Of the many startling claims and findings contained in the New York Times’ Innovation Report perhaps the most stunning is the one broken out above a photo of an empty conference room desk on page 85. It reads, in part, “The newsroom is unanimous: We are focusing too much time and energy on Page One.”
Coming from the Times, the claim is nothing short of remarkable. While newspaper front pages long ago stopped driving the day’s news agenda, A1 of the Times always stood as the exception. As the quote on page 85 goes on to say, “Page One sets the daily rhythms, consumes our focus, and provides the newsroom’s defining metric for success.”
The report’s view of Page One’s waning significance is even more striking when juxtaposed against this quote Dean Baquet, the paper’s new editor, gave to one of his own reporters in an interview: “The trick of running the New York Times is that you have to keep in mind that it is a very powerful print newspaper with a very appreciative audience. You have to protect that while you go out there and get more readers through other means.”
Culturally, the Times’ institutional identity is so tied to Page One that its daily meetings and even a documentary about the paper go by that name. For reporters, being on Page One has long been not just a point of pride, but also a potential career-defining stake in the media ground. Readers remember the bylines under the stories that appear there.
“Most reporters know exactly how frequently they’ve appeared on Page One in the previous year — indeed, annual performance reviews often lead off with that figure,” the report notes.
Juxtaposing the report’s view of print generally and Page One in particular with that of Baquet’s underscores the inherent problems plaguing legacy print news organizations navigating the transition to digital. Baquet clearly loves print, not simply as the anchor to the Times’s business, but also as a preferred method for media consumption. He is one of those legacy editors that thinks improvements to A1 and the overall print product would make it more attractive to young people and restore it to growth.
But it is hard to ignore the creeping ascendance of the future finally beginning to overtake the past in the report’s tone. For the Times to acknowledge that the most coveted piece of journalism real estate for the last 150 years has lost its cultural relevance may end up marking for future media observers the real tipping point, and the beginning of the end of the print edition itself. The report’s overwhelming tone of alarm with regards to digital initiatives being hamstrung by print legacies portends a seismic shift for the Times in both its cultural and business approach to news. There is now, at last, a keen realization that the company can no longer protect its core print business at the expense of digital growth. “It is clear that we are not moving with enough urgency,” the authors write on page 76 of the report. “There are factors that, understandably, slow this tricky transition. More than three quarters of our advertising and subscription revenues still comes from the newspaper … But the huge majority of our readers are digital, and this represents our single biggest opportunity for growth.”
The acknowledgement that the company’s business model is still decidedly slanted toward print is made almost begrudgingly. The authors sound frustrated by the fact that digital consumption of news far exceeds its economics. Everyone knows print dollars are replaced by digital dimes and mobile pennies. And while the report’s authors concede print is still the company’s dominant revenue generator and value proposition, they also seem clearly to be saying that at a certain point in the not-too-distant future it will reach a point of diminishing returns. There is a recognition that the costs of maintaining printing presses, delivery trucks, ink, and everything else that goes into producing a daily paper will surpass the revenue the company generates from it, making the deployment of that money into digital initiatives a better investment.
It resonates on a deeper level than coincidence that the report’s aim of accelerating the institution’s digital transition was authored in part by a fifth-generation Sulzberger clearly eager to pump the gas on his own newsroom ascent. Typically, internal reports such as this are exercises in futility, commissioned for cosmetic appearance and quickly dismissed and wiped away before any of their findings stick. This one, though, comes off as just the opposite, giving the distinct impression that it will provide the digital DNA Sulzberger will attempt to imprint on the organization when he is ready to assume the position Baquet is keeping warm for him.
Reading the report I was reminded of Michael Hirschorn’s controversial Jan, 1, 2009, piece in The Atlantic. Running under the headline “End Times” and coming at the height of the Times’s financial struggles, when it came precariously close to defaulting on its debt obligations and being plunged headlong into bankruptcy, the article asked more seriously than theoretically, “What if the New York Times goes out of business — like, this May?”
That, of course, didn’t happen. But maybe Hirschorn asked the wrong question. Maybe instead of asking if the entire Times company was going away, he should have limited its scope to just the print edition. Back then that, too, would have been dismissed as anathema. Back then there was still a belief that print would be around for generations to come and the company would milk the cash it threw off for as long as it could.
Now, however, the overwhelming sense one gets from the report is that no one inside the company’s Eighth Avenue headquarters believes that anymore — at least, not the people with the last name Sulzberger. Who is ultimately chosen as Baquet’s managing editor will be a telling indication of the company’s long-term view of the printed paper. A digital native would signal in no uncertain terms that the report is being taken seriously as a roadmap for the Times of the 21st century. By contrast, an old school print person would be demoralizing. At least that’s the message inherent in the admission that internally the importance of Page One of the print edition is being overemphasized.
“Our internal fixation on it can be unhealthy, disproportionate, and ultimately counterproductive,” the report cites a Washington reporter who frequently appears on Page One saying. “Just think about how many points in our day are still oriented around A1 — from the 10 a.m. meeting to the summaries that reporters file in the early afternoon to the editing time that goes into those summaries to the moment the verdict is rendered at 4:30 … That doesn’t sound to me like a newsroom that’s thinking enough about the web.”
Reading the report generally, and quotes like that specifically, it’s hard not to wonder how much longer the Times’ print edition has left.