4 big ways the NYTimes is helping us teach ‘design and disruption’

Manhattan meets Montana: With great help from Times staff, we have a front row seat to study news media innovation, leadership, risk and hope

By Ron Reason

Several months of discussing innovation and change at The New York Times culminates this Thursday for our class, “Critical Thinking About Design and Disruption,” when Times Executive Editor Dean Baquet comes to campus as part of Dean Stone Week. He’ll spend an hour in our classroom, and others at the University of Montana School of Journalism, and later present a lecture to the public, “Quality Journalism in the Digital Age: Challenges and Opportunities.”

baquetBaquet’s visit comes in the wake of months of intense change at the Times, and a huge media spotlight on the evolving yet challenged brand, its people and their work – a lucky break for students getting an up-close-and personal look at issues shaping the industry, and their future, partly thanks to a variety of Times staffers helping us out. Here are ways we’ve been taking a deep dive into the Times, in preparation for Baquet’s time here this week:

The Upshot is a Times brand that's continually evolving. Why not retro-brand it as a glossy magazine insert for the new crop of college weeklies cropping up? Some of the cover prototypes designed by our class.

The Upshot is a Times brand that’s continually evolving. Why not retro-brand it as a glossy magazine insert for the new crop of college weeklies cropping up? Some of the cover prototypes designed by our class.

  • The Upshot as a channel with promise: In March we looked at Times channel The Upshot, to stretch our thinking about how writing styles are evolving, how the Times experiments with niche coverage and products, and the uncertain path for revenue. We wondered (disruptively): What if the Times created a mini magazine version of The Upshot, and partnered with college newspapers (increasingly converting to news weeklies) to insert a niche version of the brand? Might this increase affinity for the Times with college readers, and possibly benefit the student press, via ad revenue sharing or distribution payments? Our class designed prototypes, above, and identified possible cover stories and advertisers, to imagine what that might look like. (Required reading: “The Upshot emerges as a potentially lucrative franchise for the Times,” via Advertising Age. And of course, The Upshot itself.)
Live, from New York: Larry Buchanan shares life and work lessons with our class, via Google Hangouts.

Live, from New York: Times graphics journalist Larry Buchanan shares lessons in life and multimedia storytelling with our class on April 9, via Google Hangouts.

Thoughts from the instructor: I’ve waffled between thinking I’m spending too much time on the Times, versus spending not enough. Yes, we’ve tackled almost a dozen other case studies and topics related to news media redesign and reinvention, from big changes for the NCAA’s Champion Magazine (March madness!) to the innovative Crain’s business brands to nonprofit pioneer High Country News, whose leadership team visited our class via Skype. But re-reading this week the Times‘ internal Innovation Report, even a year after its leak/release, reminded me of how much experimentation is taking place at America’s top newspaper, how much the culture is changing and still needs to change, dramatically, how much is at risk – and how much it all offers us to learn.

Ron Reason is the Spring 2015 T. Anthony Pollner Distinguished Professor at the University of Montana School of Journalism. After May he returns to his regularly scheduled career as a consultant to news media organizations around the world, rethinking their products, designs, strategies and cultures. 

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