The New York Times Innovation Report: The Cliff Notes

The New York Times Innovation Report: The Cliff Notes

If you are in digital publishing and haven’t heard about the New York Times Innovation Report, well, maybe you aren’t really in digital publishing. I’m kidding. But, chances are you’ve heard about it but didn’t have time to read all 90 pages. No worries, here are the critical things that the New York Times thinks it should be doing and, by inference, you should too.

The Report

Digital upstarts like the Huffington Post and BuzzFeed have long surpassed the Times in Web traffic and reader engagement all while offering inferior journalism. To add insult to injury, these outfits regularly scoop the Times, driving more traffic to their stories based on New York Times content than the original New York Times content itself. The Times’ Report was thus commissioned internally to take a closer look at what the paper has been doing wrong online.

Let’s look at one quick example that pretty much sums up much of the Times’ online challenges. On the night of the Oscars, the Times tweeted a link to a 161-year-old story from its archives about the person who inspired the film “12 Years a Slave”. Gawker then wrote a story about the Times story, driving huge amounts of traffic to its post — far more than the New York Times did to its own. In fact, according to the Report, it was one of Gawker’s most widely read stories of the year.

Along these same lines, how ironic is it that the “Innovation” report was made public not by the New York Times but by Buzzfeed? You get the picture.

The Gist

So, what are these organizations doing right and the Times doing wrong? Unfortunately, growing readership and engagement is not as black and white as that. Still, there are strategic and tactical approaches you can use to benchmark your own efforts. Be forewarned, however, that many of these items cannot be pursued without the others. For instance, data structuring is a necessary precondition for harvesting evergreen content. But I digress. Let’s get to it.

The New York Times Innovation Report: The Cliff Notes

How the Times focuses its efforts (top) and how its competitors do (bottom).

1. Stop focusing on content

This might seem counter-intuitive to some and totally obvious to others, but the fact is pumping out more content is not going to save you. And making every article worthy of the Pulitzer prize is not going to save you. This isn’t to say, “make crappy content.” But it does mean to compete online you need to focus on optimizing your workflow, user experience and technology platform as much as, if not more than, quality content.

In practice this means you need to optimize each story for search engines and social promotion, continually redesigning user experiences that don’t work and working like mad to improve your CMS. And, you should have a digitally native team—or at the very least an individual—in a position with enough authority to coordinate, manage implement your digital strategy across your business.

The New York Times Innovation Report: The Cliff Notes

An example of a collection of New York Times evergreen content: "Inside the Brothels."

2. Harvest evergreen content

The Times’ is just now waking up to the fact that it has a veritable gold mine — indeed, a mother lode — of old content that it can resurface at key moments.

If you are like most publishers, it’s likely you too have a treasure trove of evergreen content that you can resurface at little or no additional cost. It’s just as likely, though, that your site content is organized around publication date, which means that users can only find that content by browsing in reverse chronological order or by performing a search. In practice, that means most of this still-relevant content is never read after its initial publication.

As a remedy, the Report suggests mining your own database of articles to see if you can repurpose old content. Something that you don’t find relevant may actually be meaningful to someone else. Maybe it’s not “what’s new” but “what’s new to someone now,” says Sasha Koren, a social editor at the Times.

The Report also suggests curating evergreen content into “collections” organized around themes, topics, authors, etc. In practice, that means creating landing pages around collections or themes that are separate from section pages organized by publication date. This will make it a lot easier for users to find articles on your site, breathing new life into parts of your article database.

One of the key advantages of re-harvesting old content is that it’s already been edited so the additional effort required to resurface it is marginal at best. Some investment may be necessary upfront to get your UX and CMS up to speed, however.

The New York Times Innovation Report: The Cliff Notes

The New York Times’ Dialectic Quiz from December 2013.

3. Think in “templates”

Another key lesson is the importance of creating repeatable publishing formats and scalable CMS tools as opposed to intensive one-off efforts.

This may seem obvious to many of us that are use to thinking about Web development as the creation of a series of templates but it’s interesting that the Times is just waking up to this.

In December 2013, the Times’ published a quiz testing users’ dialects based on different terms and pronunciations used across the US. It quickly become the Times’ most trafficked Web page ever with per 21 million visits. The Times spent months after that debating internally how to best build on that success. By contrast, Buzzfeed wanted to incorporate an interactive gaming element into its user experience and aggressively focused on fine-tuning a template for quizzes—now one of the hallmarks of the site.

Similarly, the Times poured an enormous amount of resources into it’s Pulitzer Prize-winning multimedia story entitled “Snowfall” about an avalanche in Washington’s North Cascades. But it never standardized this multimedia story format by creating similar functionality as part of its CMS. Competitors, on the other hand, are doing just that:

“We are focused on building tools to create Snowfalls everyday, and getting them as close to reporters as possible,” Kevin Delaney, editor of Atlantic Media’s innovative news site, Quartz is quoted in the Report as saying. Indeed, clients have been asking AREA 17 for Snowfall-like functionality since the appearance of the Times’ groundbreaking story.

4. Think of your Content Management System (CMS) as a competitive advantage

To succeed in publishing today, you may have to have more in common with a tech startup than an old media outfit. The Report argues that your technology platform is a competitive advantage (or disadvantage as the case may be). The Report cites the Times’ Dave Carr, who argued that technology was a main reason why a prominent journalist left the storied Washington Post for an upstart like Vox Media:

“In digital media, technology is not a wingman, it is The Man. How something is made and published is often as important as what is made.”

Many of the concrete ideas mentioned in the Report cannot be integrated into a CMS without a first class development team to make it happen.

This is an important point, especially if you are considering a Website redesign. If most of your resources for the redesign are focused on the front end (the UX design and HTML/CSS programming) and not enough on the back-end build, then you may not reap the rewards of doing the redesign in the first place. You need to make sure that you have enough resources in place to bring the experience to life. If you don’t and the platform does not perform the way it was designed to, you will end up alienating users more than attracting them.

5. Market every article, and build this process into your workflow

The Report stresses the importance of meeting your readers where they spend their time. Users increasingly do not browse home pages and much of Web traffic to news sites is referral traffic from search and social media. This means that publishers have to to engage in a number of marketing tactics for each and every article they post:

    Optimizing headlines for search engines and social media
    Promoting articles through Facebook posts and Twitter updates
    Reaching out to influencers on social networks and blogs
    Analyzing how articles perform and repositioning laggards

Many of the Times’ competitors have made these tactics an integral part of their newsroom operation, baking them right into their workflows. At digitally native shops like Huffington Post, every article is marketed separately and the life of the article is “just beginning” once the author hits “publish.” The HuffPo, doesn’t publish a piece unless it has an accompanying photo, Tweet, Facebook Post and search-optimized headline. ProPublica develops a PR campaign for each story it publishes with input from different members of its SEO team and reporters are required to Tweet a link to each article they write at least five times. On the analysis side, Reuters has a small team responsible for looking for and finding up to seven interesting but poorly performing articles a day and repositioning them with better headlines and social promotion.

The New York Times Innovation Report: The Cliff Notes

An example taken from the report of how “following” functionality might work.

6. Make it personal

One of the more interesting proposals in the Report was an emphasis on personalizing the user experience. On the one hand, this can be done either by the platform itself, which optimizes content for a logged in user based on what it knows about his or her preferences and reading habits.

Personalization can also mean allowing the user to choose what kind of articles they want to see and how they see them. A registered or paying user could be given the option of curating their own newsfeed by “following” topics, columnists, and developing story streams. When a columnist publishes an article, for example, all users following that author would receive the story to their user inbox hosted on the platform, to their email or to their phones. What’s different about this from the Times’ current alert system is the design. It’s intuitively and seamless integrated into the reading experience (see the diagram above) in a way that makes it easy for the user to personalize their account as they use the site.

Over time, this should go along way toward getting users to come back to the site. Since we know that users are increasingly less likely to come to your site on their own, this is another way to prompt them. It’s also likely to mean that when they do come to your site, they will spend more time since you are sending them content they have indicated they are particularly interested in.

Building this sort of functionality might seem like a no brainer and a critical means to build a competitive advantage with your publishing platform but all too often we see a number of clients forgo this strategy.

The New York Times Innovation Report: The Cliff Notes

Tags in ESPN’s new feed-based soccer site. Notice the use of quizzes in the following story.

7. Tag your content

Structuring your data and creating meta tags for each piece of content in your database may not sound like fun but it’s one of those critical components that makes some of the other ideas in the Report possible. Meta data allows you to better organize your content, locate it and know what it’s about. For example, tagging allows you to sort and group your content, which is critical to creating personalization and following functionalities as well as the evergreen content collection pages discussed earlier in this article.

Tagging also also allows you to serve content based on location to GPS-enabled smart phones. Some online publications such as Circa go as far as to tag facts, quotes and statistics so that they can be searched and resurfaced for other articles.

Although boring, tagging may work wonders for your evergreen content. Times’ recent effort to tag its recipe database increased traffic to its recipe pages by a whopping 52 percent.

8. Become an editorial platform

One last key take away from the Report is the idea of harnessing user generated content. New digital publishers like the Huffington Post and Seeking Alpha and have grown exponentially because they serve as a platform for commentary, essays and comments (indeed, sometimes the comments are smarter than the commentary) from their user base. Old media titan Forbes magazine has made this a hallmark of its digital strategy with great success and the report claims that other traditional media like CNN and the Wall Street Journal are also adopting this strategy.

The Times believes that user submitted content is a low cost way of generating more content and traffic in addition to deepening loyalty among its audience. It says honorariums could be as low as $150 per article. The Times has an advantage in this area in that it receives numerous high quality submissions that never see the light of day in the printed paper or online. But upstarts like the Huffington Post at one time in the recent past had no brand equity and were able to break out thanks, in a large part, to this strategy.

If you are an old media publisher, chances are that you too have a community from which you can draw quality content in exchange for the “imprimatur” of your brand. Maybe you are already doing this but should considering growing your effort.

Summing it all up

The Times’ Innovation Report gives us a good summary of what’s working for the most successful digital publishers today. Most, if not all, of these ideas are being implemented aggressively and across the board by all the most innovative players in today’s publishing landscape. Ignore them at your peril.