Let’s steal from the New York Times

Back in 2014, a New York Times internal strategy document leaked out into the world, called The New York Times Innovation Report. It was the result of an 8-month, deep-dive reporting project. Basically, a small strategy team studied the whole company and its blindingly-fast-changing industry, then reported back.

The Innovation Report caused a big stir and for good reason: this was a clear, strategic overview of the challenges faced by every newspaper trying to escape a fate that seemed written in stone (or like, litho plates).

I was blown away by it back then, and, having just re-read it four years later, I’m even more impressed. This is what strategy is all about: a clear-eyed view of the current situation; an honest appraisal of strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats; and a smart, coherent roadmap to drive change.

That it could even be conceived from such a place—the very epicenter of old-school journalism;  an empire built entirely on print—is remarkable.

That is was so damn right is pretty much unprecedented.

Here are just the first paragraphs from the introduction:

“The New York Times is winning at journalism. Of all the challenges facing a media company in the digital age, producing great journalism is the hardest. Our daily report is deep, broad, smart and engaging— and we’ve got a huge lead over the competition.

At the same time, we are falling behind in a second critical area: the art and science of getting our journalism to readers. We have always cared about the reach and impact of our work, but we haven’t done enough to crack that code in the digital era.”

Boom. Instant clarity.

Dead in the water?

When this was written, almost every media-watcher, part-time pundit and Silicon Valley smart-ass was predicting the certain demise of all the old print newspaper businesses, especially The Gray Lady.

[I once heard a Buzzfeed exec dismiss all newspapers as “legacy mastheads”. Ouch. Today, I’d much rather own NYT shares than Buzzfeed shares. I don’t wish them ill, but it did rankle to hear a two-year-old web puppy built on half a billion dollars of VC money and stories like “Which Disney princess are you?” lecturing The New York Goddamn Times on the future of publishing.]

As it’s turned out (so far), The Times has defied both gravity and gurus.

When the report was written, the Times had 780,000 online subscribers. That was a pretty strong start for one of the industry’s paywall pioneers but it was a long way from replacing their disappearing ad revenue and print sales.

  • Today (according to the latest data I could find: Feb 2018), they have 2.6m digital subscribers, with subscription revenue accounting for 60 per cent of the company’s revenue.
  • Subs revenue passed $1bn for the first time in 2017, and they’re well on their way to their five-year goal of doubling digital sales by 2020.  (Source FT.com)

This is partly (and hugely ironically) thanks to the ‘Trump Bump’, the surge in appetite for real news during a blatantly fake administration.

What’s even more interesting and impressive is that the Times is doing this by focusing not on advertisers but on readers. As CEO MarkThompson (ex BBC head) said:

“We still regard advertising as an important revenue stream, but believe that our focus on establishing close and enduring relationships with paying, deeply engaged users . . . is the best way of building a successful and sustainable news business”.


So what can marketers learn from the New York Times?

So, so much.

Put aside their unrivaled journalism (see the excellent 4-part documentary called The Fourth Estate to see what journalistic integrity looks like. I loved it but it got a lukewarm review in… The New York Times.)

Put aside their seemingly futile but critically important attempt to hold powerful, orange people to account. Or their deep, long-form work like the series on the rise of China, The Land That Failed To Fail.

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Put all that aside and just look at the Times as a firehose of digital innovation.

The Times is constantly coming up with cool, smart, exciting, interesting, and innovative ways to tell stories.

The people you’d have bet on to be last in letting go of the Gutenberg mindset and embracing digital turned out to be first.

An early example of this was Snow Fall: The Avalanche at Tunnel Creek, the stunning story of an avalanche in Washington state that slammed into sixteen skiers.

Published in 2012, it combined gripping, unashamedly long-form text (by John Branch) with photos, videos, maps, animations and audio.


Image source: Phase 2 Technology

As soon as the snowy hero banner loaded, you knew you were in for a new kind of storytelling. And that promise was kept, as every scroll and click was rewarded with smart new perspectives that always enhanced the story rather than distracting from it.

Every web publisher and marketer who saw it rushed back to their writers, designers and developers and said, “Make me one!”. By the time the imitations went live, The Times was on to its next experiments.

And for each experiment that made it over the very high bar that is the NYT ‘publish’ button, I imagine there have been dozens that never made the grade. These guys may occasionally produce crap but they don’t often publish it.

Check out these impressive pieces:

This Is 18 Around the World – a look at girls’ lives through girls’ eyes, capturing “what life is like for girls turning 18 in 2018 across oceans and cultures — in Mexico and Mississippi, Ramallah and Russia, Bangladesh and the Bronx.”


How Syrians Are Dying – a staggering visual depiction of the 200,000 killed in the Syrian civil war.

syria's dead


The awesome slideshow, Simone Biles Gymnastics, from 2016.

New York Times interactive content

I could go on and on and on with examples after example of incredibly effective digital storytelling that’s as elegant as it is intelligent.

(Dip into 2017: The Year in Visual Stories and Graphics for more).

(Oh, you’re not a subscriber so you can only view three of these?  Well. FIX THAT. NOW.)

Things we can all steal from the New York Times

We could extract 10-15 lessons from any one of these innovative stories but I’m taking the lazy way out and giving you a cluster of core principles that every marketer can and should steal from The Gray Lady:

Put your reader first – No really first. Before your VP of Sales. Before your CMO. Before your CEO. Serve your readers. Earn every subscriber through quality, craft and integrity.

This single North Star for the NYT team makes every other decision relatively clear. What I’m most excited about when I think about this grand experiment in transformation is that The NYT is essentially inventing a new business model that profits from serving readers ahead of advertisers. The future of democracy itself may depend on their success.

Always be experimenting – The Times doesn’t just run a lot of experiments; they’ve made experimentation a central part of their culture. That’s a huge advantage and one every marketing team should be copying.

This digital thing is still new and no one knows exactly what works. There’s a hidden universe of new ways to tell stories and experimenting is how we discover it.

And, of course, part of an experimentation culture is getting better at capturing and sharing your learning. An example: one of their early Times experiments was about re-packaging archive content to make it relevant again. This is how they captured the lessons:

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Simple, clear and actionable for a wide range of people and departments. Do you have a ‘Lessons Learned’ section in your analytics reports and strategy docs?

[BTW: By definition, many experiments fail. The Times was an early pioneer of native advertising… and it sucked, betraying their core values. I’m glad to see it gone.]

Love your story – you can only lavish all this care and attention on a story if you really, really want people to come with you and to understand what you’re trying to tell them. It’s not just how you say it, it’s what you say. Say fresh, interesting, new things and you’ll be almost forced to tell them in new ways. (We’re exploring this with pieces like The New Media Message — and it’s fun).

Let go of Gutenberg – Print was the Daddy for 550 years or so. But it’s time to let go. and if a newspaper founded in the 19th century can let go, you can let go. (Why are we still cramming 750 words on to a PDF page? Ink and paper cost a lot of money. Pixels don’t). Think digital first.

“It is essential to begin the work of questioning our print-centric traditions…”

— from the NYT Innovation Report

Break down silos – The team that created the Innovation Report included journalists, editors, a UX person and two strategists. To develop the strategy, they interviewed over 100 people across the business. The legacy drag of tradition is a formidable thing. Overcoming it takes a village.

“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.”

— from the NYT Innovation Report

Work harder to get your work discovered – My examples above focus on the innovative content that the Times produces. But the Innovation Report has even more pages dedicated to getting readers to discover their journalism than it does on the storytelling itself.

To an organization whose idea of distribution used to involve trees and trucks and kids on bikes and corner shops, this was probably the biggest learning curve of all. And they climbed it frighteningly quickly.

“The work [of audience development] can be broken down into steps like discovery (how we package and distribute our journalism), promotion (how we call attention to our journalism) and connection (how we create a two-way relationship with readers that deepens their loyalty).”

— from the NYT Innovation Report

Be brilliant – A lot of the success of The New York Times comes down to having already assembled many of the world’s most talented journalists, editors, photographers, designers and creators. That didn’t happen by accident, it happened by raising the bar and keeping it high.

Marketing teams everywhere can learn from that. Instead of making the best from whatever talent you’ve already got, work even harder attracting better talent, then giving them the kind of exciting briefs that keeps them on board.

Go forth and steal

A fundamental premise of the ‘Let’s Steal From’ series is to choose your victims carefully. It’s not enough to steal from the standard ‘best-practice’ work done by your peers in marketing.

Stealing from the very best in all disciplines is a far richer source of inspiration, ideas and specific tactics.

For me, The New York Times is right up there with the world’s most eligible targets. Every marketing team in the world will get better by shamelessly ripping them off.

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