The New York Times innovation report in three takeaways

The New York Times innovation report has been described as one of the most important documents ever for the digital media business.

Given where we are in digital media – a place that has seen media transform greatly in the last five years, yet not at a place that feels settled by any means – that doesn’t seem like an overreaction. The report is a blueprint for how legacy media companies and digital startups will compete on the same digital level going forward.

I spent the last month or so with the report open on my laptop and picked at it sparingly whenever a few minutes allowed until I finished it.

There’s a vast amount of information, and I highly suggest you read through the entirety of the report, but if you don’t have time to get through all 97 pages, I’ve reduced the report down to what I think are the three most important takeaways for those in the digital media business or readers who are just interested in the Internet’s future.

Here is the full report if interested. Now the three main takeaways.

No. 1: Audience development is as vital as the content itself

Legacy media companies have been undercut by digital disruptors not because the latter’s content is consistently better, but because the disruptors have a much better strategy for serving their Web audiences.

There’s a reason Ezra Klein left The Washington Post for Vox.com and David Pogue left The New York Times for Yahoo and sites like BuzzFeed and Upworthy are traffic mongers that have built massive digital audiences in a relatively short amount of time. Those outlets nail down platform and distribution strategies before investing in heavily in higher-quality, original content.

Audience development – how we package content, promote it and get it to users – is becoming just as important as the actual content we produce for digital media. That can be a hard thing to grasp for reporters and editors with traditional sensibilities, and some of the disconnect is driven by pride. If we create a great piece of content, it will be completely appreciated by the audience, right? Not necessarily.

In the digital world, you have to take your content to the audience for it to have success. Readers aren’t guaranteed in this space. The best websites have sound strategies that utilize Twitter, Facebook, email newsletters, mobile alerts and other social sites to corral their audience and drive attention to content. There has to be a relationship between content provider and reader.

One fact drilled home in the NYT’s report is that only a third of digital readers, at best, visit the site’s homepage. Readers aren’t opening a web browser and typing in a URL as much anymore; their habits have changed. They’re perusing social media for links and waiting for content to find them through their channels.

The good news is content has a longer shelf life and can be redistributed when relevant. Most media outlets have archives of that can be repackaged in creative ways (think anniversaries, special dates, news that builds on old developments, etc). We have so much stuff on the Internet, but a very small percentage of it is delivered with context. This is an opportunity and the premise of what Vox.com is trying to achieve.

Personalization and contextual journalism will be important going forward to create two-way relationships with readers, and simple convenience will carry a premium. Readers are inundated with quality content now. It’s vital to have a great marketing and promotion plan driven by social media when rolling out content, because much of your audience is on mobile.

If you take only one thing from the NYT report, I’d suggest it’s the understanding that exceptional content in the digital media era is exceptional ONLY if it’s backed by an exceptional promotional strategy. If not, the content won’t find the audience it deserves.

No. 2: The newsroom can’t be an editorial island

This is more of an organizational thing for those running companies, but it’s just as important.

Traditionally, editorially teams have existed on islands, off by themselves creating content and upholding the standards of Real Journalism while business folks are stuck trying to figure out how to actually make money.

That can’t be the case anymore. There needs to be collaboration between editorial and other groups that directly affect content (product, audience development, business ops, sales, engineers, etc). Yes, the editorial team needs to protect journalistic standards – which may not be of concern to those who don’t have experience in content creation – but there shouldn’t be a stigma that comes with creating content that in conjunction with business goals.

One huge takeaway from the NYT report is the importance of platform innovation and replicability, something sites like BuzzFeed have mastered. Instead of creating one-off pieces of content, those sites have invested in creating tools and platforms that allow the editorial teams to consistently pump out similar content that they know will be successful (a BuzzFeed example would be quizzes).

Infrastructure is often overlooked at the company’s peril, and the digital media business currently is seeing an arm’s race to build the best infrastructure. I don’t get the sense we’re even close to reaching an innovation plateau. To keep innovating, there can’t be barriers between editorial and product, design, technology, analytics, R&D, et al. There needs to collaboration. Strategy teams should be encouraged to best devise how to blend these groups.

It’s natural in the newsroom to get caught in the daily content demands, with the news cycle shrinking vision to the day at hand and little beyond. To compensate, there needs to be people outside the day-to-day editorial operations that can spend time studying the habits of digital audiences and report back to editorial teams.

So to recap: Audience development is just as vital as the content itself, and to maximize audience development, the editorial team has to be integrated with other groups that make the whole business go.

No. 3: Rethink the word “talent”

I have a friend in media who tries to avoid using the word “talent” whenever possible, because he doesn’t like how it’s become a term for writers and on-air folks, thus insinuating that everyone else in media who doesn’t perform one of those two roles isn’t, in their own way, a “talent.”

I don’t take the term that seriously, but I have also wondered at times if it overlooks the incredibly talented people in other parts of the business. With companies now prioritizing digital, the word “talent” is taking on a new meaning.

Digital talent has never been in higher demand, and the value of top digital talent is only going to rise. In this instance, digital talent is not just writers and broadcasters, but also editors, designers, engineers, developers and others.

Because digital content is only as successful as the platform and promotional strategies behind it, the front-facing public talent aren’t the only ones driving the business forward. The best companies are competing for editors with great ideas, brilliant engineers and the like just as much as they’re competing for the people whose names might be more public.

This is an important distinction to make as we move forward. If you presented the folks at BuzzFeed with the option of hiring one writer who will write great stuff but provide little else of value to the company or one editor who will devise promotional plans and formulate ideas for future content tools, all of which will have a much greater reach than just the editor himself, the choice doesn’t seem to be that difficult given the context of where digital media is now.

That’s not meant to devalue the former – you need great writers and content creators of all kinds. It’s just meant to underscore that everything you don’t see from the outside of a digital media company is becoming exponentially more important as the industry evolves.

Email: tmitrosilis@gmail.com Twitter: @TMitrosilis

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