Knight Blog

The blog of the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation

New York Times execs guide company into innovative storytelling while diversifying revenue

March 13, 2014, 5:08 p.m., Posted by Katti Gray

mediaminds

"Inside the Minds of The New York Times" with guests Mark Thompson and Arthur Sulzberger Jr.  The panel was moderated by Alex S. Jones of the Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy. Photo credit: Gabe Palacio.

Mobile apps for people who cook.

Streaming video of charismatic reporters.

Informational graphics and other tools, from an evolving digital arsenal, that quickly encapsulate the story or serve as a sidebar to long-form articles.

Those are some of the storytelling techniques The New York Times is using to stay abreast of change in an evolving media world, according to its Publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr. and President and CEO Mark Thompson. The two executives delivered an overview of the efforts underway at the Gray Lady to key players from global philanthropy, entertainment, government, the news business, Wall Street and other spheres during the third Media Minds breakfast sponsored by Knight Foundation, with media partners Gannett and USA Today. The series, which began last year, features conversations with news industry leaders.

The missing airliner? When you start looking at a map … you get a clearer sense of what’s involved in the task of searching,” Thompson told that audience, noting the difference an interactive infographic can make in conveying this ongoing story.

He continued:  “The heart of this is really trying to figure out how video [and other mediums] can work alongside … the experience of reading the best written journalism in the world. How does it complement? How does it enrich? How does it expand?”

Thompson, former chief executive for the British Broadcasting Corp., joined The New York Times in 2012 to lead a revamp of the company’s overall business strategy. He has been credited with keeping his former employer on the cutting edge technologically, steering such groundbreaking projects as free digital TV subscriptions and paid, on-demand video services at the BBC. Each week 95 percent of United Kingdom residents tune in somewhere along the BBC’s line-up of television, radio and online news and entertainment stations and sites, on average for about 19 hours, he said.

The Times’ 2013 sale of the New England Media Group, which included The Boston Globe, was the last major move toward making the Times a singular news organization, the two executives said. A trimmed New York Times Co. has zeroed in on building streams of income, similar to those modeled by cable television networks in the United States, and adapting to an era of ever-evolving news consumption, they said, during a discussion with moderator Alex Jones, director of Harvard University’s Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy.

The Times is focused, they added, on honing the talent and other capabilities housed at its midtown Manhattan headquarters and in what remains the largest tally, among any news organization, of international and U.S.-based news bureaus.

“How to use these larger-than-life characters?” said Thompson, referring to the prospect of Times staffers in Times videos and TV shows. “Point a camera at David Carr and you can’t take your eyes off him.” Carr writes the Times’ Media Equation column.

If the Times is to succeed in continuing to deliver a broad mixture of news stories—ones on the list of the Internet’s most viewed headlines and ones that are relatively obscure—it has to determine myriad ways to attract those who get their news on a smartphone screen, those wedded to the printed page, those who prefer tablets and those who turn to TVs.

“The Page One meeting is no longer [just] about what will be on Page One … You have Page One, but you’ll go to the iPad for breaking news,” said Sulzberger, scion of a family that has owned the paper for more than 100 years. Sulzberger started in journalism as a reporter for The Raleigh Times in North Carolina. Later, his career included stints in the Associated Press’ London bureau and the Times’ Washington bureau, eventually leading to roles of growing responsibility on the business side of the company.

”Meeting the need of this digital age while—and this is the hard part—doing good journalism [means] we will not be putting up the wrong picture of the Boston bomber on the front page,” Sulzberger said. “We see this [error] all over in our new journalism world.”

The breakfast, held at the Bryant Park Grill in Manhattan, attracted more than 200 leaders from the media and other sectors, as well as Knight grantees. Knight President and CEO Alberto Ibargüen introduced the speakers to the audience, which included Jill Abramson, executive editor of The New York Times; Lou Boccardi, retired president and CEO of the Associated Press; Michael Calderone, the senior media reporter for The Huffington Post; David Moore, executive director of the Participatory Politics Foundation; Colin Myler, editor-in-chief of the New York Daily News; Eric Newton, senior adviser to the president at Knight; Vivian Schiller, head of news partnerships at Twitter; and Darren Walker, president of Ford Foundation.

They listened as Thompson and Sulzberger described how the Times is coping with the shift affecting the news industry. Amid those changes, the Times’ own game-changing digital pay wall is succeeding, Sulzberger said, even as it is being tailored in hopes of drawing more subscribers. After its own spate of layoffs and other cost-cutting measures in recent years, the Times is broadening its coverage, he said. He emphatically said The New York Times is not for sale.

Yet, the path is far from clear, Sulzberger said. The Times’ reader subscription revenue is rising. Its digital advertising revenue is not.

Allowing paying advertisers to create “native advertising” content related to topics that also drive news coverage, and to prominently place those ads, creates its own potential perils.

“Our goal is simple: Don’t confuse the reader. As long as they don’t think it’s being written by our journalists,” Sulzberger said.

The Times aims to stay true to that mission, he said, as it tries to build a sustainable model for making the money that finances news coverage.

Pro Publica Founding Editor-in-Chief and President Paul Steiger asked whether diminished profits would keep the Times from undertaking ambitious coverage as it presses further into the demands of the digital age. Sulzberger said doing so innovatively may, in some aspects, be easier now.

“The cost of being innovative today is so much less than was it was 25 years ago,” Sulzberger said. There are “fewer [newspaper] presses, fewer [delivery] trucks. Now we can try, test, learn. We can say, ‘That didn’t work,’ all within a much lower cost structure.”

Katti Gray is a New York-based journalist. 

A full video of the Media Minds March 13 program is below.