How The New York Times avoided 'falling off a cliff'
The New York Times' road to redemption involved soul searching and many gut wrenching internal debates, one of its former executives says.
The former New York Times Global chief operating officer James Slezak told a business audience in New Zealand that navigating innovation in an 18th century business was difficult.
No other industry faced the same threats to its business model like the media did, Slezak said.
When its online audience numbers were "falling off a cliff" in 2013, he said the then print-centric Times was forced to reinvent itself.
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The Times' 2014 Innovation report suggested it needed to take digital seriously as its website home page visits halved from nearly 160 million in 2011 to 80 million by 2013.
To find arrest the decline, the company formed a team of 12 journalists, designers and strategists. They interviewed hundreds of its employees and readers to find out what they wanted.
Slezak said they found that readers wanted "truth".
So, at a time of declining readership and growing user generated content on social media, The Times decided to keep journalism at the core of its digital strategy.
Slezak said it was "luck" that it turned out to be profitable.
Last year it turned over close to US$500 million (NZ760m) in digital revenue. In the four months following the United States presidential election, 600,000 people bought subscriptions to its website.
The Times committed to creating 'journalism that stands apart' by giving more technology and responsibility to its journalists. It created a virtual reality news app and launched new investigative projects.
The 2020 report, a group project to explain The Times' strategy, said the publications "most powerful tool was the written word".
Despite newsrooms downsizing around the world, people still cared about journalism and they needed it today, more than ever, Slezak said.
"We cannot afford to lose journalism because that has much greater ramifications on all of our lives."
But Slezak said it was not as easy for publicly listed media organisations to invest in new forms of storytelling.
"You can have the strongest commitment to journalism in the world … [But] it is a lot more difficult for publicly listed shareholder companies to maintain such a mission focus because there can be short term revenue implications that might not necessarily go the way the shareholders want."
Click bait articles did not make a valuable withstanding publication, he said.
"You do not see that longer term impact in the traffic figures and I think a lot of publications struggle with that, frankly a lot in Australia and New Zealand."
Slezak said The Times had to learn to not let audience trends or incidents, such as its journalists being banned from the White House briefings, influence strategic decisions too much.
"You do not want to adopt a patronising attitude and think of your users as school kids, but there is an element there, where an editorial teams job is to strike that balance between a path of least resistance."
He said knowing your purpose was crucial for any business executing an innovation strategy.
The Fairfax Media innovation series runs in partnership with Callaghan Innovation.