Changing Times: A Look Inside the Transformation of The New York Times

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The New York Times building at night

In late 2015, Dean Baquet, executive editor of The New York Times, assembled a group of seven journalists for an important assignment. At a time of rapid change, how should the newsroom evolve to meet the challenges of the future?

For more than a year, the new 2020 Group worked closely with leadership. They interviewed Times journalists and people outside the company. They questioned long-held assumptions, analyzed reader behavior, conducted focus groups and surveyed the newsroom. Last year, their findings culminated in the 2020 Report, which outlined principles and priorities for the Times editorial vision and strategy.

The New York Times mobile storytelling

The process was an acknowledgement that the times—and the Times—they are a-changing. While still a long-respected and award-winning iconic media brand, it’s no longer the omnipotent News God that blesses you with a sacred scroll on your front lawn every morning. In recent years it’s been embracing and pioneering new forms of multimedia storytelling, designing a more visual and interactive approach while getting closer to readers.

The New York Times T logoWhile the printed newspaper still exists, its emphasis has shifted to real-time reporting and digital engagement, with an agile operation where news and distinctive content are updated around the clock. It’s emphasizing trusted voices and including more perspectives than ever before, including an increased focus on inclusive storytelling, and getting its stories seen (and heard) in different formats like The Daily, one of the most listened-to podcasts in the world. As “above-the-fold” news becomes a relic, news podcasts like The Daily might become, as podcast critic and analyst Nicholas Quah has suggested, “the new front page.”

If you’re wondering whether the 2020 Group’s recommendations and these changes have been helpful, The New York Times Company reported that it had taken in more than $600 million in total digital revenue last year, well on track to hitting an annual digital target of $800 million by 2020.

Jodi Rudoren, the New York TimesOne of the journalists chosen to be on the 2020 Group is veteran Times journalist Jodi Rudoren. As Associate Managing Editor, she leads a team working to grow and engage audiences internationally. She also has editorial oversight of the new Gender Initiative. She spoke with C Space and Interbrand CEO Charles Trevail on the Outside In podcast about the profound changes happening at The Times—in its business and in its journalism, as both get more focused on readers.

—Daniel Sills is the producer for the Outside In with Charles Trevail podcast, which explores the strategies and philosophies of brand leaders and the consumer trends that people need to know.

(This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity. Listen below for the full interview.)

How has The New York Times as an organization changed?

There’ve been two profound changes that have been building for a number of years. One is a business change, which is that journalism is at the center of everything we do. That’s our core product. That’s what we’re selling. We used to sell advertisers on the demographics of our readers. This is a different model. Now we’re trying to sell individual consumers around the world on high quality journalism—signature journalism that stands apart.

The other thing that’s changed massively is the journalistic tools that we have to tell our story and the platforms on which we are being consumed. Because people are now consuming our journalism increasingly on the phone—and, increasingly, throughout the day—we have started to rethink lots of what we do, but not the core values of what we do. We’re still doing the same thing: bearing witness, explaining a complicated world, telling great stories, holding power to account. But we now use a lot more video and graphics and interactive features. And it’s all in service of the same mission.

The New York Times mobile storytelling

Is “fake news” helping or hindering The New York Times brand?

I think the answer has to, probably, be both. A few years ago, we were in a bit of a pickle. The democratization of publishing and platforms, and the idea that basically anybody could write and publish on a flat surface with us, was problematic. There was a sense that people wanted to access everything in its organic form and everything should be equal. That went right at the heart of what we were great at: curation and authority.

The rise of fake news—or the rise of understanding the threat of fake news—has clarified for us, and for the public, our mission and our value. Amid the cacophony of fake news, there’s an understanding that you can’t necessarily trust sources you thought you could trust. You can’t trust Facebook to give you a fair shake at what is real and what is not. The value of a news organization that is trusted and authoritative and independent has gone up. We are all about exposing the truth, even when it’s hard to find or hard to look at. We’re about giving the truth a voice. And when people call us fake news, I think it’s obviously a joke or obviously not true.

Last year, The Times launched the Reader Center, which brings in readers’ feedback and perspectives. What’s a successful piece of content that readers helped co-create?

We just published an amazing project called “Overlooked”—writing obituaries for women who never got them over a 167-year history. We also published a call-out to people to nominate future subjects. We got 2,500 responses in the first few days. People nominated their mothers and grandmothers and great grandmothers. Those nominations are not really people who should get Times obituaries, but there were these amazing stories. So, we published a roundup of people’s stories of their grandmothers through the Reader Center, and it was just so great. It’s the type of thing you just can’t get unless you open yourself up.

What’s changed in how The New York Times measures success?

We used to measure success if the guy you ran into on the elevator said, “Great lead.” If you got on the front page, that was a measure of success. If you were nominated for the Pulitzer, that was the ultimate measure of success. It was really like, if your colleagues said it was good, then it was good.

Now we’re trying to make sure we’re focused on the right data and on the metrics that really matter. The more people engage with our journalism, the more they’re going to like it and understand that it’s worth paying for. One of the things we’re looking at is lines of coverage. How many people are reading our stories about China several times a month, or our stories about opioids in America several times a month? We’re building an audience over time for a signature storyline. We’re looking at a lot of different metrics, but for me it’s really about consistency—people coming back, people beginning to rely on us, and people knowing all the different things we offer them.

Is there a place for AI in the newsroom?

I do think that artificial intelligence has a lot to offer us. I asked Kai-Fu Lee, who is the inventor of China’s internet and knows everything about AI, whether AI was going to make The New York Times obsolete. Couldn’t an AI robot read every article we’ve ever published and then be able to produce them? He assured me that there’s parts of our report and parts of commodity news out in the world that will be AI-able, but not what The New York Times brings.

The greatest promise for AI, I think, is personalizing the vast Times report for different kinds of readers. As we try to grow our audience around the world and try to reach different kinds of people—get more young people to read us, etc.—it’s critical that we have different kinds of curation based on habits, interest, geography, and maybe more than anything, based on their life with The New York Times. We have to figure out a way to differentiate the experience for different kinds of readers, and I think the key to that is going to be AI.


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