New York Times Eyes Ambitious Overhaul In Quest For 'Journalistic Dominance'

The paper's top editors plan to rethink pretty much everything.

02/04/2016 12:00 pm ET | Updated Feb 05, 2016
ASSOCIATED PRESS
NYT executive editor Dean Baquet says the paper needs to figure out how to apply its "timeless values to a new age."

NEW YORK -- The New York Times, at age 164, has kept pace with today's media upstarts while remaining committed to high-quality journalism. The company admitted its innovation shortcomings a couple years back, but these days the newsroom is rife with experimentation in things like visual storytelling, podcasting, reader engagement and virtual reality.

Now, executive editor Dean Baquet told staff Thursday, "it is time to catch our breath and come up with a shared vision for what our report, and ultimately the New York Times newsroom, should look like in the coming years."

In a memo, Baquet said he will work with top masthead editors to examine the newsroom's structure and that he has tapped David Leonhardt to help lead the effort. Leonhardt, a prominent economics writer and founding editor of The Upshot, was recently named a columnist, but now the start of that column will be delayed until the summer. 

Baquet applauded his staff's recent innovation efforts, but stressed that it's important to figure out what's working and what isn't in order to determine the best course forward. 

"Experimenting with new forms of journalism and presentation has sparked tremendous creativity in the newsroom," he wrote. "But in trying to balance the new and the old, reporters and editors are sometimes left exhausted and confused. Simply put, we keep turning things on -- greater visual journalism, live news blogs, faster enterprise, podcasting, racing against an ever-growing list of new competitors on an expanding list of stories – without ever turning things off."

"We need to develop a strategic plan for what The New York Times should be, and determine how to apply our timeless values to a new age," Baquet added. 

In the memo, Baquet discussed how the Times currently determines which stories should warrant the paper's full arsenal of digital, print and visual resources and whether the current desk structure -- Metro, National, International and others -- is best way to tackle big stories like climate change and education. He posed a number of questions which, presumably, he and others involved will hope to answer in the coming months. 

"We deeply value the craft of editing, but in the digital era should we continue to edit every update of every story at the same level?" he asked. "How much of our coverage is duplicative because we have never resolved overlapping jurisdictions? Which parts of our newsroom have not grown quickly enough? How will the newsroom change as it becomes more internationally focused?"

This deep, structural examination could lead to some cuts. 

The Times has bucked the trend among legacy newspaper companies by maintaining a robust, 1,300-person newsroom -- even after several rounds of layoffs and buyouts. Baquet recently told public editor Margaret Sullivan that "given the reality of the journalism world we’re in, we certainly can’t get any bigger and we probably have to get a little smaller."

In Tuesday's memo, Baquet wrote that the breadth and depth of the staff is "the bedrock of our mission and our business," but acknowledged that the company "has to look for judicious savings everywhere, and that includes the newsroom."

Still, he wrote, "instead of cuts and additions without a clear picture of where we are headed, we want to approach the task thoughtfully, with our mission and values clearly in mind."

"Everything we do must either be part of that mission or help generate the revenue to sustain our journalistic dominance," he continued. "We must turn some things off, and build up the areas that set us apart. We must cast a fresh eye on our coverage to determine whether some of it reflects old habits rather than the urgent goal of telling our readers what they most need to know.

Read Baquet's full memo below:

To the newsroom:

We accomplished so much in the past year. 

Our stories had huge impact on the world. The power of the richest campaign donors is being ferociously debated because of our political coverage. The military is investigating whether Navy SEALs played a role in the death of an Afghan civilian. Our series on secret real estate deals has led to significant changes in disclosure rules. Our exposes of New York’s dysfunctional prisons have set the agenda. And our coverage of Amazon forced a searing discussion about the modern workplace. 

Our magazines continue to produce powerful storytelling on beautiful pages. Our forays into virtual reality and podcasting show we can succeed at new ventures while maintaining our values. We’ve brought a new generation of critics into our Culture report.

In ways large and small, the newsroom is experimenting and adapting as we move into our digital future. We are revamping our video unit. The news hub is beginning to free desks to focus on coverage without being consumed by print deadlines. We have begun a desk-by-desk digital training regimen. We have gone from being largely unaware of our audience’s changing habits to making them an integral part of our daily conversations. In our news meetings we talk ofcoverage, regardless of platform. More and more we discuss how to highlight all kinds of stories -- video, multimedia, the politics desk’s great voices feature -- that are more digital than print. We debate openly and freely as we experiment with new ways of telling stories. The conversational writing of the Upshot is making its way into the rest of our coverage. 

Our stellar coverage of the Paris attacks provided a powerful illustration of a transformed newsroom, one that uses every tool – old and new – to cover a giant story.

Readers notice. Our subscriber base continues to grow at an astounding pace, now over two million in 193 countries. Our audience has never been larger. Our readers show they value our work by paying good money for it, in print and online. They also give us something even more valuable: their time. They linger on our best work, reading long narratives and engaging with beautiful interactives.

Experimenting with new forms of journalism and presentation has sparked tremendous creativity in the newsroom. But in trying to balance the new and the old, reporters and editors are sometimes left exhausted and confused. Simply put, we keep turning things on -- greater visual journalism, live news blogs, faster enterprise, podcasting, racing against an ever-growing list of new competitors on an expanding list of stories – without ever turning things off. 

It is time to catch our breath and come up with a shared vision for what our report, and ultimately the New York Times newsroom, should look like in the coming years. Working with the top masthead editors – Matt, Susan, Janet, Tom and Kinsey -- I will be leading an effort this year to think through how the newsroom should continue on its path to change. 

I’ve asked David Leonhardt to help me carry out this examination across the newsroom. His experience creating and leading the Upshot has taught him to ask provocative questions about how we do business and how we serve readers. Andy has generously agreed to let David delay the start of his new column until the summer. And Andy himself will be a key participant in our discussions.

We need to develop a strategic plan for what The New York Times should be, and determine how to apply our timeless values to a new age. What breaking stories demand even more of our attention, and which ones are not quite important enough to warrant our full digital, print and visual resources? Does our system of powerful desks help us cover big stories that don’t easily have a home --- like climate change and education --- or does it sometimes get in the way? We deeply value the craft of editing, but in the digital era should we continue to edit every update of every story at the same level?

How much of our coverage is duplicative because we have never resolved overlapping jurisdictions? Which parts of our newsroom have not grown quickly enough? How will the newsroom change as it becomes more internationally focused?

We are not starting from scratch. We have spent the last couple of years wrestling with these questions in various parts of the newsroom. By way of example, Joe Kahn and his colleagues on International have been working to create a truly global digital news operation that greatly expands our audience throughout the world.

Of course cost is a factor in this exercise. The business is changing. Although our digital revenue is growing strongly, we continue to feel the impact of declines in parts of our print business. That means the company must continue to carefully manage its costs.

Our newsroom today is larger than it has ever been. Everyone – from the top of the company down – believes that maintaining the country’s most robust and powerful newsroom is essential. The strength of our newsroom is not just the bedrock of our mission and our business, but it also differentiates us from our competitors. But the simple fact is that to secure economic success and the viability of our journalism in the long term, the company has to look for judicious savings everywhere, and that includes the newsroom.

Instead of cuts and additions without a clear picture of where we are headed, we want to approach the task thoughtfully, with our mission and values clearly in mind. Everything we do must either be part of that mission or help generate the revenue to sustain our journalistic dominance. We must turn some things off, and build up the areas that set us apart. We must cast a fresh eye on our coverage to determine whether some of it reflects old habits rather than the urgent goal of telling our readers what they most need to know.

I also want to be clear that I believe The Times of the future can and should be even better than The Times of today. We want to continue to build on our tradition of innovation. We want to free up our best journalists to be even more nimble, dynamic and innovative in covering the biggest breaking news. We want to show even greater expertise in covering the pivotal subjects that matter most to our readers and to the world – not only government and politics and business and national security, but also culture and science and fashion and sports. We want to understand our readers, without becoming enslaved to metrics. We want to remain the newsroom where other journalists aspire to work. We want to build the premier global news operation. And we want to enhance our status as the premier visual news organization, and lead the journalism world in narrative and investigative reporting. 

Anyone who compares today’s version of The Times to a version from the good old days quickly sees how much stronger today’s is. My goal is to ensure that our successors will edit a report that is better yet.

I recently spent two full days with the leaders of the Times Company, including Arthur, Mark, Michael, Andy and other members of the executive team. The subject was our future, and the company’s ambitious goal of doubling digital revenue in five years.

It was a remarkable discussion. I came away with the deep understanding that the reason we will survive and thrive is that everyone is committed to preserving The Times as a great and large news organization. To a degree that is astonishing in modern business, the Ochs-Sulzberger family has demonstrated its ongoing commitment over many decades. Like all of us, they believe profoundly that the future of The New York Times lies in its being the finest news organization in the world.

Dean

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