The New York Times, innovation and the pampered newsroom

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Like just about everyone else keenly interested in online journalism, I have devoured the New York Times report, InnovationThe document is 1) a situational analysis of the NYT in comparison to its online competitors 2) a deconstruction of the NYT's online efforts, wins and shortfalls to date 3) a sly dissection of NYT culture and 4) a sketch of the way forward for the Grey Lady, who seems to be wandering about the online cocktail party not really sure who to talk to or if she's dressed appropriately.

I've read the complete report, twice now, and I think it's a tough and thorough piece of work. It should be required reading in every j-school that cares about what comes next. But, here's what surprised me most about the document: I was gobsmacked by how coddled NYT journalists are when it comes to dealing with the issues of online journalism.

There are, the report reveals, Consumer Insight, Technology, Digital Design, R&D and Product teams at the NYT that all, in one way or another, wrestle with connecting with online audiences. They design new NYT-branded products and create user experiences that make sense for an increasing mobile audience. As I count it, those teams are 630 people strong.

And, it's clear from Innovation, all of these units do their work with the grudging help, ignorance, rebuffs or fear from the newsroom and its leaders (known in the document as "the masthead"). The report also reveals that there are editors at the paper who know little about the web and, my words here, wouldn't know a decent interactive feature if it leapt up and bit them on the ass. They also let other folks handle parts of their social media outreach, spend a remarkable amount of time, energy and success metrics on the contents of Page One, are obsessed with the home page of their website and remain culturally isolated from the rest of the company by a "Chinese Wall" that separates "church" and "state."

This is remarkable, really. Here we are, almost 15 years into the World Wide Web, and editors at one of the finest papers in the word are still behaving like they are in a community theatre production of The Front Page.

Of course, the historical reason for "The Wall," as the report calls it, made sense. It was to keep a paper's journalism free of influence from its moneymaker, the ad department. But the departments the NYT journalists have eschewed include the above-mentioned Consumer Insight, Technology, Digital Design, R&D and Product teams. That makes no sense at all unless the rank-and-file NYT journalists really could give a smoking rat's butt about online -- which seems to be the between-the-lines message of the report.

In contrast, Pierre Omidyar's First Look Media brings all those teams together to create a digitally native publication that the Innovation report admits is one of the young startups that is kicking the Grey Lady's ass online. Other fiesty young'uns the paper fears include Buzzfeed, Circa and Vox Media. Digest that, conservative fans of the Times.

Innovation wraps up with a series of suggestions for making the NYT a truly digital-first publication. I think they are smart, well-intentioned, and doomed by the baggage of generations, years and tradition. Plus, since more than 75 per cent of the NYT's revenue still comes from print (in part due to its shortsighted online paywall), there is little incentive for the paper to execute on the recommendations.

Add to that the recent defection of Aron Pilhofer, the managing editor for digital strategy at the New York Times, who just became the executive editor of digital for The Guardian. Pilhofer forged the digital team at the Times. His departure was preceded by the firing of Jill Abramson, the now former executive editor of the paper. Both were mentioned as key players in the move to a digital-first strategy.

And, finally, the report was especially sad reading when coupled with another report from last week, the unfortunately named The Goat That Must Be Fed. The report, from Duke University's Reporter Lab, shows that the vast majority of U.S. newspapers are doing little, if any, online innovation, relying on papers like the New York Times to lead the way. This is known in the news business as bitter irony.

Listen to an audio version of this column, read by the author, below:

Wayne MacPhail has been a print and online journalist for 25 years, and is a long-time writer for rabble.ca on technology and the Internet.

Photo: Brian Dewey/flickr

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