Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Digital New York Times

More than four years ago Marc Andreesen gave a talk at Stanford's Business School in which, among many other interesting topics, he talked about the problems the New York Times had dealing with digital media. The recently leaked NYT Innovation Report 2014, the result of a six-month review headed by the Times' heir apparent, shows how prescient Andreesen was. Below the fold, some evidence.

In my 2010 JCDL keynote I summarized Andreesen's points thus:
[I]t is time for the New York Times to shut off the presses, that everyone there knows it, that they can't talk about it because 80% of their income still comes from paper, and that because money drives attention they are spending 80% of their attention on a dying business, which is why the remaining 20% isn't being effective in the digital world. He says that if they turned off the presses they would end up a much smaller company, but they would be communicating the same news and making money. Until they do, they won't.
Quotes from the leaked report (tip of the hat to the Nieman Journalism Lab) show that the Times is not even thinking of turning off the presses:
The newsroom, [senior editor for digital operations Nathan Ashby-Kuhlman] noted, is still governed by the traditions and limitations of print, and he made a table-pounding case that we should create content for a digital report and then use the best work from that effort to put out a print edition. (p83)
Over decades, we have perfected our formula for putting out a world-class paper 365 days a year. But many of our traditions, routines and habits - perfect for the fixed deadlines and constraints of print - seem increasingly out of step with the digital world.
For example, the vast majority of our content is still published late in the evening, but our digital traffic is busiest early in the morning. We aim ambitious stories for Sunday because it is our largest print readership, but weekends are slowest online. Each desk labors over section fronts, but pays little attention to promoting its work on social media. (p86)
We look at our competitors through a print lens as well. Newsroom leaders spend a lot of time reading other outlet's stories. Few are studying their digital strategies - presentation social presence, search optimization, navigation and mobile strategy. Fewer still are spending enough time looking at digital media outlets that we don't consider competition.
And even fewer are looking at competitors on their smartphones. As a result, it is distressingly common to see mistakes in our apps. (p87)
In a sentence:
That means aggressively questioning many of our print-based traditions and their demands on our time, and determining which can be abandoned to free up resources for digital work. (p. 82)
I'm with Andreesen on this. The way to make the necessary changes happen is to plan to turn off the presses by a certain date. The quotes selected by the Nieman Labs' staff are well worth a look, although the full report is TL;DR. However, as I pointed out in February, the New York Times is making sufficient money to ensure that management short-termism will derail dealing with long-term problems.

Of course, not that digital is a panacea. As The Atlantic's sub-head for an interesting piece by Derek Thompson puts it:
As [Time] returns to its inky origins, the future looks bright for digital journalism as a product, but dim for large-scale digital journalism as a business.
Thompson points out that:
the shift to digital isn't benefiting large media corporations so much as it's enriching search and social media companies that can scale audiences and their data to create targeted advertising that a media company could only dream of replicating. Google and Facebook control 50 percent (and growing) of the domestic ad market. After you add Microsoft, LinkedIn, Twitter, and Amazon, you've accounted [for] 70 percent of digital advertising.
Some of the largest digital media companies, like the commercially hapless Yahoo and AOL properties, are left fighting over scraps of branding banners and squares. Even lean operations like Gawker Media are victims of digital journalism's lean margins.
Thompson uses a graph from the Wall Street Journal to illustrate Google's dominance. Note that there are no traditional media companies on it, so even the best of them is around two orders of magnitude behind Google in digital ad revenue. The problem for these companies isn't just that they don't have the data their advertisers need, they don't have the content their advertisers need either:
Even as the Web attracts a larger share of our attention, it could struggle to attract a similar share of advertising, because our digital attention (especially on mobile) just isn't similar to our attention with other media. We spend hours with TV. We spend many minutes with a favorite magazines or print newspaper. Meanwhile, we look at our phones 150 times a day for a few seconds. A few seconds is a good time to answer a Google search with an ad that answers one pressing question. (No wonder Google has ~50% share of mobile ad spend.) But brand advertising—which typically supports general-interest journalism—isn't about answering questions. It's about leaving impressions. How do you make an impression in five seconds?
This is really bad news for society, not just for journalists. Even if the New York Times were to belatedly take Andreesen's advice, they (and other traditional media companies) might not be able to generate enough income from advertisers and subscribers to sustain their important role in society. Which, as their response to the current debacle in Iraq is reminding us, the New York Times has been busily trashing for many years by acting as stenographers for administration lies, suppressing important stories to help incumbents' re-elections, and continuing to provide a platform for pundits to pontificate on stories about which their total ignorance was demonstrated more than a decade ago (see Paul Waldman on the sources one of them relies on). Criticizing the Times isn't to suggest that other traditional media aren't even worse.

Much of this trashing is the result of a pernicious feedback loop between the traditional media's need to appear objective (or "fair and balanced") and politician's need to fire up their base, as described in a fascinating piece on the Pew Center's report on Political Polarization by Era Klein at Vox:
the two political parties have every reason to want their supporters angry at, and scared of, the other side. And they have the power to scare them.
Politicians and parties have a choice between rhetoric that paints American politics as a disagreement between two reasonably well-meaning sides and rhetoric that paints it as an apocalyptic confrontation between good and evil. The calmer approach will mean fewer campaign donations and volunteers. The more hysterical messaging will ensure their campaigns have foot soldiers and the money to buy ads.
Some politicians talk openly about the pressure to demonize the other side. "When I send out a fundraising e-mail talking about how bad Republicans are, I raise three times as much as when I send out an e-mail talking about how good I am," said Sen. Chris Murphy, a Connecticut Democrat. "People are motivated to give based on their fear of the other side rather than on their belief in their side."
This feeds into the traditional media's need to present "both sides of the story". The result is stories that contrast two exaggerated, rhetorical positions with no attempt to discover or inform the reader of the truth. And digital content's version of Gresham's Law takes over, in which "bad content drives out good"; the outrage-provoking content scores higher in the various ways that digital media is measured. And thus, to drive the campaign contributions and volunteers, the politicians have each time to serve up content that is even more polarizing if it is to get attention.

Ezra Klein was an important example in the New York Times Innovation Report:
Ezra Klein was one of several prominent journalists who left the security of an established newspaper for a digital-media startup. For Klein, the value of a guaranteed audience - the Washington Post's historic trump card - was eclipsed by the value of technology and digital talent. Increasingly, the right technology and talent can build up a big audience very quickly.
In his announcement, Klein focused on Vox's content management system, Chorus, as the key draw. "And behind Chorus is a world-class design and engineering team this is already helping us the way we power newsrooms and present information. (p86)


  1. Clay Shirky blogs about another example of this problem, the collapse of Aaron Kushner's contrarian plan to expand southern California print newspapers,

  2. Frédéric Filloux at the Monday Note continues the drum-beat that the New York Times should just turn off the presses, at least during the week. He estimates that they could be worth $19B instead of $2B.

    This graph shows Google's dominance, with $277 per monthly unique visitor, vesus Facebook's $60 and the NYT's $6.