraphs, and too little on conceptual editing and story sharpening,” and what form might work best. This is fairly meteoric. Yes, they say they’re still all for copy editing, but is anyone going to notice the less-cliched synonym the editor moved to the 11th graph? Leave it alone. Time is such a premium today—we do have to use it wisely.

9. Feel those digital rhythms. Print still does matter for some of us, but it can’t “hold back” anything that’s good for digital. Any meetings or departments that were originally created for a print product need to be reexamined and probably restructured.

10. Reach high with your content. Today’s strong competition “forces The Times to take a clear-eyed look at the coverage of every subject that is central to our report and to evaluate whether it is good enough. Put simply, is it so much better than the competition’s coverage—which is largely free—that we can plausibly ask readers to pay for our own?” In the specialized publishing world, this also means finding niches that you can call your own.

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Ronn Levine began his career as a reporter for The Washington Post and has won numerous writing and publications awards since. Most recently, he spent 12 years at the Newspaper Association of America covering a variety of topics before joining SIPA in 2009 and SIIA in 2013 as editorial director…