Five things journalists can learn from the New York Times’ 2020 report

By Paul Marsden

Last week the New York Times outlined a vision for the future of its newsroom – and its statements were particularly valuable for start-up newsrooms.

The NYT, which was extremely self-critical in its leaked 2014 Innovation Report, was setting out its plan for long-term sustainability. That is no small deal for them, given the financial situation they currently find themselves in.

But The NYT remains the home of some of the finest minds in the news business, so a detailed future plan from it deserves close scrutiny – particularly by entrepreneurial journalists. Here are five key observations:


1. In a digital world you need to identify your USP and exploit it

Although this is one of the first things you learn in business, but it has taken news organisations a long time to realise they can’t be all things to all people. That mindset was a hangover from newspapers – which aim to cover all bases – but it is increasingly on the way out.

The Times in the UK last year shocked the media by deciding to forgo breaking news but their rationale was sound, audiences went to the BBC for breaking news and The Times for reaction. So why bother producing the breaking news?

The same philosophy is clear in this NYT report.

The most poorly read stories, it turns out, are often the most “dutiful”…They frequently do not clear the bar of journalism worth paying for, because similar versions are available free elsewhere.

So stick to what you do best and ignore the rest. You need to add value. This leads onto…

2. It is about quality, not quantity

The report identified The NYT publishes about “200 pieces of journalism every day”. The sounds a lot but Buzzfeed and The Huffington Post alone produce around 1,000 stories a day between them, so you are unlikely to win the volume war.

So the report actually heavily advocates reducing the amount of stories The NYT aims to publish in a day. Imagine that, in an age of the continually overworked journalist, you can actually produce less. It states its mission as a publisher is:

To prove that there is a digital model for original, time-consuming, boots-on-the-ground, expert reporting that the world needs.

The NYT is aiming to pitch itself as a high-end specialist – in a world full of Aldi publishers it wants to convince you that visiting Marks & Spencers may cost more, but its worth it.

The lesson for entrepreneurs is if your specialism adds significant value then your business plan has much better chance of succeeding.


3. Work towards your business plan

The most important chart in the report showed how paying subscribers had overtaken advertisers in providing income for the Times.

This is significant because it demonstrates a real shift in approach. The digital ad market is volatile and heavily weighted towards Facebook and Google, so developing a business model that doesn’t rely heavily on advertising seems a good bet right now. The NYT added 500,000 subscribers in the last year.

The Guardian is banking on a similar approach, heavily pushing membership – which also relies on running events – and asking readers for donations.

To do this The NYT states:

We are not trying to maximise clicks and sell low-margin advertising against them.

This signals they have taken a conscious decision to avoid often popular, soft content to preserve their high-end brand. The NYT points out last year the company brought in almost $500 million in “purely digital revenue”.

The message from this point: Choose a business plan, stick to it and work towards making it a success.


4. Build a community

The report identifies:

Nothing builds reader loyalty as much as engagement – the feeling of being part of a community. And the readers of The New York Times are very much a community.

Communities are generally accepted by bigger news organisations as being crucial to their success. Engagement is the new buzzword in digital news, but it is really all about hooking a reader and getting them to come back time and again.

Internet messageboards where people can build up a rapport with one another around a common interest build loyalty. Similarly readers are more likely to visit a news website when they feel valued – where they can discuss issues with likeminded readers or ask the reporter a question about their story.

It may be potentially time consuming to build successful comment sections, but if you want happy paying customers you have to deliver a Rolls Royce service.


5. Make reporting more visual

The report states too much of The NYT coverage remains “dominated by long strings of text” [I’m aware of the irony of pointing that out here].

When we ran a story in 2016 about the rolling debate over 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.

It identifies that a lack of training (and potentially confidence) put barriers in the way of reporters producing visual content. But it ties in with a key aspect ignored in this report – the fact that more and more readers are getting their news on their smartphones. Long text articles aren’t easy for commuters to read on trains.

So when you are producing a story, it is important to identify the best visual format for tell that story in. Video (YouTube), data visualisation (Datawrapper) and infographics (Piktochart) are all low-cost and accessible options for entrepreneurial journalists.

As The NYT showed itself in 2012, visual storytelling can be spectacular when you get it right.

Main Image: Haxorjoe/Wikipedia

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