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On the heels of the firing of Jill Abramson, Buzzfeed last week released a partial internal New York Times Innovation report that paints a bleak picture of the newspaper's struggle to adapt to the digital age.

The report, which Mashable later released in full, provides a very detailed look at the shifting news media landscape - a competitive industry that now includes Gawker, the Huffington Post and Buzzfeed.

While much of its recommendations is not particularly earth-shattering, the Times Innovation report captures the dramatic struggle of one venerable and established brand. That's why the document is required reading not just for media companies but also for any entrenched brand worried about disruption. The report outlines business and marketing recommendations that are critical for companies competing in the age of the customer. Here are 5 highlights:

  1. Adapt at the speed of business.

The Times is stuck in its old ways and is still very much focused on its print business, the report asserts. For instance, the organization spends a lot of its time and resources into front-page news - a practice that was important when print media was still dominant.

"The newsroom is unanimous: We are focusing too much time and energy on Page One," the report says.

Instead of concentrating on front-page content, the report calls for agility. "Launch efforts quickly, then iterate," the report authors urge the publication. "[W]e can adapt the 'minimal viable product' model, which calls for launching something in a more basic form so that we can start getting feedback from users and improve it over time."

The need to move quickly is more than just about releasing content pieces that are less than perfect but are good enough. It's also about organizing internally to allow the organization to change. To do this, the Times needs to take on a "digital-first" strategy, according to the report. "Many of our traditions, routines and habits - perfect for the fixed deadlines and constraints of print - seem increasingly out of step with the digital world," the report says.

Overall, the report makes the case for abandoning the "perfect, then release" approach. With a digital-first strategy, brands such as the Times should adapt their tactics to put the digital user in the driver seat while infusing customer input a lot earlier in the process.

  1. Build it - and then promote it.

The old adage 'build it and they will come' is outdated - a lesson that the Times is painfully realizing. While new players like BuzzFeed have taken full advantage of the explosion of social media, the Times hasn't been able to capitalize on the trend. In fact, less than 10% of the Times' digital traffic comes through social media:

More readers expect us to find them on Twitter and Facebook, and through email and phone alerts. But the newsroom pays less attention to these platforms, even though they offer our main, and sometimes only, channels to tens of millions of readers.

The report admits that competitors like BuzzFeed and the Huffington Post continue to grow because they know how to optimize their content for the social web. "They are succeeding because of their sophisticated social, search and community-building tools and strategies, and often in spite of their content," notes the report.

Marketers like to say that content is king, but the report makes it painfully clear that this is not necessarily true. Content innovation is just one half of the equation - knowing how to make your content discoverable, making it appealing for people and getting them to share it with their networks are just as crucial. The right talent will help organizations win on social, but thriving on the social web also requires deep customer intelligence on how people use the various media. It requires knowing their motivations for using social tools and how these tools change their habits.

  1. Connect with your customers.

The authors of the report admit that the Times is currently not doing a great job of engaging its readers.

Our readers are perhaps our greatest untapped resource. Deeping our connection with them both online and offline is critical in a world where content so often reaches its broadest audience on the backs of other readers. And many readers have come to expect a two-way relationship with us, so they can engage with our journalism and our journalists.

Listening to customers is critical for any company that wants to compete for brand loyalty, but it is even more integral for a company in a subscriber-driven business like the the Times. The newspaper will not earn back people's loyalty unless they take a reader-centric approach. That begins by building a connection with customers that is more than just about getting one-off input: it's about continuously inviting readers for feedback and, in many cases, co-creating content with them.

  1. Let your customers in.

According to the report, the Times needs to become more "comfortable with the idea of pulling back the curtain and providing readers a bit more insight into how we do our work, which will only deepen their connection to it."

The authors want the Times to let customers get to know the people behind the brand. "Readers want to connect with Times journalists - to get the back story, learn what we are reading, and join the conversation," the report adds.

Business today is personal: people buy based on relationships and their connection to the brand. This connection can be built by showing the human side of the brand - by sharing what happens behind the scenes.

This insight also applies to any of your research efforts: when you ask for feedback, customers want to know what happened to it. By being open to what you do with people's input, customers are more likely to openly share their feedback with you.

  1. Remove silos.

The steady decline in advertising requires the Times newsroom and its business side to work together. (Indeed, Abramson's resistance to "the perceived intrusion of the business side into the newsroom" may have contributed to her dismissal.)

"[T]he many business-side departments and roles that are focused on readers...need to work more closely with the newsroom, instead of being kept at arm's length," advises the report. The newsroom should collaborate more frequently with the company's "Reader Experience" departments, which include consumer insight, digital design, technology, R&D and product. For Times to catch up with innovators in its space, it should deliver a better experience for its readers by letting the necessary teams talk to each other.

As marketers, we know that we should be partnering with people in sales, R&D, IT and other people in the organization. But what is more crucial to take away from the report is that this collaboration needs to happen while everyone has the same goal in mind. In the case of the Times, that goal is reader engagement (and arguably, engagement with advertisements as much as editorial), but for most companies, that's customer experience. That's why organizations should use the voice of the customer as a starting point to identify the gaps that these collaborations need to address.


The Times clearly has a lot of work to do to fend off new competitors and catch up with the likes of the Huffington Post. But the fact that the company commissioned the study is a good sign: it shows that the company is willing to listen to its employees to get a candid health check of its digital efforts. It will be interesting to see how Times will implement the report's recommendations under the leadership of Dean Baquet. As it adopts a digital-first strategy, the Times needs to be closer than ever to its customers.

Check out the Full New York Times Innovation Report below:

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Kelvin Claveria

Kelvin Claveria was the former Content Marketing Manager and was responsible for Vision Critical's blog and social media marketing program. Before joining Vision Critical's global marketing team, Kelvin worked at Dunn PR, a Vancouver-based public relations firm. His experience includes working with lifestyle, real estate, and non-profit clients to develop social media marketing and PR strategies. Kelvin has a Bachelor of Business Administration from SFU's Beedie School of Business.
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