Gray Lady can spearhead future of media

The New York Times has got its mojo back and sounds more optimistic than ever about its future - but it is determined not to rest on its laurels and that philosophy is one everyone in PR and media should aspire to emulate in a volatile world.

The Times is continually evolving to secure its future. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons, via Haxorjoe)
The Times is continually evolving to secure its future. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons, via Haxorjoe)

The New York Times released a report this week that can help anyone involved in communications and media improve their practice.

Entitled Journalism That Stands Apart, the report was produced by a team of seven Times journalists who spent the past 12 months talking to newsroom leaders, their fellow Times journalists, and outsiders about the newsroom’s strategy and aspirations for the future.

It could have descended into navel-gazing, backslapping, or complacency – but it definitely didn’t. It reflects a leadership that is proud of the brand’s status as the location of record for definitive news coverage, but one that is totally aware of the fact media is undergoing continuing and ongoing radical challenges to its business models and credibility.

And it represents a great template for anyone running a content operation looking to evolve it for the future, whether in the media, at a brand's in-house content operation, working agency-side for clients, or establishing your own blog or new influencer outlet.

I must admit that, when I first arrived in the U.S. nearly seven years ago, I slightly bristled at references to The Times that didn’t mean what is known over here as The London Times.

It’s the bastion of the British establishment and has been around since 1788, long before the launch of the New York Times in 1851. Type "The Times" into Google and it is The London Times website that comes up first.

However, as the years went by I came to realize the unique qualities of The New York Times and the pivotal position it holds in global media, culminating in it attracting a worldwide audience of 200 million during the recent U.S. election peak.

It's a content behemoth that files about 200 pieces of journalism every day from 150 countries, brings in $500 million from 1.5 million digital-only subscriptions (which it claims is more digital subs revenue than The Washington Post, The Guardian, and BuzzFeed combined), and still has 1 million print subscribers.

If I wanted to continue being parochial, I could point out that it has really started to thrive again under the leadership of a Brit, Mark Thompson, who took over as president and CEO of The New York Times Company in November 2012.

But the operation goes way beyond that, and the influence of executive editor Dean Bacquet and managing editor Joe Kahn cannot be downplayed, as well as that of the – admittedly streamlined from its heyday – editorial team and attendant operations.

Indeed, Thompson and Times’ owner Arthur Sulzberger did announce in December they were vacating eight floors of their iconic Manhattan HQ, as it is "too expensive to occupy this many floors when we don’t truly need them," including foregoing the expensive and traditional corner offices of the publisher and CEO.

The Times will never be the favorite of incoming President Trump, but even he found time to sit down with senior newsroom execs after the election, and to be fair every mainstream media owner has, or is, going through downsizing from historical staffing highs.

My sense is that The Gray Lady really no longer seems adequate as a nickname for a content operation that has led the way on introducing coding into its journalists’ canon, digital revenue, interactive and VR content tours de forces such as Snow Fall, and Emmy-winning videos.

The new plan envisages fewer purely incremental stories that are undifferentiated from the competition, a real doubling down on reporting in a visual rather than purely textual way, an expansion of daily email briefings (much beloved by PRWeek readers), a shift toward front-end editing rather than waiting for the journalist to file, more How-To content, and an even bigger focus on reader engagement.

The Times is doing its utmost to reconfigure itself and become more fit for purpose in the modern content context. But it’s not just The Times that is experiencing a renaissance among much-maligned mainstream and historically important media outlets.

The Washington Post under the new ownership of Amazon founder and CEO Jeff Bezos is also newly invigorated, as a more forward-looking digital and mobile future is accompanied by relevant investment in content after years of wandering in the wilderness.

The Boston Globe came under the S/spotlight recently, literally, and shows the importance of vibrant regional media outlets to accompany the national voices of The Times, Post, and The Wall Street Journal.

As Raju Narisetti from Journal owner News Corp told PRWeek's conference as far back as 2013, outlets such as this are held to higher standards than newcomers including BuzzFeed and Mashable. That is both a tribute to their brand equity and a burden on limited resources that are being stretched further and further. Readers are voting with their feet on certain types of "journal of record" content that might seem essential but can increasingly be perceived as worthy and dull.

Don’t get me wrong – media business models still face incredible challenges and the exodus of journalists from newsrooms throughout the country continues apace, which makes it increasingly difficult to justify that worthy but important content.

There is also a crisis of confidence that I have covered before in recent blogs, prompted by the unexpected election of Donald Trump, the failure of media outlets to correctly assess the temperature of voters’ concerns in the run-up to the election, and the proliferation of fake news and scrappy digital-only competitors.

But on the day a controversial and unconventional new President takes office, it's clear we need a strong, independent, non-partisan media to act as the fourth estate now more than ever before.

I believe The Times is heading in the right direction. And its plans outlined in Journalism That Stands Apart represent a content template that any brand newsroom, agency content operation, or media outlet can learn from and attempt to emulate – I know we will certainly be aiming to do so here at PRWeek.

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