The New York Times’ remarkable corporate self-criticism

Image: Newspaper Death Watch

While The New York Times may be the most successful news organization on the planet, it faces the existential threat of digital disruption. This, as Clayton Christensen would say, is a recipe for disaster. But maybe not. The Times’ 2020 Group has published a manifesto for change. The cogent self-criticism in this document is amazing. Learn from it.

The Times’ management assigned a team of reporters led by David Leonhardt to determine the organization’s best path forward. The result is a 10,000 word report, “Journalism That Stands Apart,” an honest assessment of the organization’s current position, future trends, challenges, and recommendations. Anyone who cares about journalism, business models, clarity, and analytical thinking — that is, all of my readers — ought to have a close look at this document.

How to criticize yourself productively

While this piece is full of good ideas, I’ll concentrate on the self-criticism.

The audience for this report is both internal and external. Clearly, the authors must tread carefully, because “we’re screwed” is not a message that the hundreds of reporters at the Times will embrace. So naturally, the criticism is wrapped in passages explaining what the Times does well and what its strengths are. The message is exactly appropriate — how to turn those strengths into assets for a robust digital news organization.

This is a very hard thing to do; at large, proud organizations, inertia is a formidable force. So the self-criticism in this piece has to be well-reasoned, fair, and analytical rather than impassioned or personal.

Let’s take a look at the passages of self-criticism and why they work well. Start with these overarching statements:

The idea that The Times must change can seem daunting and counterintuitive. We continue to be the most influential news organization in the country, with a large and growing group of loyal readers. But the notion of a changing New York Times is not new. The institution’s great success over the past century has depended on its ability to change.

For The Times to become an even more attractive destination to readers — and to maintain and strengthen its position in the years ahead — three broad areas of change are necessary. Our report must change. Our staff must change. And the way we work must change.

We have not yet created a news report that takes full advantage of all the storytelling tools at our disposal and, in the process, does the best possible job of speaking to our potential audience. More of our journalism needs to match what a large and growing number of curious and sophisticated readers have told us they value most — distinctive journalism, in a comfortable form, that expands their understanding of the world and helps them navigate it. Our work too often instead reflects conventions built up over many decades, when we spoke to our readers once a day, when we cultivated an aura of detachment from them and when by far our most powerful tool was the written word. To keep our current readers and attract new ones we must more often apply Times values to the new forms of journalism now available to us.

Note how these passages couch the self-criticism as “we are good, and must be better,” with an explanation of why things are the way they are. A message written this way has the greatest chance of gaining acceptance and then actually creating change.

What’s wrong with the Times’ daily reporting

The first thing the 2020 team takes on is “the report” — that is, the content the paper produces every day. Here’s a clear-eyed perspective on what’s wrong with it in a digital world.

The Times publishes about 200 pieces of journalism every day. This number typically includes some of the best work published anywhere. It also 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.

We devote a large amount of resources to stories that relatively few people read. Except in some mission-driven areas or in areas where evidence suggests that the articles have disproportionate value to subscribers, there is little justification for this. It wastes time — of reporters, backfielders, copy editors, photo editors and others — and dilutes our report.

The most poorly read stories, it turns out, are often the most “dutiful” — incremental pieces, typically with minimal added context, without visuals and largely undifferentiated from the competition. They frequently do not clear the bar of journalism worth paying for, because similar versions are available free elsewhere.

This goes completely against the ethos of the newsroom — and yet it is inarguably true. You can’t create change until you attack your cherished, but obsolete, assumptions.

Writers don’t just write

Next, the authors of the report have to tell writers that words aren’t sufficient. That’s one of my principles, too, and it’s a tough message for people to whom words matter a lot. Here’s how the report makes its case:

The Times has an unparalleled reputation for excellence in visual journalism. We have defined multimedia storytelling for the news industry and established ourselves as the clear leader. Yet despite our excellence, not enough of our report uses digital storytelling tools that allow for richer and more engaging journalism. 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. Similarly, when we write about dance or art, our reporters and critics are able to include video or photography but only in a limited way; they lack the proper training to embed visuals contextually . . .

Reporters, editors and critics are eager to make progress here, and we need to train and empower them. “It’s sort of demoralizing to know that your story could be stronger with the help of a graphic,” one reporter told the 2020 group, “but to also know that you will probably receive no help with it.” To solve the problem, we need to expand the number of visual experts who work at The Times and also expand the number who are in leadership roles.

Graphic: New York Times

Parts of the Times need to ask “What the heck are we doing here?”

Do you wonder about why you do your job? If so, is anyone else in your company worried about that? The Times is:

[D]epartments with clear, widely understood missions remain unusual. Most Times journalists cannot describe the vision or mission of their desks, and the identities of those desks remain closely tied to eponymous print sections. Most departments have not made clear decisions about who their primary audience is and and which journalistic forms are a priority (and which are not). Many people in the newsroom are hungry for such clarity and believe it will make them more effective journalists.

Much of the newsroom does not set tangible goals, much less feel accountable for reaching goals. Even those with some access to data are exposed to just a narrow slice of it (like pageviews about individual articles via Stela), and they don’t know what success looks like.

Now we need to take the next steps. The newsroom needs a clearer understanding that pageviews, while a meaningful yardstick, do not equal success. To repeat, The Times is a subscription-first business; it is not trying to maximize pageviews. The most successful and valuable stories are often not those that receive the largest number of pageviews, despite widespread newsroom assumptions. A story that receives 100,000 or 200,000 pageviews and makes readers feel as if they’re getting reporting and insight that they can’t find anywhere else is more valuable to The Times than a fun piece that goes viral and yet woos few if any new subscribers.

Process, not just content, is part of the problem

How does the Times edit? And is that appropriate for a digital product? The authors of the report ask the key questions, and find processes poorly matched to product.

The Times spends too much time on low-value line-editing, such as the moving, unmoving and removing of paragraphs, and too little on conceptual editing and story sharpening, including on questions like what form a story should take. A shift toward front-end editing will need to involve changes in multiple parts of the newsroom, including the copy desk, the backfield and the masthead.

The Times currently devotes too many resources to low-value editing — and, by extension, too many to editing overall. Our journalism and our readers would be better served if we instead placed an even higher priority on newsgathering in all of its forms.

[T]he newsroom’s current organization creates dangers for the print newspaper — and is also holding back our ability to create the best digital report. Today, department heads and other coverage leaders must organize much of their day around print rhythms even as they find themselves gravitating toward digital journalism. The current setup is holding back our ability to make further digital changes, and it is also starting to rob the print newspaper of the attention it needs to become even better.

How to fix your organization

This could be your assignment: figure out what’s wrong with your organization, and determine how to fix it. I’ve been in this position. Even with management support, self-criticism is challenging.

If this is you, learn from what the Times has done here.

  1. Conduct research with your colleagues. Figure out what’s really going on, and where they think the problems are. Sort out the whining from the market-driven insights. Withhold judgment until the facts are in.
  2. Gather internal and external statistics to inform and support your conclusions.
  3. Determine what major changes your will recommend.
  4. Write your report by identifying the problem first, then laying out these major changes.
  5. In that report, clearly identify what needs to change — what’s not working — and how the organization can turn its strengths to those changes.
  6. Use an analytical tone and avoid individual and personal criticism.
  7. Temper optimism with realism. Too optimistic, and you’ll undermine your own case. Too grim, and you’ll demoralize the audience.

Organizational change is hard. Self-criticism is hard to write. And as the Times will soon find out, it’s even harder to actually turn it into meaningful change.

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