The New York Times’ “innovation report” leaked earlier this month has caused quite a stir. After all, it recommends a “digital first” strategy, breaking down the “wall of separation” between the newsroom and the business office, and proposals for “audience engagement.” Just the thing to stir up journalists threatened by digital change to the legacy media business model.
The report was well received by many (https://mostlymodernmedia.wordpress.com/2014/05/16/the-leaked-new-york-times-innovation-report-is-one-of-the-key-documents-of-this-media-age-nieman-journalism-lab/; http://www.buzzfeed.com/mylestanzer/exclusive-times-internal-report-painted-dire-digital-picture ), condemned by some (http://www.politico.com/magazine/story/2014/05/the-new-york-times-innovation-report-is-a-disaster-107041.html#.U4X9uC8ow4p) ; and tolerated as a good prescription for the inevitable by most (http://ajr.org/2014/05/19/new-york-times-innovation-report-digital-news/).
Columbia University’s Emily Bell argued in Columbia Journalism Review (http://www.cjr.org/behind_the_news/nyt_innovation_report.php) that the report underemphasized the requirements to change newsroom journalists’ thinking. The report, she says, “is an earnest and laudable attempt to square the circle of introducing a rapid and lasting culture of change whilst remaining, at core, the same. How can it be more like BuzzFeed but not actually BuzzFeed?
“Swapping story thinking for platform thinking is a critical challenge for the best journalists,” she says. It creates “explanation fatigue…. you have to explain the original wheel’s reinvention every day, in different ways, to every person who is not ‘up to speed.’”
I think she is right. But, to me, the entire discussion, by admirers and critics alike, misses a deeper, more urgent story at the heart of the change journalism faces:
Digital is the symptom, not the problem.
Reader dissatisfaction with journalism has grown since the 1970s. Newspaper readers have been fleeing to television, cable, specialized magazines, and even the trade press for decades. Digital provides only the last, best alternative for readers searching for connection, while newspapers steadily aligned themselves more and more closely to their sources, their sponsors, and their economic interests.
The story of 20th century journalism was to improve quality reporting at the expense of reader connections. The result was a steep decline at the end of the century in credibility, relevance, and trust among readers.
The New York Times Innovation Report hints at the problem, audience engagement, while missing the underlying demand, interactive discourse. “A more reader-centric approach to packaging and surfacing our journalism offers a huge opportunity to extend our reach,” the report asserts. “Exploiting better web and mobile tools will also help us get each story to every reader who might want to see it.”
The thrust of the report’s recommendations to “grow the audience” focuses on getting what the Times produces to that audience more efficiently, not on reexamining what the Times produces or how it decides what to produce. This misses the digital lesson. The audience has fled newspapers for other media forms, including digital, because it wants to participate in the conversation about what news is and how it is covered.
Discourse is a two-way conversation, even when it is mediated. The tremendous resources and talent at The New York Times could engage readers in that conversation better than any other medium. But it would need to open itself to real discourse is its readers. Digital platforms can power that discourse. But that means far more than “reaching” the audience. It must be more about “listening” and “hearing” the audience–engaging in discourse with the audience.
The “explanation” the Innovation Report needs to offer newsroom journalists is not just an education in digital tools, it is a fundamental reorientation to substantive engagement in discourse and shared decision making with the Times’ most important partners: its readers.
It’s a lesson the “innovation report” would do well to offer the field.