Friday, May 23, 2014
BOB GARFIELD: Amid the media maelstrom over last week's firing of Executive Editor Jill Abramson, the New York Times also had to deal with an embarrassing leak. BuzzFeed was fed a 96-page internal Times report on the paper's adaptation, or non-adaptation, to the digital world. Joshua Benton, director of the Nieman Journalism Lab at Harvard, wrote about the innovation report. Prepared over the course of six months, the report paints a sorry picture of recalcitrance in the face of change.
JOSHUA BENTON: The New York Times was very good at putting out a print newspaper. It’s something [LAUGHS] they got very good at over a very long period of time. And when the medium shifts, you know, no matter how good you are in one medium you’re sort of playing catch-up in another. And that was one of the things that I thought was interesting in the report, that Twitter, social media, basic promotional tools, very inconsistent about how those were used from reporter to reporter, section of the paper to section of the paper. So there are a lot of ways that the Times could be tagging its content, using it to analyze what’s working and what isn’t working. A lot of those things they’re just not doing.
BOB GARFIELD: The Times, of course, has a digital offering and a mobile one, and they both have [LAUGHS] lots and lots of reach, and they've done some very high-profile digital projects. But if the report tells you anything, it's that the mentality of the paper is still utterly print centric.
JOSHUA BENTON: I think that is true. You know, Arthur Sulzberger has said that he views the Times as platform-agnostic, that they produce journalism, that journalism goes into a print product, a digital product, an app, a website, other platforms, and it doesn’t really matter. That’s a nice thing to say. It’s a different thing for that culture to really change and for that message to penetrate through the editors to the reporters.
BOB GARFIELD: When we talk about culture, the report would suggest that it begins with page 1, how for more than a century the focus is to create great stories that might find their way to page 1, and everything flows from that. Why does that make so little sense in a digital world?
JOSHUA BENTON: Well, think about how the day works. You have meetings in the morning and in the afternoon you have editors who are crafting good pitches, trying to get their reporters’ stories onto page 1, an admirable thing, which means that those decisions are made later in the day. Well, the morning is the peak traffic time for the New York Times. They’re pushing out all their big stuff in the evening because that’s how the process works. Compare that to a newsroom that thinks of digital as their main point of output. They’re going to be putting out content on a more regular basis. They’re not going to be constrained by this one flow, which made perfect sense for a print product that was produced once a day.
What was surprising to me about this report was that the New York Times is much more advanced than most American newspapers in creating a digital strategy. They have built one of the few really clearly successful paywalls. They have created enormously wonderful projects. They seem to be figuring it out. And that’s why it was kind of sad, frankly, for me to read the report and to really see that the cultural changes, you know, hadn’t really taken hold. And there are absolutely brilliant digital people at the New York Times. They have more technical capacity than any other news organization in the country. They simply don’t always value it to the degree that they probably should.
BOB GARFIELD: Is the newsroom so hidebound that it regards the digital staff not only with suspicion but as kind of the enemy?
JOSHUA BENTON: I wouldn’t put it that strongly, and it's difficult to talk about “the newsroom” as a single entity. I mean, it’s 1300 or so people who have very different opinions about things. But I don't think there's any doubt that there is a, a culture clash between individuals, between ways of thinking about the news. There's a broad commitment to Timesian-ness, [LAUGHS] I think, among just about everyone who works there.
But there are a lot of different ways you can get to that endpoint, and I don't think everyone agrees about those ways.
BOB GARFIELD: There have been a couple of impediments at the Times, according to the report, that probably sound familiar to journalists in newsrooms all over the world. And one is the notion of church and state. Journalists have always taken pride in having nothing to do with the business side.
JOSHUA BENTON: Yeah, it was very easy to not have any knowledge of what was going on in the business side when the business side was doing great. [LAUGHS] There's a lot of intelligence within the Times building about how audiences engage with Times stories. It would seem to me that it would make sense for journalists, people who produce those stores, to have knowledge of how their audience is, is reading those stories or watching those videos. That sort of intelligence can come in through the business side or it can come in through a newsroom analytics team, as the report proposes. But it's important information.
And one of the tensions ever since the Web arrived in newsrooms was how much do journalists want to let their judgments be affected by data. And that's still an open question in a lot of newsrooms.
BOB GARFIELD: Another issue of culture is the sense of not wanting to pander to the whims of the mass audience, which is what adapting to data is kind of about. If there's a continuum of digital media and on one side of it is the New York Times and on the far other pole is, let’s say, BuzzFeed, I guess the future of digital is that they are going to, whether they like it or not, move toward one another. BuzzFeed’s movin’. They have a Washington Bureau! [LAUGHS] And the Times seems very reluctant, and perhaps not at the executive levels but within the newsroom, to move in the direction of optimizing the distribution of its stories. Is that ever gonna change?
JOSHUA BENTON: Well, I would disagree with the idea that there's a, a spectrum and on one end there’s really high quality journalism and at the other end is understanding what your audience wants. [LAUGHS] I think those can easily live together. The Times has built up this tremendous brand. Their mission is going to continue to be to be as high quality a journalism outfit as they possibly can. But that mission does not conflict with understanding what your audience wants. I mean, it’s not as if newspapers all started sports sections decades ago because they all had that same idea, just on a whim. It’s because they realized that their audience wanted sports coverage. There’s always been an effort to align the product you’re producing with the demands of the market. That's not a sin. That’s not a crime against journalism.
One of the things that the report said is that a number of digital side people complain that journalists, when they were talking about learning about audience data or understanding what the numbers showed, had a tendency to always go to the worst- case scenario, like, well, if we look at these numbers, next thing you know it's gonna be the Britney Spears New York Times and that’s all we’re gonna cover. I think you can benefit from the knowledge that digital data gives you about your audience without selling out your soul.
BOB GARFIELD: Josh, thank you very much.
JOSHUA BENTON: Absolutely, my pleasure.
BOB GARFIELD: Joshua Benton is director of the Nieman Journalism Lab at Harvard University.