Hannah Pearson
By on May 19, 2014 in Life
Read time: 13 minutes | No Comments

The New York Times wants to copy BuzzFeed

The New York Times’ ‘Innovation’ report was leaked, somewhat ironically, to BuzzFeed via a printed then scanned, black and white copy. BuzzFeed published the report on May 15th. Before long, it had gone viral.

Why ‘ironically’? The content of the report was how the NYT could innovate their digital platform, often comparing their efforts to those of Buzzfeed. The other reason for the irony? The fact that, yet again, content the NYT had produced was proving to be wildly popular when repackaged by another media outlet.

The report was written by a committee of the NYT’s own staffers, tasked with investigating their publication’s digital shortcomings and strengths and surveying the digital horizon for best practices (full version at the bottom of this post).

Despite some great digital achievements over the past year or so – who could forget Snow Fall? – the fact of the matter is that these are not consistent with the NYT’s usual digital strategy. Or, in fact, they are entirely representative of the NYT’s digital vision: sporadic, a one-off side project rather than something replicable (just like Snow Fall). As the report shows, the digital sphere presents something of a headache for the NYT as page views are declining, both on the homepage and on mobile apps.

Soothing this headache is far more urgent and requires far more action than popping a few magic pills:

“The urgency is only growing because digital media is getting more crowded, better funded and far more innovative.”

Disruptors, using their more innovative technology, aren’t helping, either, as Justin Smith, the CEO of Bloomberg News  is quoted as saying in the report:

“Technology is disrupting every distribution platform. Consumers are redefining decades-old consumption habits. Seizing this opportunity will require long-term investment and a large appetite for transformation, risk, as well as a tolerance for intermittent failure.”

Who are the disruptors, who the incumbents?

The NYT is obviously one of the incumbents, but the report makes surprisingly little noise about other traditional media’s strategies for surviving in a digital world. The Guardian gets a mention about their presence in the USA and the Washington Post a quick line about it being bought by Jeff Bezos (of Amazon fame). Instead, the report dwells more on their disruptors: Buzzfeed, the Atlantic, the Huffington Post, Vox and Flipboard.

The disruptive situation is likened to that which Kodak faced at the introduction of digital cameras. Kodak were the incumbents, happy with a huge market share, until digital cameras became affordable and changed what the customers wanted. Then digital cameras were in turn knocked off their perch by smartphones, as customers got fed up of carting around chunky bricks and preferred the convenience of whipping their phone out their pocket and sharing the results immediately.

In this scenario, I would say that the NYT are Kodak, the Daily Mail or the Atlantic is the digital camera and BuzzFeed could well prove to be the smartphone – more convenient and mobile.

The report cites Buzzfeed as a great example of how a competitor can succeed “because of their sophisticated social, search and community-building tools and strategies, and often in spite of their content.”

Ouch.

That being said, how do Buzzfeed and the NYT differ when it comes to their take on digital? I looked at the NYT’s report itself, a 2012 memo the CEO of BuzzFeed, Jonah Peretti, wrote to his employees, as well as a few pivotal features written about BuzzFeed’s strategy (by Wired and The New York Magazine), to see how BuzzFeed tackles the problems the NYT’s report raises.

The result? It seems that the NYT is keen to take a leaf from BuzzFeed’s book when it comes to their approach to digital.

The essential problem of the church and the state

One of the biggest challenges that the NYT faces is what they call the ‘separation of the church and state.’ Mainly, that the newsroom should be kept separate from the ‘business’ side of the publication.

This is a legacy from the days of print newspapers – it was thought that too much contact between the journalists and the marketing side of the paper would unduly influence editorials biased towards the paper’s advertisers.

The issue is that what the report refers to as the ‘reader experience’ team – the design, analytics, R&D, technology and product people – is sat on the business side and kept quite separate from the newsroom. The original logic for this decision is unclear, especially as these teams are not concerned with the business at all and they play as large a role in getting the articles read by the general public as the newsroom does.

That leads to great confusion as to how the two sides can collaborate on digital projects on an ongoing basis:

‘Part of the problem is that editors often don’t understand what colleagues who work in these Reader Experience roles can do to help improve our report. More fundamentally, though, there is widespread concern that it is inappropriate to speak with colleagues on the business side’s payroll.”

The report suggests that instead, the reader experience team should be treated as an extension of the digital newsroom, rather than being kept completely separate.

In addition, the report cites much frustration from the reader experience team at seeing more digitally focused jobs being given to journalists with little digital experience. The business side of the team is often undervalued in terms of the potential value they bring to the journalistic process.

Peretti at BuzzFeed, meanwhile, thinks that all sides of his publication, whether content creation or the technology behind it, are equally important to success:

“BuzzFeed is unique in that we are equally obsessed with 1) entertaining content 2) substantive content and 3) social advertising. The teams that focus on each of these areas are equally important, which is a key part of our success. Some companies only care about journalism and as a result the people focusing on lighter editorial fare or advertising are second class citizens.”

It seems that in this respect, the NYT are pretty keen to follow BuzzFeed’s example, although they stress that they don’t want an organisation shake-up:

“We are not proposing a wholesale reorganization. But we do believe simply issuing a new policy – collaborating with our colleagues focused on reader experience is encouraged and expected – would send a powerful signal and unlock a huge store of creative energy and insights.”

The story doesn’t finish once you publish it

Related to the separation of church and state is another attitude which the NYT has to contend with: that the hard work isn’t over once you’ve hit “publish.”

The report compares the situation now to when the printed version of the newspaper was first published. Back in those days, the NYT aggressively made sure that the papers got circulated – that they were on the vans, distributed by the paper boys and religiously tracked to see where they were being bought, in order that circulation could be continuously improved.

However, the same efforts for digital are just not being realised, as there is an expectation that with the NYT brand and its values, people would just come to the site without being prompted.

“The realization that you have to go find your audience – they’re not going to just come and read it – has been transformative,” says one NYT executive in the report.

The ‘Discovery’ element, or the promotion of the articles, at the NYT has been left for the business-side colleagues, as an after-thought. The report cites an incident in which a series of articles were released, after months of research and hard work, with barely a warning to their marketing counterparts to promote it. The marketing person tweeted a link to it two days after.

I’m sure that the majority of their digital competitors would shudder at the horror of that – a piece of content with no promotional plan?! Instead, digital publishers such as the Huffington Post expect all their writers and editors to have a thorough understanding of social media promotion, and at ProPublica writers even have to submit five tweets upon handing in their story.

When it comes to the social media platforms of the NYT, the promotional aspect is just as messy – Facebook is run by the business side, Twitter by the newsroom. The social team in general believe that their role is to use social media as a reporting tool, rather than for promotion.

When the report rolls out figures claiming that the number of people who visit the Buzzfeed site through Facebook is six times greater than that of the NYT, it’s not hard to understand why.

Both sides should work together on promotional planning both after and before the piece is published. The report suggests how one of their articles, about a sports star coming out, could have been publicised better, as another publication gained more media coverage from their exclusive interview than the NYT did. The key lesson was that they should have spent more time on it beforehand, rather than sending it out into the ether, hoping on a wing and a prayer.

Even the top management of the NYT, in the accompanying memo to employees, seem still unable to grasp how content promotion should be integrated into each desk’s workflow:

“From the moment a story is published, we should host the conversation about it on NYTimes.com and related platforms.”

Yes, without doubt that is true, but how about before? That’s something that they still seem to not be considering a priority.

How about at BuzzFeed? Each article is monitored individually with its own dashboard and data in real-time. With that useful information, the editors are able to rescue under-performing stories by changing their location on the site, or even altering their headline.

The science of virality

What BuzzFeed seems to have is the supernatural power of making things go viral. However, this is far from supernatural: instead they reverse-engineer other viral posts and use the same methods again and again, until they are honed.

Derek Thompson from The Atlantic sums it up, nicely:

“A hit-making technique is the only way reliable hits can be made – by figuring out what is already popular and tweaking them to make something new.”

Consider how many BuzzFeed quizzes have popped up in your Facebook feed over the past few months: what city you should live in, what Game of Thrones character you should be, how many romantic comedies you have seen. Their secret is that they understand the right mix to achieve virality. In fact, they’ve even made a formula out of it, based on how epidemics spread:

R = ßz

R is the viral reproduction, z represents the number of people who come into contact with it, while ß represents the probability of transmission.

This is the starting point of a theory that Peretti calls “Big Seed Marketing.” Unlike epidemics, however, which come from a single person, the “Big Seed Marketing” comes from several sources, usually paid-for advertising on such platforms as Facebook, which then help to ‘seed’ the article around the web (for a more detailed approach, check out the piece Peretti co-authored with Duncan J. Watts for the Harvard Business Review).

Each variable is analysed to death with BuzzFeed’s data analytics systems. They then implement ‘viral optimisation,’ in which successful messages are promoted and less successful ones starved. BuzzFeed even has access to a treasure trove of data on reader behaviour on other sites too, through their partners.

The NYT seems as though it has only recently cottoned on to the fact that there are sophisticated systems out there to monitor what users are actually reading on their site, where they come from and how long they stick around:

“The masthead recently embraced analytics and is in the process of building up a team that will help the newsroom use data to inform decisions, which would have been one of our main recommendations.”

Goodness! If the NYT has only just embraced these analytics, then who knows how they’ve been keeping track of their website and its success up to now.

The NYT should have an advantage over BuzzFeed; as their articles are behind a paywall, they could feasibly ask for information about their subscribers to better personalise their reading experience beyond the ‘Recommended for you’ column.

But they don’t, even though readers are apparently not reluctant to share this information if they think it will improve their reading experience or benefit the publication.

BuzzFeed, by contrast, personalises the pages displayed according to where you have been directed from. If you are referred from Twitter, you will see more recommended articles that have been doing well on that channel, for example.

Technology is The Man

As NYT’s journalist David Carr says,

“Technology is not a wingman, it is The Man. How something is made and published is often as important as what is made.”

Due to the separation of the reader experience function from the newsroom, innovation is a notoriously slow process at the NYT. Workarounds (quick fixes) are used for their complicated CMS (content management system, the back-end of the website), instead of being improved holistically, as the two sides can’t communicate their needs and capabilities to one another.

The report gives an example of how the newsroom had been struggling to show off their large recipe collection online; yet, once the newsroom and technical team started to work together, a project that had seemed unsolvable was solved.

Platform innovation is treated by competitors of the NYT as a core function. That is truly the case at BuzzFeed, where Peretti explains,

“Our tech team, product team, and data science team have built a very powerful publishing platform that allows us to serve our readers better. We have spent years building publishing formats, stats and analytics, optimization and testing frameworks, integrations with social platforms, native-mobile apps, and a user-friendly, visually pleasing design. This is a massive investment that is very difficult to replicate, it is part of the reason that the best editorial talent wants to join BuzzFeed, and it creates a virtuous cycle where a growing number of talented people use increasingly powerful tools to do their job.”

The NYT needs be more open to making mistakes, and to carry out digital experiments faster. By using minimal viable products, they could then refine and reiterate the platforms, instead of keeping their newspaper-strait-jacketed thinking of ‘polished is best.’

Should the NYT be digital or print?

The NYT is in identity crisis. Should it think of itself as a print company with a digital arm? Or should it be a digital company with a print arm?

The report makes their point of view clear:

“The Times needs to accelerate its transition from a newspaper that also produces a rich and impressive digital report to a digital publication that also produces a rich and impressive newspaper.”

Digital first, then print. Their problem, however, is that when it comes to revenue, digital only accounts for 25%. The print version is subsidising the online. And that’s what makes it difficult to reverse the long-held view of digital being secondary, despite the fact that a far greater proportion of their readership is online, with only 1.5M print subscribers and 30M web readers in the US alone.

Conversations and meetings in the newsroom revolve around who is on Page One. Writers are held to account for the number of times they appear there, and emails circulate daily proclaiming which stories made it to that top spot.

If the homepage of the NYT’s website, the digital equivalent to Page One, is becoming less important to the reader, then this obsession with the front page can’t carry over: it just isn’t relevant. Another hurdle to overcome for journalists and editors adjusting to the digital world.

Digital and print readers have different interests and different ways of reading: an article published in the Sunday papers, for example, may not necessarily be the best time for publishing it online. Accordingly, using a print strategy for online may not be the best idea, just as adapting a digital strategy for print would not work either. The two need to be optimised for whatever works best for each channel.

For BuzzFeed, at least it is more clear-cut: they have never been a print medium, and therefore do not have to deal with any legacies hanging over their heads. They are at liberty, unconstrained by column inches or formatting, to experiment with new technologies far more nimbly.

The NYT, therefore, needs more reporters and editors who have an intuitive sense of how to write for the web, to experiment with tools and to understand the shifting competitive landscape.

That’s another area in which BuzzFeed is winning: they went on a spate of hiring world-class journalists who had a flair for online, including Ben Smith, the editor-in-chief for BuzzFeed and a former Politico writer and prolific blogger.

Long-term is hard work

The last challenge for the NYT to face up to is that they need to look at the long-term now and instil that urgency into their editorial and business team.

As one interviewee for the report claimed, just focusing on the daily, hectic schedule of getting the articles out can be

“a form of laziness, because it is work that is comfortable and familiar to us, that we know how to do. And it allows us to avoid the truly hard work and bigger questions about our present and our future: What shall we become? How must we change?”

The newsroom teams do not have the opportunity nor the time to examine where the NYT is now and where it should go.

For BuzzFeed, however, the long-term is key to their strategy, as Peretti makes clear:

“But it means that we can’t take short cuts, we need to always invest in the future, and this is why we spend so much time and money building technology and products that don’t have an immediate impact on the company but will help us down the road. (…) We could juice our traffic and revenue by dropping everything and focusing entirely on the short term. And that is what companies do when they are trying to flip for a fast payday. But when you are building something enduring, you have to care as much about next year as you do about next week. That is how you build something big and that’s our goal.”

Building something big is certainly what BuzzFeed has achieved, currently valued at $200 million – not too shabby for a publication regularly derided for its lengthy lists and endless cat memes.

Should the NYT emulate BuzzFeed?

Peretti is clearly on to something. BuzzFeed’s readership now far outranks that of the NYT and is steadily climbing, as a stark graph indicates on page five of the report.

Now, I’m far from suggesting that the NYT is planning to imitate BuzzFeed’s content and start publishing ‘best of’ lists or (horror of horrors!) start using bullet-point lists. They make it quite clear throughout the report that they do not consider BuzzFeed to be a competitor when it comes to quality journalism.

However, I think it is clear that the writers of the report admire many of BuzzFeed’s strategies on integrating content promotion into their workflow, focusing on the long-term and being innovators – leading the change, rather than scrambling for a solution.

If the NYT succeed in implementing any of these strategies and truly become a “digital publication that also produces a rich and impressive newspaper,” then I think before too long BuzzFeed could well be writing an Innovation report using the NYT as an example.

After all, with the NYT’s renowned journalism, loyal readership and large Reader Experience team (633 strong) – the New York Times should be the disruptors, not the incumbents.

Full Innovation report here:

The Full New York Times Innovation Report by Amanda Wills, Mashable