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Lessons from The New York Times Innovation Report

Sometimes monopolies look like they’re going to last forever. Until they don’t.

They get disrupted by new technologies, and their business models don’t adapt quickly enough to a new and often punishing ecosystem.

This is what has been happening to the newspaper industry over the last 10 years, as the internet has disintermediated its monopoly over traditional advertising and content distribution.

But it’s only taken until recently for one of those old guard monopolies to acknowledge the new digital landscape.Over the last few weeks the media industry has had an opportunity to pick over an internal New York Times innovation report regarding the state of their business. And it’s no surprise that BuzzFeed, one of the darlings of new media, was first to obtain the report and break the story.

Some of the findings are exactly what you would expect. For starters, the New York Times homepage continues to see declines in pageviews, and minutes spent per reader have dropped by double-digit percentages year-over-year.

More troubling, though, the editorial and technology teams don’t communicate or collaborate well, which has pushed “discovery, promotion and engagement” of content to the margins of overall strategy.

But far more concerning is the philosophical disputes over “Church and State”, the term used to describe the separation of editorial and business mandates, which have slowed the adoption of native advertising and branded content products, an emerging revenue stream that the company badly needs to grow.

Other findings, however, are pretty astonishing. For example, it took the Times seven years after “September 11” to start tagging content related to the historic day. This inability to move quickly enough to structure data also caused them to fail to tag recipes by ingredients and cooking time, nearby restaurant and movie reviews and even photos. As the report notes:

“Structured data problems prohibit the Times from automating the sale of photos and keep the Times stories from doing as well in search rankings as they should.”

Kudos to the Times for taking an unflinching assessment of their innovation strategy, and certainly many in the industry are studying it to avoid making the same mistakes.

But publishers also have an opportunity to learn some lessons and begin adapting to the new digital landscape. Here are three valuable lessons from the Times' Innovation Report.

Develop and Cater to Digital and Mobile Audiences

The report concedes that the biggest long term challenge facing the company is transforming into a digital publication.

What makes this difficult to execute is that over 75 per cent of the Times revenue still comes from advertising and subscription in their newspaper, or print product, while only accounting for a declining percentage of their reader base, roughly 5 million.

In contrast, mobile now accounts for up to 20 million of the New York Times readership and growing.

Increasingly mobile audiences are coming to Times content from social networks like Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest and LinkedIn but the Times has had issues coordinating content promotion through social, with the newsroom, for example, running the NY Times Twitter account while the business side, runs the Facebook account.

The report recommends using social media not primarily as a reporting tool, but as an audience development tool as well, which is how many of their digitally native competitors like BuzzFeed have grown to be major players in the new media landscape.

The recent release of NYT Now, an app specifically designed for mobile news consumers, is a step in the right direction to catering to their growing mobile audience.

The Life Cycle of Content is Forever

While the New York Times has an historic archive of prize winning journalism, it has failed to seize opportunities in repackaging this content and promoting it to new audiences.

The report cites the example of a 161-year-old article about Solomon Northup, whose memoir was turned into the Oscar winning film "12 Years a Slave". Even though the Times initially shared the article on Twitter, it was only after Gawker excerpted and repackaged it with context that it began driving traffic and engagement. But not for the Times.

The piece turned out to be one of Gawker's most read articles of the year, but drove very little traffic to the original 161-year-old article housed at the Times.

With more than 14 million articles going back to 1851 the Times needs to start leveraging this content in novel and engaging ways in order to draw new audiences.

Structured Data Helps Readers Discover Content Easier

One of the key focuses of the innovation report was providing better ways for readers to discover New York Times content. By improving technology, building better newsroom tools, and most crucially, structuring and tagging content more effectively, the Times believes it can enhance readers discovery experience.

The report found that while Arts and Culture stories were consistently read long after their publication dates, they were difficult for readers to find. One of the report's recommendations is to aggregate Arts and Culture pages into "timeless resource guides" optimized for search and social.

By simply including ingredients and cooking time, the Times has started creating a cooking database, a missed opportunity for the last 15 years.

This structured data has increased traffic to recipes from search engines by 52 percent. And a recently launched NYT Cooking vertical builds on this focus of helping readers discover content.

Lessons Learned

The New York Times already has a venerable reputation, and the editorial and business talent to adapt to the new digital media landscape. But it will have to transform into a different type of company and continue to learn new lessons if it plans on being around for another 100 years.

Ron Mashate is Content and Business Development Strategist helping build and grow a powerful content analytics platform at Measurely.

This post first appeared on the Measurely Blog, and was republished with permission.

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