Changing Times: A Q&A with the NYT

How are The New York Times changing the newsroom to meet the challenges of the future? Jodi Rudoren, Associate Managing Editor of The New York Times joins the Outside In podcast with C Space CEO Charles Trevail to talk fake news, readership, artificial intelligence, and more.

Dan Sills

Associate Director at C Space

Dan Sills is the producer of Outside In, a podcast that explores changes in business and consumer behavior and where the two converge. The Huffington Post dubbed Outside In as one of “The 7 Best Business Podcasts You Should Be Listening To” and Entrepreneur named it on its list of “Best Podcasts for Entrepreneurs.” A talented writer (we call him “Dan Quills”) and sharp-witted storyteller who could win an analogy throwdown handily, Dan performs on stage in story slams and was a grandSLAM finalist for The Moth.

In late 2015, Dean Baquet, executive editor of The New York Times, assembled a group of seven journalists for an important assignment. How should The New York Times change the newsroom to meet the challenges of the future?

For more than a year, the seven journalists, dubbed the 2020 Group, worked closely with leadership. They interviewed Times journalists and people outside the company. They questioned long-held assumptions, analyzed reader behavior, conducted focus groups, and surveyed the newsroom. In early 2017, their findings culminated in the 2020 Report, which outlined principles and priorities for change at The Times.

Since then, a lot has changed. The Times is no longer the omnipotent News God that blesses you with a sacred scroll on your front lawn every morning. It’s embracing new forms of storytelling, designing a more visual and interactive report, and getting closer to readers.

While the printed newspaper still exists, it’s losing favor to an omnipresent digital format, where news and distinctive content gets updated multiple times per day. The Times is emphasizing trusted voices and diverse perspectives, and getting its stories seen (and heard) in different formats, like The Daily, one of the most listened-to podcasts in the world. As “above-the-fold” becomes a relic, daily news podcasts like The Daily might become, as podcast industry expert Nicholas Quah has suggested, “the new front page.”

If you’re wondering whether the 2020 Group’s recommendations and these changes have been  helpful, The Times reported earlier this year that it had taken in $607 million in total digital revenue, well on track to hitting a goal of $800 million by 2020.

One of the seven journalists chosen to be on the 2020 Group is Jodi Rudoren, an associate managing editor and a veteran Times journalist. She also oversees the The Times’s gender initiative and leads a team working to grow and engage audiences internationally. Jodi talked with C Space CEO Charles Trevail on the Outside In podcast about the profound changes happening at The Times – in its business and in its journalism, as both get more focused on readers.

How has The New York Times as an organization changed?

There’s been two profound changes that have been building for a number of years. One is a business change, which is that journalism is at the center of everything we do. That’s our core product. That’s what we’re selling. We used to sell advertisers on the demographics of our readers. This is a different model. Now we’re trying to sell individual consumers around the world on high quality journalism — signature journalism that stands apart.

The other thing that’s changed massively is the journalistic tools that we have to tell our story and the platforms on which we are being consumed. Because people are now consuming our journalism increasingly on the phone — and, increasingly, throughout the day — we have started to rethink lots of what we do, but not the core values of what we do. We’re still doing the same thing: bearing witness, explaining a complicated world, telling great stories, holding power to account. But we now use a lot more video and graphics and interactive features. And it’s all in service of the same mission.

Is “fake news” helping or hindering The New York Times brand?

I think the answer has to probably be both. A few years ago, we were in a bit of a pickle. The democratization of publishing and platforms, and the idea that basically anybody could write and publish on a flat surface with us was problematic. There was a sense that people wanted to access everything in its organic form and everything should be equal. That went right at the heart of what we were great at: creation and authority.

The rise of fake news — or the rise of understanding the threat of fake news — has clarified for us, and for the public, our mission and our value. Amid the cacophony of fake news, there’s an understanding that you can’t trust sources you thought you could trust. You can’t trust Facebook to give you a fair shake at what is real and what is not. The value of a news organization that is trusted and authoritative and independent has gone up. We are all about exposing the truth, even when it’s hard to find or hard to look at. We’re about giving the truth a voice. And when people call us fake news, I think it’s obviously a joke or obviously not true.

Last year, The Times launched the Reader Center, which brings in readers’ feedback and perspectives. What’s a successful piece of content that readers helped co-create?

We just published an amazing thing on the Reader Center called “Overlooked,” which was writing obituaries for women who never got them over a 167-year history. We also published a call-out to people to nominate subjects. We got 2,500 responses in the first few days. One of the things that happened was that people nominated their mothers and grandmothers and great grandmothers. Those nominations are not really people who should get Times obituaries, but there were these amazing stories. So, we published a roundup of people’s stories of their grandmothers, and it was just so great. It’s the type of thing you just can’t get unless you open yourself up.

What’s changed in how The New York Times measures success?

Well, we used to measure success if the guy you ran into on the elevator said, “Great lead.” If you got on the front page, that was a measure of success. If you were nominated for the Pulitzer, that was the ultimate measure of success. It was really like, if your colleagues said it was good, then it was good.

Now we’re trying to make sure we’re focused on the right data and on the metrics that really matter. The more people engage with our journalism, the more they’re going to like it and understand that it’s worth paying for. One of the things we’re looking at is lines of coverage. How many people are reading our stories about China several times a month, or our stories about opioids in America several times a month? We’re building an audience over time for a signature storyline. We’re looking at a lot of different metrics, but for me it’s really about consistency — people coming back, people beginning to rely on us, and people knowing all the different things we offer them.

Is there a place for AI in the newsroom?

I do think that artificial intelligence (AI) has a lot to offer us. I asked Kai-Fu Lee, who is the inventor of China’s internet and knows everything about AI, whether AI was going to make The New York Times obsolete. Couldn’t an AI robot read every article we’ve ever published and then be able to produce them? He assured me that there’s parts of our report and parts of commodity news out in the world that will be AI-able, but not what The New York Times brings.

The greatest promise for AI, I think, is personalizing the vast Times report for different kinds of readers. As we try to grow our audience around the world and try to reach different kinds of people — get more young people to read us, etc. — it’s critical that we have different kinds of curation based on habits, interest, geography, and maybe more than anything, based on their life with The New York Times. We have to figure out a way to differentiate the experience for different kinds of readers, and I think the key to that is going to be AI.

Click here to listen to the full interview with Jodi and Charles.

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