At the beginning of 2016 things are much rosier at The New York Times than they were two years ago.
Though print is still suffering, there seems to be a greater degree of parity between the incumbent’s digital know-how and that of new online-only upstarts.
The paywall is bearing fruit, social media platforms court its content and Google is trying to shine a light on longer form journalism.
The paper has shown itself again to be a restless experimenter across digital platforms and with new digital technology.
As recently as May 2014, a leaked innovation report from the NYT described a business that was struggling to adapt to digital media consumption in the wake of new competitors’ rapid expansion (chiefly, Buzzfeed).
By the same time a year later, all the suggested changes from the report had been implemented at The Times, with a consequent 27% increase in digital traffic and 50% increase in mobile traffic.
Digital-only subscribers to the NYT now number 1.1m, with digital revenue and efficiencies helping to keep revenue steady in the face of print declines.
Here are some notable examples of NYT innovation that may make an impact in the coming years.
1. Innovation in reporting e.g. The NYT Election Slack Bot
Slack users can add this bot to their channel and receive updates from the 2016 US presidential race.
The bot does allow for some limited two-way communication, too. Users are able to submit questions, though the majority of posts are automated.
Slack is just a small example, but it’s symptomatic of the NYT getting to grips with new ways its reporters can engage during live events, as Marc Lavalee, NYT editor of interactive news, tells Laura Owen of Nieman Lab.
We also have to figure out what the reporters have time to do.
…Can [a Slack bot like this] be useful and time-saving in some way, or is it just another thing they’re trying to juggle? That’s what we’ve been grappling with lately.
We haven’t crystallized what we’re committing to, and we haven’t decided how to present the value of this to readers. We’re just practicing a bit in public.
2. Innovation in archiving
Editor is best described by NYT Labs itself (see the quote below)
Editor is an experimental text editing interface that explores how collaboration between machine learning systems and journalists could afford fine-grained annotation and tagging of news articles.
The idea is that the NYT will become not a collection of articles, but structured information allowing for smarter interrogation of the archive.
3. Innovation in storytelling e.g. virtual reality
By the end of 2014, almost three quarters of newspapers had implemented a paywall (via INMA), 60% of those a ‘soft’ paywall, but that doesn’t negate the need to make money through ads and partnerships.
In some ways, more interesting than the NYT jumping rapidly aboard the virtual reality train (with its free phone app and Google Cardboard) was its sponsorship by Lufthansa, Mini and GE.
Content sponsorship done well is an unambiguous way of monetising digital content, one that the reader is comfortable with and doesn’t jeopardise editorial standards (in the way that guest posting does for Huffington Post and the Guardian’s Professional Network, and advertorial does for The Daily Mail).
4. Innovation in distribution e.g. Facebook Instant Articles
Though newspapers may have lagged behind some digitally native publications with regards to mobile development and social strategy, their brands have largely survived intact.
The standards of journalism espoused by titles such as The New York Times still cuts through the noise on social media. This is why every social platform is keen to partner with the best newspapers, as a way of adding valuable content and increasing users’ time in app.
One of the benefits of the afore-mentioned soft paywall is that the NYT can reach a large user base va Facebook.
The New York Times is controversially (for some) part of the Facebook’s Instant Articles project, which allows the newspaper to keep the majority of ad revenue generated by the social platform, in return for allowing Facebook to natively host the publisher’s articles within its app.
At the same time, the new Slack bot and the investigation into notification and messaging technology is an admission by the NYT that stream-based social media might not be here to stay.
National Geographic example of Facebook Instant Articles
5. Innovation in community and the reading experience
Another product of NYT Labs, Membrane is reminiscent of Medium’s comment functionality but with added content being revealed in line, to augment the reading experience.
In prototype, the input of the reader is restricted (question prompts rather than free text), and the author is able to respond to a greater number of users by assessing which parts of an article require clarification or embellishment.
It will be interesting to see how both author and reader input might change dependent on the story’s context.
It’s innovations such as these that should help The New York Times stay at the crest of the digital wave, creating value for readers and advertisers in the pursuit of doubled digital revenue by 2020.