If the NYT is broken, can it be fixed?

by Mathew on November 24, 2008 · 11 comments

Seth Godin, marketing guru extraordinaire, has an interesting post about how the New York Times has missed the boat and is fighting the wrong war (to mix a couple of metaphors). In it, he puts his finger on one of the biggest factors that make it hard for newspapers in general — the one I work for included — to make the transition from paper to digital. It’s not a technical issue, or at least not solely a technical issue, but more of a conceptual shift. There are no limits any more, or at least not the usual ones that have worked for the past century or so, and that’s a difficult thing to grasp.

“All the News That’s Fit to Print” is the heart of the problem. It was never that, of course. It was “All the News That Fits.” The entire mindset of (every) newspaper has been driven by the cost of paper, the finite nature of paper, the cost of delivery and the cycle of a daily paper. You run enough articles to fit as many ads as you can sell.These are artifacts of a different age, one that today’s consumer doesn’t care a whit about.”

That’s a very different world than the one the New York Times grew up in and came to dominate. And Seth has some worthwhile thoughts about ways in which the Times — and, by extension, other newspapers — could be working to extend its brand and value online. Among other things, he suggests leveraging the opinion and editorial pages to help spread important ideas online, as well as making it easier for readers to take your content and share it with others, something I also believe in quite strongly (although the specifics of how to do that are still a work in progress).

I’m not sure buying Yelp or the Zagat guides is the way to go, but that’s the right idea, and so is finding high-quality voices on the Web and giving them a platform, something the Times has already started doing with BlogRunner and its syndication deals with GigaOm and others. My friend Mark Evans, a former newspaperman, thinks the Times should buy Twitter. I’m not convinced that actually owning platforms makes sense — or is even necessary — but I think the Times and other papers could make far more use of them, and smarter use, than they are now.

Would that help to stem the slide that the Times has seen, both in its advertising revenue and in its stock price? That’s impossible to say — but it certainly couldn’t hurt. And for all those who have failed, through no fault of their own, to make the transition, there’s always this.

  • http://www.winextra.com StevenHodson

    I was wondering if you would weigh in on Seth's post and I will say when I was writing up my thoughts on it yesterday on The Inquisitr (http://www.inquisitr.com/9386/the-greater-failu…) you and the the direction The Globe and Mail is headed was in the back of my mind.

    Personally I am looking forward to what your new role at G&M will bring and find it interesting that a Canadian publication is taking a leading role in seriously looking towards the future.

  • http://www.webomatica.com/wordpress/ Webomatica

    I'm sure you recall a memo Bill Gates sent out to microsoft employees back in 1995 that foretold the coming threat of the Internet and how the company had to get prepared for the inevitable or be swept away. That was 13 years ago. When one looks at it that way, that newspapers couldn't figure out a new business model even with a decade of time, the current situation is completely sad and inexcusable. I think it's a lack of vision and leadership at the top – there is no Bill Gates or Steve Jobs type leading the newspaper industry.

  • http://www.mathewingram.com/work mathewi

    Thanks, Steven — at least we are looking. Now we just have to figure out how to get there :-)

  • http://www.mathewingram.com/work mathewi

    I think you are right, Jason. There has certainly been a lack of clear leadership, or calls to action like the Gates memo — and where there have been memos similar to that, there has been a distinct lack of follow-through. How we get past that, I don't really know. Change is hard :-)

  • http://www.onlinemediacultist.com Eric Berlin

    I've been focused for a while now on the fact that online versions of newspapers do relatively little to promote their valuable content, particularly columnists, opinion writers, and of course bloggers. So basically you have high quality content written by paid journalists/editorial staff that is relatively unpromoted.

    Mathew, I don't think I'm blowing too much smoke to say that you're in the forefront of your profession in terms of meshing (to borrow a term) journalism with true online publishing norms/verve; in short, getting “out there” online and competing for attention and relative market share. Very quick example: at least until recently The Economists' bloggers don't bother to reply to comments. I mean, come on!

    Will the rest of the industry catch up? In the meantime, what I see here is a market need waiting to be exploited.

  • http://www.mathewingram.com/work mathewi

    I couldn't agree more, Eric — papers (mine included) could be doing a
    lot more to promote their content online, which involves more than
    just posting it and linking to it from a sub-page somewhere. The best
    way to make people aware of your content is to become engaged with
    readers in some way.

  • http://www.onlinemediacultist.com Eric Berlin

    I've been focused for a while now on the fact that online versions of newspapers do relatively little to promote their valuable content, particularly columnists, opinion writers, and of course bloggers. So basically you have high quality content written by paid journalists/editorial staff that is relatively unpromoted.

    Mathew, I don't think I'm blowing too much smoke to say that you're in the forefront of your profession in terms of meshing (to borrow a term) journalism with true online publishing norms/verve; in short, getting “out there” online and competing for attention and relative market share. Very quick example: at least until recently The Economists' bloggers don't bother to reply to comments. I mean, come on!

    Will the rest of the industry catch up? In the meantime, what I see here is a market need waiting to be exploited.

  • http://www.mathewingram.com/work mathewi

    I couldn't agree more, Eric — papers (mine included) could be doing a
    lot more to promote their content online, which involves more than
    just posting it and linking to it from a sub-page somewhere. The best
    way to make people aware of your content is to become engaged with
    readers in some way.

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