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.”
Baquet’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:
- Push to mobile: We’ve contrasted Times Public Editor Margaret Sullivan’s recent missive on “the curious (and vital) power of print,” where she notes that more than 70% of NYT revenue comes from that platform, with her followup last Friday, offering “a darker narrative” by Clay Shirkey. Their exchange follows lots of attention in the last few weeks on the Times’ push toward a predominantly mobile future, including plans revealed today for a new NYT Now app. Currently, 50 percent of the brand’s digital traffic comes from mobile, and that’s expected to top 75% within a few years. Our class has downloaded Times apps, including NYT Now, and is discussing their advertising ramifications, user interfaces, and integration with social media and other brands. (Among our required reading: “Times CIO Marc Frons: What we are doing to make the Times mobile-first,” via The Enterprisers Project, and “NYTimes shifting resources from ‘every division’ to mobile,” via Advertising Age. Today’s Times press release on changes to its mobile portfolio, including plans for the Apple Watch.)
- 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.)
- Graphics journalism and multimedia storytelling: The Times is a pioneer in the world of graphics and interactive storytelling, and we got the inside scoop from Times journalist Larry Buchanan, who joined us via Google Hangouts last Thursday, April 9, to show his work. (We have avalanches here in Missoula; he’s helped the Times tell dramatic stories like mudslides). Larry spoke about the teamwork-planning-collaboration that makes it all happen, get nerdy with code and software talk, and gave career advice, including how to get better at the tech stuff while staying true to telling powerful stories. (Required reading: Sampling of the incredible interactive work produced for the Times by Larry and his colleagues. Plus: 2014: The Times year in interactive storytelling, graphics and multimedia.)
- NYT Magazine revamp across platforms: In February, the Times unveiled a major revamp of its magazine, with a debut issue packing more than 200 ad-stocked pages (a huge part of our discussion), followed soon by revamped digital offerings. We dissected the design in print and web, but more important, examined specific new features and their strategies for developing affinity and audience, including expanded reach across social platforms. Fun fact: the Times Magazine is not distributed in Montana, but we were determined to get our hands on physical copies, since print design and flow, and ad sales, were a big part of our discussion. Enter Times Mag Design Director Gail Bichler, who at the urging of my friend Bob Newman, graciously shipped us a box of 18 copies of the launch issue. (We don’t care about killing trees in Montana, we have plenty.) We love you, Gail! (Required reading: “Behind the relaunch of the NYTimes Magazine,” from the magazine, and more on “Using the NYTimes Magazine to teach design and disruption,” from this blog.)
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.
Related or semi-related:
- Elsewhere on this blog: An expanded curated reading list about Baquet, the NYTimes, and disruption, including some of the assigned readings for our class.
- Home page for J494, The Pollner Seminar: Critical Thinking About Design and Disruption, at the University of Montana School of Journalism.
- “We ARE the Disruptors” (downloadable ebook produced by our class). How U of Montana J-school grads are navigating, and causing, disruption in their first jobs out of school.
- Follow Ron Reason on Twitter for links to more blog posts like this, and other sources of inspiration on visual journalism and change.