New York Times Study Calls for Rapid Change in Newsroom - warns of budget cuts, smaller newsroom...

New York Times Study Calls for Rapid Change in Newsroom
By SYDNEY EMBER JAN. 17, 2017

The New York Times has deftly adapted to the demands of digital journalism, but it needs to change even more quickly, according to an internal report that recommends the company expand training for reporters and editors, hire journalists with more varied skills and deepen engagement with readers as a way to build loyalty and attract the subscriptions necessary to survive.

The report, released to The Times newsroom on Tuesday, is the culmination of a year of work by a group of seven journalists who were asked by Dean Baquet, the executive editor, to conduct a review of the newsroom and determine a blueprint for its path forward. Titled “Journalism That Stands Apart,” and known internally as the 2020 report, it provides a set of broad principles to accelerate the transformation while maintaining a commitment to high-quality journalism.

The report comes at a particularly sobering time for the legacy media industry. The steep and continuous decline of high-margin print advertising has led to significant financial challenges for most newspapers, which in turn are cutting costs and trying to find new revenue sources. News organizations, including The Wall Street Journal and Gannett, are reshaping their newsrooms and have made significant cuts in staffing. The Journal is currently conducting a newsroom review similar to that of The Times, called WSJ2020.

Among the other recommendations in the Times’s report were reducing duplicative layers of article editing, and having visual experts play “the primary role covering some stories, rather than a secondary role” — part of an urgent call for more visual journalism. It also calls for renewed efforts on diversity as a way to ensure that the paper’s journalists “reflect the audience we seek.”

“The world is changing really rapidly,” David Leonhardt, a columnist who led the group’s work, said in an interview. “We have to keep up, and even get ahead of it.”

In a note to the newsroom, Mr. Baquet and Joe Kahn, The Times’s managing editor, endorsed the group’s recommendations, saying they outlined an “opportunity we have to produce an even more vital, more authoritative, more indispensable” news report.

The 2020 group acknowledged “budget realities” that would affect newsroom turnover, but it did not identify specific staff cuts, which are widely expected in the coming months. Mr. Baquet and Mr. Kahn, however, used the report to more bluntly address the need for downsizing, saying in no uncertain terms that moving away from “duplicative and often low-value line editing” would lead to reductions in the editor ranks.

“Let’s not be coy,” they wrote. “The changes will lead to fewer editors at The Times.”

The plan to trim the number of editors reflects a broader effort by legacy publications to streamline their operations and align themselves with leaner digital media companies, which built their newsrooms without the kind of multilayered editing process inherent in print production.

“If you look at any newsroom that was built for a digital environment, they don’t have anything like the editing structure that The Times has,” said Joshua Benton, the director of the Nieman Journalism Lab. “On the one hand, that is something that The Times is differentiated through. But on the other hand, if you do need to become more efficient, then some reduction there does make sense.”

Mr. Baquet and Mr. Kahn said in their note that creating a “smaller and more focused newsroom” was “a necessary repositioning of The Times newsroom, not as a diminishment.”

The note also laid out some concrete steps for various projects, including a plan to invest $5 million toward covering the incoming president, Donald J. Trump, and his administration. Several of the recommendations in the report have already been introduced, including subject-focused newsroom teams and a restructuring of the copy desk.

The report coincides with a series of broader changes at The Times, including a reimagining of the print newspaper; an aggressive international expansion; a heightened emphasis on graphics, video, virtual reality and podcasts; the $30-million purchase of the product recommendation site The Wirecutter and its sibling, The Sweethome; and changes in top newsroom management. The Times also recently appointed A.G. Sulzberger as deputy publisher, positioning him to succeed his father, Arthur Sulzberger Jr., as publisher.

Many initiatives are intended to support an ambitious goal that The Times laid out in October 2015: to double its digital revenue, to $800 million in 2020 compared with $400 million in 2014.

Last year, according to the report, The Times generated nearly $500 million in purely digital revenue.

The Times and other news organizations are also bracing for the challenges of covering an administration that is openly hostile to the news media, while trying to forge a stronger connection to the large bloc of voters who swept Mr. Trump to the presidency.

At The Times, the election threw the newsroom into a period of self-reflection as it grappled with criticism that it had missed the signs pointing to Mr. Trump’s victory. In the days after the election, Mr. Baquet and Arthur Sulzberger Jr. sent notes to the newsroom and readers reassuring them that The Times remained committed to holding powerful people and institutions accountable.

Mr. Baquet initially planned to release the report in November, but it was pushed back after the unexpected election results, which demanded the organization’s full attention.

Within The Times newsroom, where impending staff cuts have some employees on edge, the report did not satisfy those looking for specific guidance on their future. Several employees said much of the report merely confirmed many of the initiatives that were already underway. Some expressed frustration that the report did not provide details on layoffs and that there was little information about how individual departments might be altered or how specific jobs might change.

Instead, the report emphasizes The Times’s strengths and lays out a series of broad recommendations intended to ensure the company’s survival for years to come. Most important, it affirms The Times’s commitment to its subscriber-based revenue model, a departure from many other publications, both traditional and online, whose businesses are built on page-views, visitors and clicks.

“We are, in the simplest terms, a subscription-first business,” the report says. “We are not trying to maximize clicks and sell low-margin advertising against them. We are not trying to win a page-views arms race.”

At the same time, the report cautions against complacency. “If we rest on our laurels, we are going to put at risk this big lead that we have,” Mr. Leonhardt said. “We need to do more and we need to do it faster.”

Among the report’s recommendations is to improve and expand The Times’s training efforts and accelerate hiring to shift the balance away from print-focused roles. The goal is to reconfigure its news report so that it aligns with the range of digital offerings audiences now expect. “It’s the single biggest message the committee delivered,” Mr. Leonhardt said.

The 2020 committee also recommends that The Times continue to reduce the role the print newspaper plays in determining the daily rhythms of its journalism, while maintaining it as a valuable attraction to readers.

“Our future is much more digital than print, and so the question then becomes how do you accomplish both of these at once?” Mr. Leonhardt said. The goal, he added, is to “make sure the print newspaper remains valuable and excellent today but doesn’t get in the way of the digital changes that we need to make.”

To that end, the report calls for a dedicated, autonomous team focused on putting together the daily print newspaper. (The Times has already introduced this concept, with the so-called print hub.)

The report, Mr. Leonhardt said, was written for The Times newsroom, but it could end up providing guidance for other news organizations facing similar challenges. The company is also releasing the report publicly.


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