The New York Times Innovation Report

Buzzfeed got a hold of a 96-page report on the state of innovation at The New York Times, prepared by a select group of the company’s staffers and intended for internal distribution only. It’s a refreshingly frank analysis of the organization’s increasingly difficult challenges, which, for my money, are best summarized in this passage from page 81:

In the coming years The New York Times needs to accelerate this transition from a newspaper that also produces a rich and impressive digital report to a digital publication that also produces a rich and impressive newspaper. This is not a matter of semantics. It is a critical, difficult, and at times, painful transformation that will require us to rethink much what we do every day.

Our leaders know this and we have taken steps in these directions. But it has become increasingly clear that we are not moving with enough urgency. This may be the single most important long-term challenge facing the newsroom and its leaders.

There are factors that, understandably, slow this tricky transition. More than three quarters of our advertising and subscription revenue still comes from the newspaper, and most of our employees have spent their careers building skills to succeed in print. But the huge majority of our readers are digital, and this represents our single biggest opportunity for growth.

As a business, this is an extremely difficult balancing act. It is just as tricky for the newsroom. The experience of putting out the newspaper informs almost every element of how we do our jobs, from the people we hire to how they work to what they produce. These assumptions — based on the newspaper’s fixed dimensions and hard deadlines — are so baked into our days that it is easy to overlook their artificial limitations or the new possibilities we could embrace.

It has become increasingly clear that we are not moving with enough urgency. That’s been true for years, and it was exactly my experience while employed there. To be sure, for a company founded in 1851, The Times has done a remarkable job navigating the turbulent digital landscape, but there’s no prize for best 19th Century enterprise still operating in the 21st Century.

It’s interesting to note that, though the leaked copy of the report is just a photocopy, it’s obvious that it was expertly and even lavishly produced. Its layout, typography, content packaging and pacing are practically magazine-like, for better or worse. On the one hand, the report is beautifully written and impeccably presented; it’s a testament to the thoroughness of the company’s culture. On the other hand, it’s also symptomatic of The Times’ predicament that it requires this frankly extreme level of formality and production to effectively communicate what has been obvious to many, many people both inside and outside the building for years. An email wouldn’t do?

Nevertheless, as I skimmed through the report this afternoon, I found myself gratified to read its findings, even though there’s nothing truly new in its content. I still root for the company’s success, now as I did while an employee. Had it been released while I was working there, I can imagine it would have given me reason to feel optimistic that a moment of meaningful change had arrived. Of course, in and of itself the report is merely symbolic; what matters is how the company chooses to act on it.

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