How the New York Times can fight BuzzFeed & reinvent its future

33 thoughts on “How the New York Times can fight BuzzFeed & reinvent its future”

  1. You are not being objective just because you liked Snow Fall.
    Snowfall was something that could have been done a long time ago , nothing innovative about it.It got some attention because ,someone finally made a multimedia article that’s more than an embedded video+text.
    Snow Fall is what an online magazine should be but NYT is not a magazine.They can become a mag but that would be a fundamental change that kills what NYT is. So, it can be a side project and there are plenty of options on how to market it.
    They should better what NYT is today, starting with the layout, headlines ,content discovery.
    If i made a news site today i would try to find a way to put as much information in as little text as possible and maybe offer the option to expand the item and read more details on it.
    Twitter does , in some ways , that but maybe it can be done better.
    There is just too much information, it takes too long to acquire it and social networks only add to that burden. Long form … anything might become too niche for someone like NYT.
    Mobile devices are another problem, less bandwidth ,smaller screen,more on the go reading.

    1. @Realjjj, all good points, but perhaps you’re missing the point — Snow Fall is intentionally a long-form narrative feature that offers something more than the typical news sound bites.

      Like Om’s perspective here, I too appreciate the complementary role of creative and substantive feature content produced by legacy news organizations.

  2. Om,

    I enjoyed your post.

    I think your overarching message to NY Times is to experiment (and perhaps think bigger).

    Regardless of the industry, it’s tough for the old guard to have the strength/chutzpah to experiment and push for change.

    In the case publishing, that’s what leaves the door open for the BuzzFeeds, HuffPo’s and GigaOms of the world.

    Still, I would love to see the NYT take your advice. Still contend some of the best storytelling in journalism takes place in the NYT Dining section each Wednesday.

    1. Hi Lou

      Thanks for your thoughtful message. I am betting that facing such a dire future that faces many publications, the Times will do make bold moves. I think they have enough data on their hands to know that it is a good way forward and also the right way forward.

      It also is a good way to think in terms of augmenting their current information ecosystem which is good, but faces growth challenges.

      That said, in addition to Food, I would too like to see their Fashion and Lifestyle sections get in the act as well.

  3. I agree with realjjj that the NYT is not a magazine. And, for that matter, magazines are hardest hit now. There is just too much content.

    I also wonder if you don’t overestimate the power of the Hollywood model. Hollywood studios are all trying to find “franchises” and “tentpole” productions that they can milk forever in derivative sequels (Die Hard V or whatever it was named) – the closest thing they can find to selling a subscription.

  4. Didn’t I read that Snowfall originated in the newsroom ( with reporters and storytellers) not in the vast digital kingdom the Times carries? Maybe that’s a part of the recipe?

  5. I love the Newspaper/Hollywood analogy, but have you considered that Tiers 3 and 4 might be the other way around. I’m not sure if it makes a substantial impact on how we think about this model, but from an audience size and ad/direct revenue perspective I think it might be more useful to think of the web in terms of broadcast and newsprint – a “status” product – in terms of PPV.

    1. Mikey

      I think the problem is that the world today thinks about 3-4 first. I
      argue that in order to leverage what they have in abundance (for now)
      — attention and distribution — the paper has to look at 1 & 2 and
      then seriously figure out how to grow that and make it their primary
      focus.m

      The 3 & 4 are part if the legacy thinking — my two cents.

  6. The NY Times and the rest of the journalism world needs to stop yap-yap-yapping about Snow Fall and start DOING more work like it. The navel gazing — here at the inflection point between old and new media — is utterly endless. Stop talking about it and get to work!

  7. There was a great talk at the BarCamp News and Information last month where Joey Marburger was talking about Snow Fall and what the Washington Post has been doing with the idea lately — most notably their Cycling’s Road Forward piece.

    As a front-end developer, it’s fantastic to see responsive and html5 techniques being applied to one-off pieces — really letting each have a voice all its own, and displaying beautifully regardless of the medium.

      1. Not terribly many, I’m afraid. I know that the development team over at the Washington Post was thrilled with the outcome and seemed to have plans for more posts along the same line. I’d suggest pinging Joey or Yuri Victor for more on that if you’d like a followup, they’d be able to provide much more detail, I imagine.

  8. @Om could you expound further on “Create a new breed of “producer” who can switch between Excel and content.” As someone interested in both the business and editorial side of the product, I found this specific point you made very interesting.

    1. @PK

      When I think of this new type of executive, I think of how Hollywood has producers who find the balance between creatives and commercial. Similarly if there is a person who can define what are the creative needs, what is the budget and figure out how best to come up with the optimum product factoring in the constraints.

      It is not a publisher. It has to be someone who is part of the creation process, but at the same time, like the janus man can go and address the commercial part of the endeavor.

      Frankly, this is making me write a different post. But need to think this through.

  9. The New York Times needs to branch out. The “Truth” was lost in their reporting of our nation’s news long ago. It obviously fits the type of reader in that part of the country…low information readers.

  10. I disagree with the comment by realjjj…Snowfall would have been far more expensive and less interactive just a short time ago. The Web and web controls have come a long way and I agree with OM that Snow Fall showed the future. We wrote it up just after it came out:

    http://successfulworkplace.com/2012/12/23/the-new-york-times-showed-us-the-future-in-snow-fall/

    We said in our piece that Snow Fall showed us the future and I stand by that, only wishing that the NYT had launched 100 Snow Fall’s, as Om suggests.

    Are you listening, NY Times?

  11. The lucky part for journalists (new & old) is that at the heart of this is basic story telling — but obviously a much different one that does require new skills, but also a commitment from media companies (or in this case NY Times) to take the time (and spend the money) to build these. In some ways, Snow Fall was as much a product as it was a story. There’s a place for both. But it feels like there’s great fun ahead on the content and the business side of media.

    The Editor/Excel aspect is intriguing. I wonder whether there really is a palatable model here for the bold and the brave. Watching IronMan 3 and hearing that Jarvis gets his data from the “Oracle Cloud” and later seeing Oracle gear in the background (classic product placement of course) . . . is that where we want to go? Or is it just paid access to the story, or the app where it appears? And if it’s the former, then media has to also plan that into the product, er, story building.

    1. Fritz

      You got it. Yes, it is a story. yes, it is a great piece of journalism. But treat it like a product and you start to not feel so despondent about the future. I think it is a different mindset that is needed.

      On the product placement, well, why go that far when you can actually build a better way of selling the product, either as a paid model or as an advert. Either way, it is time to experiment – a lot!

  12. I think the copmparision of movie distribution and content distribution is flawed somewhere.
    Keeping the movie distribution as it is, I would say, publishers would have the following mediums to push their content through.
    1) Apps or mobile (html 5)
    2) Web
    3) Tab (if it lasts any longer)
    4) Google glass????
    5) Print???? naa
    6) Social media (it wont generate revenue though)
    7) Distribution platforms like flipboard which allows shared revenue
    Guess this is it. As of for now and for a long time as well.

  13. Hey Om,

    Thoughtful piece, but it isn’t going to work.

    Snowfall was a critical success and a huge commercial failure. It wasn’t even sponsored, which is borderline laughable. As somebody with deep media experience, I can tell you that to release a project of that scope and *not* have a major commercial sponsor is more than laughable — it’s unforgiveable.

    Were it to be sponsored, there would not have been enough inventory to run the $250k inventory needed to break even on the production costs. And that was with 3.5 million pageviews, which would not happen over-and-over if this became a weekly thing for them.

    Snow Fall was a wonderful symbol of what ISN’T working in the media right now. Absolutely terrible integration of tech, editorial, and sales. A complete over-focus on some aspects of the project, while completely ignoring others. One cannot even call it a ‘step in the right direction’, because the direction is unclear.

    Om, you are a terrific tech blogger, but Media and Tech are very different businesses, which is why Silicon Valley is no media town. 🙂

    1. Bryan

      Thanks for the thoughtful comment.

      You make great points, but if you read the post, I am making a case that they need to think of this a different “media” package and use tier-ing to make money. In fact, as I suggest they need to tap different channels for making money. I think you are focusing just on advertising – and while I am suggesting that they need to look beyond just pure CPM advertising and thinks of different tools of monetization: mobile apps, ebooks and possibly podcasts.

      Yes, the Times did a terrible job of making no money or capitalizing on the big buzz around SnowFall and the ensuing page views. But that doesn’t mean they can’t learn from that experiment and build a business that looks at many facets of monetization.

      PS: As an aside I have been part of the Internet media long enough. For instance, I helped start Forbes.com in 1997. I started this company in 2006, at a time when it wasn’t too fashionable to start media companies. So, yes I do understand technology and media.
      Also, You are a terrific entrepreneur, with original ideas and I wish you good luck to you in your next company. On one thing, I definitely agree with you: Silicon Valley isn’t a media town.

      1. Thanks Om!

        Maybe I’m too much of a ‘cheerleader’ for advertising as a business model, that I get naturally skeptical of ‘paid content’ and ‘other revenue’. The WSJ.com subscriber numbers are probably meaningful, but they must lose so much potential revenue by paywalling everything, making it hard to find on Google, etc. Same thing for ESPN Insider. I like the NYT approach to paywalling, hope it works for them. It’s really quite brilliant and gives them the best of both worlds. But there is only one NYT.

        Back to your post — I don’t think that everyday users would pay much to get a weekly dose of the Snow Fall formula. It was really the type of thing that appeals to a very small percentage of the populace.

        The solution for publishing — be in NYT, Time Inc., or anyone else — is to get the cost structure under control. These companies make a lot of revenue, there is no excuse for them to be spending as much as they are. Journalists hate to admit that the problem is spending — because THEY are the reason for the woes — and so people act as though innovation is necessary to solve this problem.

        I, for one, don’t want to see innovation in what content looks/feels like. I love the written word… it was great 4,000 years ago, and it’s great today. My hope is that we can innovate what happens behind-the-scenes, so that publishers can make a profit and readers can have a great reading experience. Even if all they get are static black-and-white words on a page.

        Your kind words were much appreciated — your success back in 2006 was one of the few bright spots that encouraged the SV community to take a chance on our website. But now that I’ve been through it once before, I am gonna make the hop to NY for future media projects 🙂

        With Gratitude,
        Bryan

  14. Now a few (rhetorical) questions: Why doesn’t the NYT put the Snow Fall behind its paywall, and thus, increase its subscription base to 800K or even 1 million? What is it, the brand (in this case the NYT) or the stories that people buy or are willing to buy? Do people engage with the brand, through its paywall, or do they engage with stories?

    The questions are rhetorical, at least to me, because in today’s buyers market, it is the high-quality, user-engaging story that is king, not bundled and paywalled content, not the brand, even though the brand and its reputation can help with distribution of such individual stories.

    I agree with Om that “snowfalling” is a great business opportunity that requires a new and flexible business model — paywalls are opportunity lost.

  15. You might as well get ahead of the pack and start replacing “web” (such as in your 2 column graphic) with “internet.” “Web is a box we accidentally trapped everyone in, with a very tight lid called browser.”

    That which displaces web, will be much, much better at everything web became with its afterthoughts.. and will enable seemingly magical things effortlessly that web can never come close to offering.

    Search google and NYT’s site for “snow fall” to “immerse” in the failure that is web. Web in its unfortunately, but predictably, forever-hobbled way doesn’t even know the difference between the “it” and the “about it.” Small children make this distinction before they barely begin to wield spoken language itself.

    If “publishers” (or even one) were to really ponder the lessons of “Snow Fall” in context of the lessons of web, they’d come quickly to the realization that their best hope of not being left behind (off the table, out of the loop, not in the room or in the discussion in any way shape or form) again when that which displaces web is developed…. is for them to do it themselves.

    Else, it’ll be another 20 years of victimhood (“Oh golly, our margins this, or readers that, or advertisers… yada yada”). And please, who in their right mind believes incumbent media can survive the next two decades worse than the last two?

    Web’s had a marvelous ride and it has moved a lot of 1’s and 0’s around while being worshiped from all corners as the internet’s rightful king. Ya know what trumps bits and bytes? Storytelling. Ya know when? Probably soon before or just after the same interval that which preceded web as king was king. Email. 1973. Do the math.

    @DanFarfan

  16. Om Malik, with regard to the subheading, “Yes, Dorothy, the Internet is different,” an appropriate response, while thinking of the print edition of The New York Times, might be “Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus,” [The Sun, September 21, 1897].

  17. Some of the comments here pivot on the distinction between newspapers and magazines, which I believe misses the point. The NYT is a media brand, and further definition should start with a blank page. There is no need to sacrifice its journalistic, daily-news roots, or existing talent assets, to start a new content division as Om suggests. Digital media companies do that sort of experimentation and investment all the time.

    I would pre-sell upcoming packages to primary and secondary sponsors — not rely on standard display rate-sheet eCPM. This should be conceived, produced, and sold as a premium opportunity.

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