NEWSPAPERS once lived in a pre-Copernican world, with the print edition at the centre of their cosmos. Today they are questioning long-held beliefs about what should orbit what. A leaked internal review by the New York Times provides a remarkable glimpse of an industry in the midst of a revolution.
Every paper is rethinking its business strategy as readers keep abandoning print for digital, and in particular mobile, devices. However, the report, revealed by an online rival, BuzzFeed, offers a brutally honest assessment of the difficult decisions this will entail. It was compiled by a team of young employees, including Arthur Gregg Sulzberger, son and presumed heir of the Times’s publisher. Its significance is amplified by the firing this month of Jill Abramson as editor, to be replaced by Dean Baquet, her number two. As the report notes, it is hard to leap into the digital age, and retain digital talent, when the top jobs go to those with traditional, inky-fingered backgrounds. Such self-criticism is especially striking since the Times is widely seen as a leader among traditional newspapers in many things digital.
The report identifies several areas in which the Times must modernise its worldview. Competition is one. In recent years it has concentrated its fire on Rupert Murdoch’s Wall Street Journal, which launched a New York section to compete head-on with the Times. But now it finds itself in a multi-front, journalistic equivalent of “The Hunger Games”, battling stealthy youngsters such as BuzzFeed, the Huffington Post, Business Insider and Quartz. These firms pride themselves in being digitally “native”. They pay attention to data and promote their articles skilfully on social networks, helping their audiences rise against the Times’s (see chart). Sometimes their articles commenting on or linking to Times stories win them more traffic than the Times articles themselves.
Tomorrow’s Times may have to look, walk and talk differently than it does today. There is vigorous debate within newspapers everywhere over the “wall” that separates their editorial and business sides. It has long been seen as essential to spare journalists from commercial pressures, but it can stymie opportunities for collaborating to reach readers more effectively, notes the Times report.
It concludes that the wall may need to move, so journalists can work with those on the business side who interact with readers and analyse their consumption, even as they maintain their distance from those who sell advertising space and sponsorship. Even before filing a story, reporters could take part in a discussion of how to present, package and promote it to reach the greatest number of readers.
Editors may also have to start resisting the print edition’s gravitational pull. They spend hours each day discussing what to put on page one of the paper, with much less discussion about digital distribution. Since the Times newsroom runs to the print edition’s timetable, many articles go up online in the evening, whereas more people browse for news in the morning.
Nearly 60% of those reading Times articles now do so on smartphones and tablets, often receiving them via Twitter, Facebook and other social networks, search engines and apps. That means fewer of them encounter the full package of reading that editors so painstakingly put together. Traffic to the Times’s home-page has fallen by half from its peak in 2011; only a third of readers of Times articles ever visit it. This makes it a lot harder to persuade them to consume a broader range of the paper’s content, and to charge them for it.
Other newspapers regard the Times as a farsighted digital pioneer. It now claims 760,000 digital subscribers, and in recent months it has completed a sleek online makeover and launched new mobile apps. So if the Times is anxious, they should be too. The authors of its internal review are right to worry about losing readers. It is true that some of its new rivals barely make money, and others, such as Business Insider and Quartz, are believed to be losing it, whereas last year the Times had more than $150m in profits. But the times are changing fast and the Times must change with them.
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