Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Rieder: Newspapers' urgent need to innovate

For the past week, the news about the news media, quite understandably, has been dominated by the botched firing of New York Times executive editor Jill Abramson and its toxic aftermath.

But there's also some other New York Times news that has great significance for the future of the embattled newspaper business in the digital age.

The Times' report on innovation, put together by a task force headed by A.G. Sulzberger, son of the newspaper's besieged publisher, has implications that resonate far beyond the Times' midtown Manhattan redoubt. It's must reading for newspaper executives and staffers across the country, and for everyone who cares about journalism.

The ambitious report, posted last week by BuzzFeed, finds that the Times is lagging dangerously when it comes to adapting to the digital future. More broadly, it also shines a bright beacon on the severe challenges facing an entrenched business threatened by massive disruption.

The report makes clear how hard it is for people and institutions to change what they have been doing for years, regardless of the perceived need to do things differently and the rhetoric that accompanies it. And it underscores how difficult it is for established players to compete with nimble new foes unencumbered by the weight of tradition.

The Times has made some great strides in the realm of digital journalism. Its treatment of Snow Fall, its riveting account of a fatal avalanche in Washington state, was a brilliant example of taking advantage of the attributes of the digital platform.

But in many ways, the report states forcefully, the news outlet is hamstrung by its inability to shed the obsession with print habits and customs. A disproportionate amount of time, energy and thinking, for example, is spent on the front page of the next day's newspaper while news is exploding 24/7. The Times' website is organized around print sections.

There is no way to exaggerate the cataclysmic impact the Internet has had on the newspaper industr! y, once made up largely of monopoly businesses with stratospheric profit margins,

Jill Abramson, former executive editor at the New York Times during commencement ceremonies for Wake Forest University May 19.(Photo: Chris Keane, Getty Images)

As is often the case with disruptive challenges, the initial industry instinct was to dismiss the Web, to minimize its ramifications, to write it off as a fad. When it became clear that the digital realm was here to stay, the response too often was to take material from the print product and simply dump it onto the web, completely ignoring the differences between the platforms. There was the deep-seated tendency to hold exclusive stories for print rather than posting them when they were available, for fear of "scooping yourself."

That seems awfully quaint today. We've obviously come a long way. But not nearly far enough. As the Innovation Report states, true transformation into a digital-first entity remains elusive at the Times -- and that's true elsewhere in the financially challenged industry. (The report cites a number of news outlets that it says are making strong digital strides, including digital natives BuzzFeed and The Huffington Post and legacy outfits such as USA TODAY and the Financial Times.)

The tendency at good newspapers traditionally has been to massage stories until they are airtight, and this predilection is mirrored on the business side. Before launching a new initiative, a legacy news outlet wants to make sure it's in tiptop shape. At a start-up, the instinct is to get the thing launched, work on getting it to the "good enough" stage and take it from there. BuzzFeed's evolution is a perfect illustration of that model.

The legacy instinct is commendable, but a for! midable h! andicap in today's hyperquick media environment.

Similarly, the tech world's determination to experiment, its willingness to "fail often, fail quickly," is anathema at more established businesses.

The situation is complicated by the fact that while the media world is evolving quickly, and while advertising revenue has dropped at an alarming rate, newspapers still make the bulk of their money from print.

One of the report's key recommendations is creation of a special digital strategy team that could focus entirely on reinvention for the future without the powerful distraction of daily news demands.

It's a good idea. Newspapers across the country would be wise to heed the report's message and redouble (or retriple) their efforts to forge a powerful, truly digital-first approach. Their survival depends on it.

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