How The New York Times Went From Avoiding to Embracing Innovation in a Few Short Years

With an assist from the new Sulzberger generation

Just a few years separate what Gabriel Snyder describes in his Wired cover piece as a previously innovation-hesitant New York Times with one that has whole divisions dedicated to innovation and new product creation. Helping to lead the path forward is the younger generation of the Ochs-Sulzberger clan that has been in charge of the paper since 1896.

In 2014, an innovation report meant for top management eyes only was leaked to BuzzFeed, depicting a New York Times reluctant to embrace radical digital change. Part of that reluctance was brought on by a sort of internalized, institutionally-derived block thanks to the idea of the “Timesian” way:

…a shorthand you frequently hear for what the Times can and cannot do in the interest of protecting its exalted status (and nowhere is it more exalted than within the Times itself). What Timesian means or doesn’t mean often depends on who’s defining it, but it’s typically in the same general neighborhood as authoritative, or maybe stuffy. Editors are infamous for their lengthy divinations on whether new headline styles are sufficiently Timesian, and, per the Innovation Report, nothing slowed down a new initiative more than when management deliberated on just how Timesian it was or wasn’t.

What the Times has achieved since–with deep involvement from a trio of cousins, Arthur Gregg Sulzberger, currently deputy publisher; David Perpich, who launched Beta Group, dedicated to digital product creation; and Sam Dolnick, an editor who has led the way on experiments in VR and livestream–is effectively to have created a 180 degree mindset shift. As one anonymous editor told Snyder, “When we’re told this is the new best practice, everyone marches in lockstep. Facebook Live? Yep! Video? On it! The New York Times isn’t a place where people say no, and we’re flat-out exhausted.”

It’s an interesting contrast to The Washington Post, whose own impressive technological advances really took off when that paper’s ruling family, the Grahams, sold the paper to Amazon founder Jeff Bezos in 2013.

As Snyder describes, the New York Times’ path to post-print solvency is paved with a lot of digital subscriptions, and while the Times has a ways to go, it has currently figured out the formula better than anyone else:

The Times has had more success at building its digital subscriber base than any other publication. Its nearly $500 million in digital revenue not only dwarfs what any print publication has managed online, it also far exceeds leading digital-only publishers. At The Washington Post…digital revenue was reported in 2016 to be in the neighborhood of $60 million. In 2015, BuzzFeed brought in a reported $170 million, while the Huffington Post’s 2014 revenue, the most recent reported figure, was $146 million. “Today we have the largest and most successful pay model for journalism in the world,” says Meredith Kopit Levien, the Times’ chief revenue officer.

Read the entire piece here.