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What if Quality Journalism Isn't?

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Written by on June 12, 2014

By now you have probably already read the leaked Innovation Report from The New York Times. And if you haven't, you should. It provides a great overview of the challenges and thinking that are happening in the industry, not just for The New York Times, but for every newspaper and magazine.

To very quickly summarize it, The New York Times has had a ton of success with its digital subscriptions, but despite that, is facing a continual decline in digital traffic.

And like all other media companies, they blame this on the transformation of formats and a failure to engage digital readers.

They say the solution to this is to develop more digitally focused 'growth' tactics, like asking all journalists to submit tweets with every article, be smarter about how the content is presented and featured, and generally focus on optimizing the format for digital.

The NYT Innovation Report details all of these things in a very nice and comprehensive way. There are many good suggestions in it (and some rather pointless ones).

However, The New York Times then goes on to make exactly the same mistake as the rest of industry. They absolutely and totally refuse to even consider a change in their editorial focus. We see this quite clearly from the very beginning. In the Executive Summary, they start with this (my emphasis):

The New York Times is winning at journalism. Of all the challenges facing a media company in the digital age, producing great journalism is the hardest. Our daily report is deep, broad, smart and engaging - and we've got a huge lead over the competition.

At the same time, we are falling behind in a second critical area: the art and science of getting our journalism to readers.

First Look Media and Vox Media are creating newsrooms custom-built for digital. The Guardian and USA Today have embraced emerging best practices that have helped grow readership. And Huffington Post and Flipboard often get more traffic from Times journalism than we do.

In contrast, over the last year The Times has watched readership fall significantly. Not only is the audience on our website shrinking but our audience on our smartphone apps has dipped, an extremely worrying sign on a growing platform.

Our core mission remains producing the world's best journalism. But with the endless upheaval in technology, reader habits and the entire business model, The Times needs to pursue smart new strategies for growing our audience.

This is something I hear from every single newspaper that I talk with. They are saying the same thing, which is that their journalistic work is top of the line and amazing. The problem is 'only' with the secondary thing of how it is presented to the reader.

And we have been hearing this for the past five to ten years, and yet the problem still remains. There is a complete and total blind spot in the newspaper industry that, just maybe, part of the problem is also the journalism itself.

Instead, they move the problem out of the editorial room, and into separate and isolated 'innovation teams'... who are then charged with coming up with ideas for how to reformat their existing journalistic product in a digital way.

But let me ask you this. If The NYT is 'winning at journalism', why is its readership falling significantly? If their daily report is smart and engaging, why are they failing to get its journalism to its readers?

If its product is 'the world's best journalism', why does it have a problem growing its audience?

You see the problem here? The New York Times is contradicting itself in the very introduction of its innovation report.

You can't be the world's best and fail at the same time.

Again, I hear this from every single newspaper I talk with. Each one is 100% totally convinced that there is nothing wrong with their journalistic product, and are instead pointing their finger at anything they can think of outside it.

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Thomas Baekdal

Thomas Baekdal

Founder of Baekdal, author, writer, strategic consultant, and new media advocate.

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