The New York Times Sets the Course in a New World

 

“There’s still a lot of work to do, and it’s a scary world.” Thus Michael Golden, vice chairman of The New York Times Company, publisher of the homonymous newspaper. In an interview with Argentine newspaper La Nación, Golden redefines his storied employer. “We are not a newspaper with a website,” he says. “We are a digital communication media company that publishes a newspaper.” At some point, he predicts with certainty, the newspaper will stop printing and will become digital only.

Golden warns that there is no silver bullet to cope with the challenges that the Internet era and the new technologies have ushered in for traditional journalism. Yet, against all odds and expectations, the company’s paywall paid off. The New York Times is now set to count about one and a half million subscribers by the end of the year.

The paradigm has been inverted. Big advertising, in which a handful of people made decisions on large investments, can no longer be counted on. Instead, The New York Times puts its faith on small economic decisions by many people.

Further, the newspaper’s income from online and print subscriptions is on the rise as advertising revenue keeps dropping. Still, it is not a model that can guarantee “quality journalism.” That casts a dark cloud over the reliability of information audiences have come to expect.

While he insists that there is no “one-size-fits-all” solution for newspapers, Golden points out a few patterns that apply to the industry across the board.  They can be summed up in three principles: the future of newspapers is fully digital; the larger the audience, the better; and, capturing these readership is critical. Take it from a newspaper that has been around since 1851.

The Lost Generations of Journalism

 

As is often the case with book authors, Scott Reinardy too had something else in mind when, more than a decade ago, he set out to write on the state of newsrooms across the States. He encountered ravaged newsrooms and journalists near breaking point, professionally and mentally. The combined effect of the Internet and social networks, and the downsizing the massive restructuring implied, has brought three generations of journalists to their knees.

In an interview with the Columbia Journalism Review, Reinardy said, “I had many journalists who broke down and cried, who were so genuinely upset about what had happened to the profession they loved so dearly.” Reluctantly, he came to the conclusion that we are witnessing what he called “organizational depression.” So low is morale and so deep the loss of self-identity that professional burnout has caused that Reinardy believes the problem is generational. And so he states in Journalism’s Lost Generation: The Un-Doing of U.S. Newspaper Newsrooms.

There are three “lost” generations, he says. The first one are those journalists who lost their jobs in the layoffs, cuts, and newspaper shutdowns. Then are the older generation of journalists, those who made their career in print media and now, in much smaller newsrooms, have seen their workload rise. More acutely, they are being forced to learn new technologies in mid-career or as they approach retirement. The last one are the younger journalists and graduates, who are versed in multimedia and new technologies but miss the guidance by their confused or demoralized elders.

Dismal as the situation is, a few things can be done to address these issues. Indeed, the upheavals brought about by fundamental technological transformations will inevitably cause pain. Yet not a few of these problems are caused by panicked management that does not fully understand the changes the industry is undergoing.

Furthermore, as modern technologies allow real-time measurements, instant clicks are obscuring the larger picture. Hence, an appetite for instant audience is undermining the long-term perspective. Worse, the onus is put on older reporters who are as dazzled by technology as management. And the younger writers lack a sense of guidance and purpose.

The tenets of good journalism are unchanged: pursuit of truth, impartiality in news, and integrity in opinion. None of the new technologies conspires against that. So good journalists should keep on doing what they know best: doing good journalism. True, these are tough times. But as they say in those cases, “When you reach the end of your rope, tie a knot in it and hang on.”

 

Listen to your Readers: They are your Best Friends

Liz Spayd, the new public editor of The New York Times’, took a lot of heat for her first column in the storied newspaper. Her column’s title speaks for itself: “Want to Attract More Readers? Try Listening to Them.” Expressions of contempt were not late in coming. Surprisingly, MIT Technology Review Editor Jason Pontin labeled Spayd’s article a “disastrous first outing.” According to Slate, it was “phony populism.” Perhaps critics can be commended for their honesty. Yet this attitude is surprising, to put it mildly. Readers have always been the raison d’être of newspapers. There is a practical problem in engagement with the audience: the sheer volume of comments and interaction. Then there is the issue of incivility. Studies, however, have shown that incivility decreased by at least 17 percent when a known reporter interacted with readers. They were also more likely to quote evidence for their comments when someone engaged them at newspaper. There is a powerful reason to engage readers. “What would prove more fruitful is for newsrooms to treat their audience like people with crucial information to convey — preferences, habits and shifting ways of consuming information,” Spayd says. That should help build up a loyal readership, and growth, too.