How to think digital: tips for all publishers from the New York Times

Last week an honest, 96 page internal report on digital innovation at the New York Times was leaked, and provided some real-world, real-time insight into the challenge for established print publishers in fully grasping the digital opportunity.  From the outside NYT looks like it is innovating in digital, but this report shows that making it work in practice is tough even for well-funded publishers.  You can read the full NYT digital report here but here is my take on the lessons that publishers of all sizes should learn…

1.     Maximise the value from your archive

Established publishers can use their archive content to provide additional context to a current story.  Famously, the NYT’s original article about Solomon Northup was published on the eve of the Oscars to tie in with “12 Years a Slave”, but it was Gawker, not NYT, that won the traffic prize.

Evergreen content, like arts reviews or recipes, can be repackaged to create valuable new resources for readers.  A Flipboard magazine of 2013 obituaries from NYT created by an outsider was highly popular.  Consider creating tools to make it easier for in-house journalists – and readers – to create their own collections of related content, rather than using third party platforms.

2.      Build search and social traffic

Have a clear tagging strategy, so archive content can be easily found, including useful attributes like location and topic, or ingredients for recipes.  Start tagging articles as you publish; retro-tagging old content is laborious.  NYT grew search traffic to recipes by 52% after adding structured data.  Think about the “sociability” of content: create possible tweets for each story, and repackage and republish old content for social. Buzzfeed gets 60% of its traffic from social; NYT is only 10%.  Create templates and tools for journalists to maximise the search and social reach of a story to make promotion easy and automatic.

3.     Experiment and innovate quickly

Beware of one-off editorial innovations; better to create tools and templates that enable a stream of related experiments, such as Buzzfeed’s quizzes.  Have clear metrics on new innovations and be tough on those that don’t work – kill them quickly but always make sure you learn from each one.  Be prepared to A/B test headlines and formats to find out what resonates with the audience.

4.     Engage with your audience

Identify what content readers have missed and make suggestions by using personalisation.  Provide readers with the option to follow topics or favourite columnists. Invite the audience to contribute content – start by asking contacts in business, politics, arts or industry to share their views and expand to other interesting thinkers.  Expand into live events – providing greater engagement with readers and new revenue opportunities.  TED was quite concerned about NYT launching a conference programme.  The Economist has successfully moved into live and online events and attracted significant sponsorship.

5.     Make time for strategic thinking

The NYT editorial team were too bogged down in the day to day process of production, and need to find time to think about the future.  Other publishers regularly spoke to their competitors and learnt what types of content were attracting attention.

6.     Create a digital first organisation

Remove the barriers between editorial, business and the development/tech team so they can work together.  Make sure there is a clear digital career path, otherwise the top digital talent will leave.  Invest in some star digital hires to inspire more talent to seek you out.

So some smart insights on making a digital transformation work from a very thorough report – well worth the time to read in full.

About the author:  Carolyn Morgan has launched, grown, acquired and sold media businesses across print, digital and events.  She has programmed conferences on digital publishing and advises publishers on their digital strategy.

If you’d like a chat about how you can reinvent your publishing or media business for the digital age, please get in touch.

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