Times Co. could turn to tech sector for new leadership

The New York Times Co. will become a more innovative, online-solution driven institution after the resignation of chief executive Janet Robinson, media observers and PR industry experts say.

The New York Times Co. will become a more innovative, online-solution driven institution after the resignation of chief executive Janet Robinson, media observers and PR industry experts say.

It is unclear exactly why Robinson decided to resign December 31 after seven years at the helm of one of the media industry's blue chip brands. However, reports have speculated that the Times Co.'s ownership wanted a CEO with more digital chops, while the Times' own reporting team has said it could recruit a new leader from the technology sector.

In March, the media outlet launched an online paywall system that now has 300,000 subscribers, reportedly ahead of internal goals. The Times Co. also quickly repaid a $250 million loan from Mexican billionaire Carlos Slim ahead of schedule during Robinson's tenure.

Yet while revenue from the company's digital operations was up in the third quarter of 2011, earnings from digital advertising and, more predictability, print advertising were down.

PR industry experts say the company has made smart investments in digital media, including the use of video and infographics, but some say it has not moved – or innovated – quickly enough. 

Michael Levitz, SVP, partner, and director of digital at Fleishman-Hillard, contends that “The New York Times needs to think like a Google or Amazon by constantly tweaking and innovating. It is not about launching with big features all at once and calling it a day.”

For starters, he adds that the company needs to break with tradition and begin curating its content online, as well as bolstering its tablet and mobile editions.

“I log on to the website every day, and the homepage is no different for me than for anyone else, even though I've been clicking on articles for 10 years,” says Levitz. “Instead of trying to fight social news, they need to make their digital experience personalized based on the massive amount of data they must have on registered users, both free and paid.”

PR practitioners also say The Times needs to unlock and monetize the value of its paid subscribers by charging advertisers a premium to reach those highly engaged readers.

That group is also a target audience for many important communications campaigns, says Andrew Bleeker, worldwide head of digital for Hill+Knowlton Strategies. If a client faces a regulatory issue, for instance, its target audience should be the business and government influencers who are likely readers of the paid online content on NYTimes.com, he adds.

“Those kind of stories become a question of influence and the paywall really qualifies the readership,” says Bleeker. “There are two elements of influence in the media: the ability to move a story, like bloggers, and the ability to start a storyline. The latter is where traditional newspapers are very important.” 

In a further personnel shake-up, The New York Times said a number of veteran reporters and columnists are taking voluntary buyouts, resulting in the elimination of fewer than 20 editorial staffers. However, a number of them will continue to write for the publication on a less-frequent basis.

Eileen Murphy, VP of corporate communications for The New York Times, says the buyouts will not reduce the newspaper's editorial output.

“Our newsroom staff remains robust and numbers approximately 1,150,” she says, via email. “We continue to hire new staff and continue to expand, particularly in digital and multimedia newsroom positions.”

Recent hires include Nicole Perlroth, former reporter at Forbes, and former Wired.com reporter Brian Chen, both of whom write for the NYTimes.com Bits blog.

Steve Rubel, EVP for global strategy and insights for Edelman, says the adjustments reflect a changing of the guard at the news organization, rather than a planned shift in overarching strategy.

“Three years ago, a lot of people had written off traditional news organizations, but they are actually doing some pretty innovative things,” he adds. “The New York Times is allowing reporters to break news on Facebook, using data visualization techniques to illustrate stories online, and launching new apps. I don't think the recent changes will impact the direction of where it's going.”

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