6 lessons for digital journalism from the New York Times’ strategy report

The New York Times has released a report, written by a group of seven of their journalists called ‘The 2020 Group’, outlining “the newsroom’s strategy and aspirations”.

This is part of the paper’s ambition to dramatically increase its number of subscribers and build a true digital business by 2020.

For any journalist hoping to work for the Times, or even just embody its values in their own journalism, there are some crucial lessons to be drawn here.

1. We must defeat the single block of text

Despite the leaps and bounds that have been made in attitudes towards digital journalism, the report acknowledges that too many articles on the website are still “dominated by long strings of text”.

Indeed, it notes that only 12.1 per cent of stories include deliberately placed visual elements. With the proliferation of digital tools available to the modern-day journalist, there is no excuse for this lackadaisical approach to storytelling.

A journalist ought to care about the readability of their copy, and few things encourage readers to click away more than an intimidating wall of text with nothing to break it up. One reader, the report says, mocked the Times for not including in a story about subway routes even a simple map of the disputed train line.

You don’t even need a picture to break up text — a block quote will do the job.

The report bemoans the lack of expertise in this regard in the Times newsroom. Aspiring journalists should perhaps take note, and take it upon themselves to build these skills.

2. Digital means constant innovation

The potential of digital techniques for distributing journalism is huge, and yet the instincts of many journalists are still overwhelmingly traditional.

Most reporters seem focused on writing up and filing 300-word pieces to the exclusion of all else. But if a journalist’s focus is on their story, their choice of medium should not be so rigid.

Instead, we should allow the medium to serve the story. This is the thinking that has led to successful podcasts, email newsletters, and social video.

Multimedia, then, should not just be part of a young journalist’s arsenal, but should be the primary way they think about stories, always with an eye out for new formats.

3. Expert knowledge is digital gold dust

In the Internet Age, experts abound. If I want to find an authoritative voice on a subject, any subject, I can do it fairly easily. What is more, that voice is probably on Twitter, and doesn’t even need me to find it.

This development of human interaction means that journalists can no longer get away with rough knowledge of a topic, or the social media reaction will be brutal.

With that in mind, the report recommends that the Times hire more journalists with a high level of authority on a specific beat. This has been reflected already in the hiring of an editor to cover gender issues.

Therefore, an aspiring journalist should find a beat they can become an expert in, and make it their own. Whether that means keeping up with healthcare journals, following the stock market, or reading every policy briefing on the environment, being a leader in one field is now a key task for any journalist.

Note: This man is not Prime Minister.

4. The paywall is working

The report trumpets the success of the Times’ digital subscription model, with a graph indicating that their revenue from consumers is growing, and continuing to exceed advertising revenue.

How much this indicates the value of subscribers and how much it merely reflects the decline of advertising is an open question, but it is clear that about a third of the Times’ lost advertising revenue has been replaced by subscription fees.

Not only that, but the model helps to fight the fall in advertising fees. “Advertisers,” the report explains, “crave engagement: readers who linger on content and return repeatedly.”

The path to creating engaged readers is very different to the modern urge to create clicks and pageviews. A reader who feels betrayed by a headline they perceive as clickbait is less likely to return.

This is good news. Journalists now have a reason beyond their own professional integrity to pursue quality, and an effective retort to an editor complaining that their story isn’t attention-grabbing enough.

5. It’s time to think about success

The availability of detailed and sophisticated analytics of audience engagement, pageviews, and so on, means that success can be defined and vigorously pursued.

Pageviews, of course, should not be the defining metric, but it is important to have a sense of important analytics.

The Times report encourages news desks to set themselves tangible goals, so that journalists know what success looks like, and can pursue that.

This is not about making journalism subservient to business, but about creating content that gets read: effective journalism.

6. We should all learn to code

Good visuals don’t just come from nowhere, and presenting a story well online is sometimes about more than just an embedded YouTube video.

The report boasts that the Times has more journalists who can code than in any other newsroom in the world.

There will be some journalists who don’t understand why this is something to boast about. These journalists are still creating articles dominated by big blocks of text.

It may be intimidating, but perhaps the time has come for journalism students to sacrifice the time spent learning shorthand and get some lessons in coding.

It is 2017, after all.

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