Being the NYT isn’t enough and the magic formula doesn’t exist

by Vincenzo Marino – translated by Roberta Aiello

When the New York Times cuts back

In a note sent to the staff by Executive Editor Dean Baquet, the New York Times announced that it will cut 100 of its employees (out of 1,330) and will withdraw the NYT Opinion application from the market, which was launched only a few months ago. This is certainly the most important news of the week in the world of media. The Times has always been one of the examples to which the newspapers of the world look – both from a journalistic and a commercial point of view. It is the one that most of all, in the last four years, has been a standard-bearer of the paywall which ‘forces’ readers to subscribe in order to guarantee the complete reading of the content of its website. The slow growth of revenue, caused by losses of print subscriptions, new products that “are not achieving the expected success” and a problematic advertising market, “while there are promising signs”, have brought these unexpected measures. A dangerous stalemate has forced drastic and – according to many – inevitable cuts, although Ken Doctor notes that, in a scenario in which all newsrooms are becoming fewer in number, the NYT has a larger staff (+3.4%) compared to three years ago.

In the last few months, the newspaper had decided to launch some apps (Opinion and NYT Now among them) in order to create content for a fee, designed for and fragmented to different niches (a “paywall 2.0“), hoping to reach readers not yet ready to fully embrace the methods of standard membership, and to re-launch itself in the mobile industry. NYT Opinion, however, has not met expectations in terms of subscriptions and revenue. Keeping it alive is believed to be counterproductive. The experiment lasted six months (it will be withdrawn at the end of October) and gave users a daily framework of opinion articles of some noted journalists of the newspaper – Joseph Lichterman and Justin Ellis explain what may have been the cause of this result, including the fact that users had a low propensity to use the application once downloaded (as if to say “the brand is not enough“).

According to John Hermann of The Awl, it was a predictable failure, considering that barely anyone would still pay to read opinions “against the enormous freely available web” (Ken Doctor), moreover, if there was already Times Select in 2007 which worked in a similar way, with the same journalists. It is a different story for NYT Now (previously discussed here) which, despite the satisfactory results of the first few months, seems to have met the demand of a different audience from what the Times had imagined for the app (not young and mobile-friendly, but older and looking for a ‘light’ version, economically less demanding than the newspaper).

«It’s adapt or die»

The need for a change of pace towards digital could already be seen in the so-called “Innovation report” a few months ago, despite the fact that some commentators continue to think of a stronger future for the historic news brands (as compared to the rampant but ‘fragile’ digital natives). It is obvious how the “magic bullet” quoted by Baquet in the note (ie. the weapon able to finally ensure a profitable future for the sector) is still difficult to detect. Meanwhile, the future of the Washington Post, cited several times as an example of immortal palatability of old media compared with the new (in this case Jeff Bezos), seems still quite murky. The Amazon CEO took over the newspaper for $250 million more than a year ago now, but many – interviewed by Dylan Byers of Politico this week – still complain about the lack of a strong initiative. “I have a sneaking suspicion that we’re not going to be delivering The Washington Post by drone,” explains Martin Baron, Executive Director of the Post, as if to say that the priority of Bezos seems to focus on something else. In September, the Post announced its intention to eliminate pension and health care benefits for non-unionized workers of the newspaper.

“It’s adapt or die,” explained the editor of the Financial Times Lionel Barber two weeks ago. A precept that, according to Ken Doctor, would have been combined with four key words: “digital, niche, mobile, paid”, with the recent addition of native advertising, which is growing but is still unreliable. According to data reported by Joe Pompeo of Capital New York, a native advertising can reach hundreds of thousands of views, numbers which could not justify the disbursements of potential advertisers, and are not enough to cover other losses. Edmund Lee of ReCode imagines that a digital only NYT could boast of a business of $312 million (20% of the current sales), of which more than half the proceeds from the advertising market – with a newsroom that could not afford more than 200 journalists. According to Mathew Ingram, the Times needs to review its digital strategy and shift the focus from content, and platforms, to the reader. It should not continue to offer products designed for slices of the public not yet conquered, with various methods of payment, but emphasize the concept of “relationship,” listen to what he market wants and push its individual brands to get involved and become ambassadors of the newspaper (“and then monetize that relationship”).

«Monetize the relationship»

This issue gives the opportunity for Ingram to recall another of the most discussed topics of this week (which, however, still involves the New York Times). It starts with an article by Charlie Warzel of BuzzFeed, in which the writer notices how a large part of the Times‘ staff seems to have no interest in Twitter. Ingram analyzes this symbolic element, wondering whether it is irrelevant or not. The absence on social networks would not only mean a rejection of a tool, but signal a low willingness to discuss, to ‘get one’s hands dirty’ in the online community, and in general to understand that the discussion should not be considered time subtracted from journalistic work, but rather an essential part of it. “Listening is only part of the equation when it comes to engagement,” Ingram explains. It is necessary to respond, to be open to a dialogue, in a clear way, embracing a new kind of journalism that probably will be the only one able to survive..

Thinking about the reader as an actor who is no longer passive in the news process is one of the ideas at the heart of a project that we have followed over the last few months (previously discussed here), and also at the latest edition of the International Journalism Festival in Perugia (the video here). It is De Correspondent, a Dutch online magazine funded with the crowdfunding of its users (members who are involved at multiple levels) and has now celebrated its first year of life. Ernst-Jan Pfauth, one of the founders, has summed up these first twelve months on Medium. 11,000 of the nearly 19,000 initial lenders have already confirmed their subscription (“membership”). A success, according to Pfauth, which derives not only from the proposed work of the last few months (investigative, accurate and quality journalism), but also from the methods through which they have decided to offer the product. The total economic and editorial transparency (the newspaper published a sort of financial statement to explain how the money is spent) and the involvement of the members in the process of building and sharing the news, through a careful analysis of Facebook fans and the impact that De Correspondent has had in journalism and in Dutch society.