The New York Times is a massive media brand wrestling gamely with digital.
The leaking of an internal document in 2014, detailing a struggle to innovate, made the fight pretty public.
Last week, The NYT published the 2020 report listing the newsroom’s ‘strategy and aspirations’ – it’s particularly interesting for journalists and subscription businesses, but I thought I’d pick out some quotes of general interest for content strategists.
1. Your strategy should align with your business values
Does this sound too obvious? The advent of digital technology has distracted many companies from their values, but also from what their customers want.
The New York Times sums this up brilliantly in its 2020 report when differentiating between clicks and subscriptions. Content strategists should focus on long-held values over short-term traffic gain.
We are not trying to maximize clicks and sell low-margin advertising against them. We are not trying to win a pageviews arms race. We believe that the more sound business strategy for The Times is to provide journalism so strong that several million people around the world are willing to pay for it.
Of course, this strategy is also deeply in tune with our longtime values.
2. Your content has to stand out from the (free) crowd…
There is little point in creating what the NYT calls ‘incremental news stories’. Are you adding value, or just parroting the same message as countless others in your sector?
[Our daily output includes] too many stories that lack significant impact or audience — that do not help make The Times a valuable destination.
What kinds of stories? Incremental news stories that are little different from what can be found in the freely available competition. Features and columns with little urgency.
Stories written in a dense, institutional language that fails to clarify important subjects and feels alien to younger readers. A long string of text, when a photograph, video or chart would be more eloquent.
3. ..as the returns to expertise have risen
As content proliferates, the metaphor of the cream rising becomes ever more apposite. Fill your content with expertise.
The Internet is brutal to mediocrity. When journalists make mistakes, miss nuances or lack sharpness, they’re called out quickly on Twitter, Facebook and elsewhere. Free alternatives abound, often reporting the same commoditized information. As a result, the returns to expertise have risen.
4. Remember what it is that advertisers want
Advertisers want engagement with publisher content beyond the click. It is not enough that visitors simply arrive at a page (to be served an impression). The success of content and the success of advertising are entwined.
…by focusing on subscribers, The Times will also maintain a stronger advertising business than many other publications. Advertisers crave engagement: readers who linger on content and who return repeatedly.
5. Don’t automatically think ‘blog post’
Digital formats must be created to suit your readers’ digital habits. In the case of the NYT this includes morning briefing emails, but the newspaper admits it needs to add to its range of distinctive digital formats.
The briefings are in many ways a digital manifestation of a daily newspaper: They take advantage of the available technology and our curatorial judgment to explain the world to readers on a frequent, predictable rhythm that matches the patterns of readers’ lives.
We need more innovations like the briefings. We have dozens of regularly appearing features built for the print edition but not enough for a digital ecosystem. We need more journalistic forms that make The Times a habit by frequently enlightening readers on major running stories, through email newsletters, alerts, FAQs, scoreboards, audio, video and forms yet to be invented.
6. Digital formats often require a conversational writing style
The third person will always have its uses but increasingly digital demands something a little more personal. Even at the NYT.
These [new digital formats such as briefings] are not only consistent with our readers’ habits, but they also naturally encourage our journalists to use a less institutional and more conversational writing style. Our journalists comfortably use this style on social media, television and radio, and it is consistent with the lingua franca of the Internet.
…In our own report, however, we still do not use this more approachable writing style often enough, and, when we do, we too often equate it with the first-person voice. The Times has rightly become more comfortable with the first person, but clear, conversational writing does not depend on it.
7. Text often needs a visual
Though you may convince yourself that Google reads text very nicely and that readers will arrive at your content on the promise of a headline and a header image alone, this is lazy thinking.
Visuals are needed to explain, to sell, to please, to interrupt, etc. NYT journalists have traditionally had little involvement with visuals, but that has had to change as restrictions on imagery fall away with the print format.
Photographers and graphic designers should be more greatly involved during the creation of content.
Too much of our daily report remains dominated by long strings of text.
An example of the problem: When we ran a story in 2016 about the roiling 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.
8. Staff must know their mission
At the NYT the vision for each department is split into three area: journalism (aka product), audience (aka customer) and ops. Content creators need to be clear on their remit.
Every department should have a clear vision that is well understood by its staff.
9. Collaborate X3
Collaboration is perhaps the most important word for organisations seeking to transform their business for, and through, digital. Changing processes and workflows to bring people together is imperative.
The newsroom and our product teams should work together more closely.
The central flaw in the current setup is that the newsroom ends up focusing on short-term problem solving (How do we make today’s report excellent?), while the product teams focus on longer-term questions (What’s the best future news experience?).
10. Redefine success
The last word should probably be about the ‘views’ metric, the cross that, until now, digital publishing and advertising has had to bear. Redefining success means tackling this metric, something the NYT is attempting.
Though no metric is perfect, assessing the ability of content to both attract and retain customers is a must.
The data and audience insights group, under Laura Evans, is in the latter stages of creating a more sophisticated metric than pageviews, one that tries to measure an article’s value to attracting and retaining subscribers. This metric seems a promising alternative to pageviews.