By JOE POMPEO / politico.com
This summer, The New York Times is ushering in a transformation more radical than it has seen in almost half a century, perhaps since the great Abe Rosenthal overhaul of the 1970s, which created the wide-ranging, multi-section Times we know today.
Fuente original: New York Times braces for big change- POLITICO Media.
Back then, the Times was grappling with economic headwinds and the rise of TV. Now the Times—like all newspapers—is grappling with economic headwinds and the rise of the smartphone, and its future is on the line once again.
“The Times has changed enormously in the past few years, but it still hasn’t changed enough,” said David Leonhardt, a prominent economics columnist who is overseeing a sweeping strategic review by a team of seven Times journalists known as the 2020 Group, a sort of advisory committee for executive editor Dean Baquet. “That’s why he thinks we need to do this.”
In a staff memo last month, Baquet warned that the newsroom “will have to change significantly—swiftly and fearlessly.” Some of these changes are already coming into focus, from a big reimagining of the metro section (“what a New York report should look like for a news organization that is increasingly international”), to a complex reorientation of how the print edition is put together. (“Assigning editors, in the very near future, will not worry about filling space.”)
Whether the gravity of many of the prescribed changes has hit home yet for most Times people is up for debate. But Baquet has delivered the message in broad terms.
Swift changes, his May memo said, are necessary for the Times to remain “the world’s premier news organization,” and to not be “left behind” as it tangles with the punishing economics of modern newspaper publishing and an army of digital competitors like nothing the media industry has ever seen. Baquet also confirmed that further cost-cutting is in store for the newsroom.
Fittingly, according to interviews with more than a dozen Times sources, Project 2020 has sent a ripple of anxiety throughout the building. No one really knows what the place is going to look like a year from now, let alone by 2020.
As one source put it: “People want answers to how their jobs are gonna change.”
MORE, BETTER, FASTER
The Times admits it hasn’t adapted quickly enough to survive in a media environment in which everyone’s reading the news on their phones, and where even the most robust print edition can’t make enough money to sustain an army of 1,300 journalists. Layoffs and buyouts have been a familiar reality since 2008—when the economic downturn forced the Times’ newsroom into a mass culling (100 positions) for the first time—even though the creation of new positions has kept the overall headcount mostly flat.
It’s not as if they haven’t been moving in the right direction. Over the past few years, there have been strides in areas like video, graphics and social media, despite high-profile management stumbles like the messy firings of a CEO (Janet Robinson) in 2012 and an executive editor (Jill Abramson) in 2014, both of which laid bare fractious conflicts within the company’s top leadership ranks.
On the business side, the Times’ decision in 2011 to start charging people to read an unlimited number of articles on nytimes.com proved to be a life-saving calculation, bringing the Times more than a million digital-only subscribers to date and nearly $200 million in circulation revenue last year alone.
But the water is rising again and those numbers must grow. Soon, the Times is likely to hit a ceiling on how many people in its existing audience it can convert into paying subscribers. If it can’t get more money out of the same customers, it must find new ones.
That’s what’s behind a plan implemented earlier this year that puts $50 million behind the prospect of getting many new readers to open their wallets in foreign markets, where the Times is creating digital editions tailored to non-Americans.
A unit creating content that might just pass for journalism were it not paid for by advertisers also is making dents in the Times’ march toward $800 million in digital revenues by 2020, an ambitious goal considering digital revenues were just south of $400 million in 2015.
The problem is that while print advertising is still a big slice of company revenues ($441.6 million out of $1.58 billion in 2015), it’s been plummeting year after year as marketers become hotter on digital, and tech giants like Facebook and Google dominate online ad growth.
At the same time, even as web traffic grew (more than 70 million monthly U.S. visitors, according to the latest comScore stats) and readers were turning to mobile devices in droves, the newsroom remained print-centric, driven by an obsession over what stories will appear on A1 day after day.
“We’ve basically been able to make strides on digital just on the sheer force of our journalism,” a senior newsroom source told POLITICO. “It hasn’t been done in a smart way.”
In 2014, a group of Times journalists produced a now famous “Innovation Report” that concluded their employer was doing a poor job distributing its journalism online, especially in those precincts of the Internet that perhaps aren’t crawling with your average Times reader.
If that exercise was about tackling what needs to happen after a story gets published, the 2020 Group is more concerned with the before.
The committee has taken dozens of meetings with people inside the Times and out. Some of the discussions that have played out in those meetings are being put into practice.
Metropolitan editor Wendell Jamieson is working on what he described to POLITICO as a “big reboot” of metro that will “reimagine all of its classic beats” and make the entire section resonate more with readers outside of New York.
“Everyone in the department’s gonna have a new job,” he said, emphasizing that the idea for the pivot originated with metro. “I’m trying to reimagine coverage of what I believe is the greatest city in the world as part of a global news organization. How do you cover New York differently when you’re covering it for the world as well as local readers?”
In the coming weeks and months, astute metro readers will begin to notice the disappearance of various recurring print columns, with the exception of two that are definitely not going away—Jim Dwyer’s “About New York” and Ginia Bellafante’s “Big City”—according to sources familiar with the plans. Authors will be freed up to write on a rolling basis, Jamieson said, so they can go after bigger fish.
“Does the model of a weekly or bi-weekly or twice-weekly column work in the mobile age?” he asked. “It’s really an old daily newspaper confection.”
The plan that’s taking shape, Jamieson continued, “involves using all of the current metro resources and maybe redeploying them. I can see making an argument for more resources, but that’s obviously in the end not my call.”
Perhaps the most seismic change the 2020 Group has been involved in, various sources agreed, is an ongoing revamp of how the daily print edition gets put together.
Some background: Last year, Baquet replaced the Times’ legendary Page One morning editors’ meeting with a 9:30 a.m. meeting to discuss how the biggest stories of the day should be covered and promoted digitally. The discussion of the front-page layout was moved to a 3:30 meeting of several editors led by Susan Chira, one of four deputy executive editors.
In October, Baquet took things a step further by announcing the creation of a centralized “print hub,” led by Tom Jolly, a veteran masthead editor, to take primary responsibility for mapping out the so-called “daily miracle” the Times has been sending to the presses since 1851.
It’s hard to overstate the significance of these moves, because they impact how one of the world’s most influential news sources presents the world’s most important news every day to hundreds of thousands of people who read the Times in print. (That, in turn, explains why print has for so long been an engine for distributing editorial power within the company.)
At the same time, the print hub serves as an acknowledgement that many more millions of readers are seeing the Times’ most important stories on their computers and phones.
The idea is that, instead of editors who are in charge of various coverage areas being focused each day on which of their reporters’ stories will appear in print, and where, and with how much space, these editors will put all of their energy into assigning and editing stories for digital without being bogged down by the evening production process, which becomes the purview of the print hub.
To give an example, the hub could theoretically decide to put a business story in the foreign section if they felt it made more sense for the reader. Likewise, individual desks could lobby for certain stories to be included and the hub could decline, though this wouldn’t happen without discussion and argument.
The Times is still in the process of getting the hub up and running. So far, metro and international have both been incorporated, and all six daily sections are expected to be hubbified by Labor Day, according to Jolly.
But one of the trickiest questions being hashed out in the 2020 discussions, according to sources familiar with the matter, is how autonomous the hub should be.
There are competing theories at play. On the one hand, a completely autonomous print hub is better suited to make dispassionate decisions about what the most important stories from the digital lineup are and how prominently they should be featured in print. On the other, the assigning editors are the ones with the authority to know just how significant certain stories on their beats are. So how much consultation and input should they have into the print placement hierarchy?
“There’s never going to be no consultation. That would be nuts. Unthinkable,” one editor involved in the discussions told POLITICO. “It’s not gonna happen and nobody thinks that. It’s more a question of degree.”
The 2020 Group is also looking at other initiatives already well underway, like the reconfiguration of beat structures (do a bunch of different sections each need their own health reporter?), the international expansion and the growth of video and visual journalism.
Those latter two areas are seen as crucial in the Times’ efforts to make itself relevant to younger readers who’ve probably never had to wipe newsprint ink off their fingertips.
“There’s a new generation,” said Chira, “whose preferences and tastes are very different than the way the Times has always seen itself.”
But in terms of specific conclusions or recommendations for Baquet—like areas where there needs to be more or less investment—Times insiders say it’s all still a bit mysterious. “They’re keeping it close to the vest for a reason,” one editor told POLITICO.
One Friday earlier this month, during two standing-room-only “all-hands” sessions in a 15th-floor conference room, Leonhardt and another member of the group made presentations to help the newsroom understand what they’ve been working on.
It’s not uncommon for these types of conclaves to exude at least a dash of tension in the newsroom. And since the 2020 Group is evaluating ways in which the newsroom needs to change, what it needs to do more of, what it should be doing less of, the assembled reporters and editors might have expected at least one fiery jeremiad about job reductions and resources and the like.
Not this time.
“I was kind of stunned,” said a person who was there. “I expected it to be much more contentious.”
THE NEXT GENERATION
In the midst of all these developments, there’s a sense of growing influence among a cohort of younger Times journalists who have been emerging in crucial newsroom leadership positions—people in their 30s and 40s like Leonhardt, for example, or Lydia Polgreen (global); Alex MacCallum (video); Steve Duenes (graphics), to name a few.
Not to mention the fifth-generation members of the Sulzberger family that controls the paper—Arthur Gregg Sulzberger (lead architect of the Innovation Report) and Sam Dolnick (who drove the Times’ splashy foray into virtual reality journalism), both of whom have moved into top digital roles. (A third cousin, David Perpich, is a prominent figure on the business side.)
“The younger generation is really starting to become assertive,” said a veteran Times source. “Their desire for change is so apparent. It just feels like their presence is—it feels more palpable. They are in charge of the digital revolution.”
Closer to the top of the masthead, the two names that tend to come up most during parlor games about who will replace Baquet a few years down the line are international editor Joe Kahn and digital platforms editor Cliff Levy. (One source suggested they’ve both become so important that to not mention them in this article would be a glaring omission.) The wild card, of course, is James Bennet, who in March re-joined the Times as editorial page editor, 10 years after he left to become editor of The Atlantic.
Of course that’s all a bit premature. The Times has lots to figure out before it figures out who its next executive editor should be.
Baquet has said the 2020 Group will wrap its exercise by the end of summer, at which point he should also presumably have the insight he needs to make some tough but inevitable staffing decisions. In the meantime, management is in the process of finalizing yet another round of voluntary buyouts, which will also inform how much blood may need to be spilled in the not too distant future.
Leonhardt wouldn’t discuss how his committee’s conclusions may or may not influence potential decisions about cuts. But he did offer something that might at least help calm the newsroom’s nerves: “Our work is much more focused on the more than the less.”