5 Lessons for Brand Publishers From the NYT Innovation Report

How big a deal is the leaked New York Times‘ innovation report? According to Nieman Lab’s Joshua Benton, it brought at least one Times staffer to tears. The weeper in question cried, as Benton says, “because it surfaced so many issues about Times culture that digital types have been struggling to overcome for years.”

The report is the Times‘ introspective look at how they’re keeping up with the digital world. And the findings aren’t very kind.

“We have always cared about the reach and impact of our work,” the introduction reads, “but we haven’t done enough to crack that code in the digital era. This is where our competitors are pushing ahead of us. … Huffington Post and Flipboard often get more traffic from Times journalism than we do.”

So what lessons can the rest of the publishing world—particularly upstart brand publishers—take away from it? Oh, there’s plenty.

The homepage is dead(-ish)

According to the innovation report, only one third of readers actually visit the homepage, and when they do, they’re spending significantly less time there. Naturally, that revelation sent headlines blaring news of the “death of homepages,” but Poynter’s Sam Kirkland warns that the word “dead” doesn’t really mean “dead.”

“It means a previously dominant force in an industry has lost some influence,” he says. “And that’s definitely true of the homepage.”

So what does the a deadish homepage mean to publishers? Kirkland offers some takeaways. First, that the fact that pageviews have stayed rather steady while homepage visitors has dropped means people have just been getting to content through other channels. But when traffic is referred from social, time spent on each page drops considerably. While social is obviously critical, publishers also need to consider how to keep social referrals on the site longer, as well as how to better measure how they’re engaging with content once they get there.

According to Kirkland, visitors to the Times‘ homepage have dropped 50 percent from 160 million to 80 million since 2011, but 80 million homepage visitors is still nothing to sneeze at. Homepages might be less important, but they’re not yet unimportant.

(Editor’s note: This is something we see at The Content Strategist, too. Only 7 percent of our traffic comes from our homepage, and that percentage has continued to shrink as we’ve grown over 100,000 monthly readers, as our growth is largely driven by social media and email.)

The “Church and State” rule is changing

Perhaps the most shocking revelation in the report is the Times‘ admission that it might be time to acknowledge the wisdom in something other publishers have been buzzing about for years.

“The report also calls for a profound rethinking of the newsroom’s independence from the rest of the company,” writes Myles Tanzer for BuzzFeed, “in order to involve editorial leaders more deeply in technological decisions.”

The crumbling of the church and state standard isn’t news, but coming from the Times, which has long guarded the once-sacred wall between editorial and business, it feels like the proverbial dropping of the last shoe.

“Increased collaboration, done right,” reads the report, “does not present any threat to our values of journalistic independence.’

Journalism skills are not superior to digital skills

The Times, unsurprisingly, has a bias toward journalism skills, and the report calls them out for overvaluing journalism skills for digital hires and undervaluing digital skills in journalists. That imbalance became obvious when the Times tried to recruit Upworthy’s former head of promotion, Michael Wertheim.

“But Wertheim turned it down, saying that for him to succeed, the newsroom would have to be fully committed,” reports Lucia Moses for Digiday. “You won’t believe what happened next: Recommendations also included making star hires and actually showing appreciation for digital stars in the newsroom.”

There’s gold in them thar archives

If great journalism has been the Times‘ strength for more than a century, there’s no reason that storied history shouldn’t remain its strength. Like many traditional publishers that have transitioned to digital, the Times has some serious archives, which they could put to work for them.

“The Times needs to do a better job of resurfacing archival content,” writes Benton.

For example, take when Gawker repackaged a 161-year-old Times story on Solomon Northup, the inspiration for 12 Years a Slave.

“It ended up being one of their best-read items of the year. But little of that traffic came to us,” states the report. “We can be both a daily newsletter and a library—offering news every day, as well as providing context, relevance and timeless works of journalism.”

All publishers have to think digital first

“Competitors from The Washington Post to First Look and Vox Media are thinking digital-first and adopting best practices to grow readership,” Moses writes. “The Times’ audience, meanwhile, is shrinking, not only on the Web but on smartphone [and] its apps, a platform that seems to be growing for everyone else.”

If it wasn’t official before, it is now: digital is not an accessory to traditional publishing. It is publishing. Nothing emphasizes that more than BuzzFeed being listed first on the report’s “competitor cheat sheet.” BuzzFeed—the site of Harry Potter personality quizzes, Pitbull GIFs, and, oh, the story that broke the Times‘ innovation report story. Though the information age only makes up a blip on the timeline of the Times‘ history, the report confirms that it will—and must—drive its future.

And with any luck, it will serve as the Times’ personal pump-up.

Via Buzzfeed… of course

Image via Kyle Clauss

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Image by Kyle Clauss

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