New York Times digital report highlights obstacles all content managers have faced

An internal New York Times report that sets out the papers’ vision for digital innovation was leaked to Myles Tanzer at Buzzfeed, who is quite scathing in his appraisal. (A shorter version of the report was leaked last week). Neilson Journalism lab is calling it a “key document of this media age.” Naturally my interest was piqued… So, what does it tell us?

Given that it wasn’t meant to be shared externally the report is refreshingly honest about the paper’s digital weaknesses. Many of the problems besieging the Times have been faced by anyone producing digital content today – either in a newsroom or for the third sector. Maybe you faced and overcame them 3 years ago, but they still sound familiar.

Here are some things that resonated with me (mostly based on this Nielson Journalism lab article which is a long, but good, guide to the report, with small forays into the report itself.)

Digital staff feel their skills are undervalued and misunderstood

The research shows a real split at the Times between editorial and digital with editors seeing technical developers as being on a different team – that they don’t want to spend time with. In fact some developers quit the paper because they weren’t allowed to join the editors’ brown bag lunches.

This may be less of a problem in some third sector teams and organisations, but, in my experience, this still happens.

Different views of roles and responsibilities

Many journalists and editors don’t see their role as one of promoting their content – but the NYT management sees this differently and wants editors to have a “tool box” of promotional tactics in future. Can the editors be convinced that promotion is part of their role?

What’s our strategy?

As content producers, we all feel like we’re on a treadmill of production with no time for strategy. So I found it bizarrely reassuring to find that even Times staffers feel this way – too caught up in the daily grind of producing the paper to think about strategy.

Some of their big digital projects were even launched without goals or metrics to measure success.

The homepage isn’t that important

Despite knowing this, the Times still devotes a lot of time to deciding on the key stories for the paper (A1) and homepage.

This is true of most websites. Traffic is increasingly coming through sub pages found through search – so those pages need to have good content with strong links and navigation to the rest of the site.

The paper is planning on making it possible for audience’s to customize the homepage, based on their key interests in future.

Tagging IS important

Early on, the Times didn’t understand the importance of consistent meta-tagging, which makes it difficult to collate relevant content on topics their readers are searching for. It took them seven years to tag stories “September 11”. And they still don’t tag consistently.

I found this very, very surprising. It’s relatively easy to introduce and so important for finding and collating content.

Curating, repackaging and reusing old content works

The Times has archives dating back to 1851. The report says they should be using those resources to produce content that relates to key moments in their editorial calendar (they refer to the release of 12 Years a Slave as one such moment).

The report suggests they could do more to curate and repack content, like this Flipboard of Times obituaries, which was produced by Andrew Phelps, assistant editor at the Times, but not on the NYT site. That’s a shame because it was popular but the paper didn’t benefit from the traffic generated.

Many third sector organisations have content that can be re-used – but sometimes it feels easier to create new stuff, than to find (it’s in a small mildewed box in the basement) and repurpose the old. But this may not be as effective.

This Nielson Journalism lab sums up key points from the report

Buzzfeed: Times report paints dire digital picture

Full innovation report