The challenges and complexities of ‘muddling through’ the disruption

I spent a good part of a yesterday afternoon transfixed by the leaked internal report on innovation at The New York Times. It is a fascinating and frank behind-the-scenes assessment of the state of digital journalism at one of the nation’s most respected news organizations. A must-read for educators, journalists and students.

The leaked Times memo came on the heels of another report — this one public — that reached similar conclusions. Duke University’s “The Goat Must Be Fed”  surmised that many U.S. newsrooms aren’t taking advantage of emerging low-cost digital tools that allow journalists to report and present their work in innovative ways.

MP900405436 (2)Depressing. But no big surprise there. However, when you add the Times analysis to the mix,  the issue becomes a bit more alarming. With ground-breaking online packages like “Snowfall,” innovative apps and amazing interactive data visualization pieces, the Times seemed immune from the ravages of disruption. So when The New York Times seems to be running scared — it’s another ballgame.

The big takeaway for me: Dealing with disruption is harder than we thought; it’s an extremely messy, complex and challenging problem for legacy media — even The New York Times.

What also was clear to me from both reports: the degree to which news organizations are paralyzed because they have to straddle print and digital. It’s both a cultural and business paralysis, as the Times notes in its report:

More than three quarters of our advertising and subscription revenue still comes from the newspaper, and most of our employees have spent their careers building skills to succeed in print. But the huge majority of our readers are digital, and this represents our single biggest opportunity for growth.

Digital First Media, which had the right idea to “unbolt” from print, had similar problems earlier this year with the shuttering of Thunderdome and other cuts. As Ken Doctor noted in a Nieman Journalism Lab piece:  “The ongoing devastation in print is overwhelming even DFM’s relatively faster pace of digital innovation.”

Newsroom culture and the desire for the status quo don’t help the situation, as the Duke report notes:

Local news leaders often cite budget, time and people as their biggest constraints. But conversations with more than 20 senior editors and producers also revealed deeper issues — part infrastructure, part culture. This includes a lack of technical understanding and ability and an unwillingness to break reporting habits that could create time and space to experiment.

And “print-first” habits die hard, even at the The New York Times, as the “Innovation” report notes in several places:

  • “The newsroom is unanimous: we are focusing too much time and energy on Page One.”
  • The Times has “a cadre of editors who remain unfamiliar with the web.”
  • “Many desks lack editors who even know how to evaluate digital work.”

What The New York Times seems to hint at — and what others have said — Amy Webb comes prominently to mind — is that legacy media companies need to be “tech first,” not “digital first.” (Hear Webb’s lucid explanation here, starting at 2:25.)

In citing them specifically, The New York Times seems to be most afraid of media start-ups  First Look Media, Vox, Huffington Post, Business Insider and BuzzFeed. These digital companies would better fit Webb’s definition.  They are free from the confines of printing presses and newsprint; they can focus on innovation and how to use technology to best serve their audience.

I think Webb has a great point about “tech first” — but it’s obviously a huge chasm, if most newspapers aren’t even close to being “digital first,” as the Duke report noted:

But there is a still significant gap between the industry’s digital haves and have-nots — particularly between big national organizations, which have been most willing to try data reporting and digital tools, and smaller local ones, which haven’t.

So the question becomes: How to get to “tech first,” especially when you are struggling just to get to “digital first.”

All of this sobering and unsettling — and as The New York Times noted — something media companies will continue to struggle with as the pace of change accelerates.

Difficult new questions will arrive with each new shift. In all likelihood, we will spend the rest of our careers wrestling with them. The leader of another organization called this era, “A period of muddling through.”

In future posts, I’ll tackle what I think these reports mean for journalism education and also address some of the positive points. 
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