The leaked New York Times innovation report is one of the key documents of this media age

Here is an excerpt from an article by (in 2014) that helps to explain the nature and extent of  intra-newsroom politics at major media companies in recent years. It’s an astonishing look inside the cultural change still needed in the shift to digital — even in one of the world’s greatest newsrooms, at The New York Times.

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There are few things that can galvanize the news world’s attention like a change in leadership atop The New York Times. Jill Abramson’s ouster probably reduced American newsroom productivity enough to skew this quarter’s GDP numbers.

We don’t typically write about intra-newsroom politics at Nieman Lab, leaving that to Manhattan’s very capable cadre of media reporters. But Abramson’s removal and Dean Baquet’s ascent has apparently inspired someone inside the Times to leak one of the most remarkable documents I’ve seen in my years running the Lab, to Myles Tanzer at BuzzFeed. It’s the full report of the newsroom innovation team that was given six full months to ask big questions about the Times’ digital strategy. (A summary version of it was leaked last week, but this is the big kahuna.)

And that is something we’re interested in here — one of the world’s leading news organizations, giving itself a rigorous self-examination. I’ve spoken with multiple digital-savvy Times staffers in recent days who described the report with words like “transformative” and “incredibly important” and “a big big moment for the future of the Times.” One admitted crying while reading it because it surfaced so many issues about Times culture that digital types have been struggling to overcome for years.

I confess I didn’t feel anything quite so revelatory when I read last week’s leaked version — which read like an indoor-voice summary, expected and designed to be leaked to the broader world. This fuller version is quite different — it’s raw. (Or at least as raw as digital strategy documents can get.) You can sense the frayed nerves and the frustration at a newsroom that is, for all its digital successes, still in many ways oriented toward an old model. It’s journalists turning their own reporting skills on themselves.When last week’s version was sent out to the newsroom, a joint Abramson/Baquet memo (their last together?) expressed support for its findings. (“The masthead embraces the committee’s key recommendations.”) But I have to say, reading that memo and then the full report, it still feels like there’s a big gap between leadership and the digital troops. Some of that could, understandably, be management’s desire not to air its dirtiest laundry in a newsroom-wide memo. But the tone of the memo is we’re almost there! The tone of the report is these people don’t realize how far away we are.

Our media reporter friends are still chasing down why Jill Abramson was fired, and I’m sure in the coming days and weeks, our knowledge of that will grow clearer. The earliest reporting, at least, doesn’t seem to suggest lack of digital vision as a leading significant factor. Baquet had made his biggest marks as an excellent reporter, editor, and manager, not as an online innovator. A big leadership change can sometimes lead to a report like this being put on the shelf; let’s hope that doesn’t happen here.

As bad as this report makes parts of the Times’ culture seem, there are two significant reasons for optimism.

First: So much of the digital work of The New York Times is so damned good, despite all the roadblocks detailed here. Take those barriers away and think what they could do.

And second: While it was a group effort — full list on page 3 here — the leader of this committee was Arthur Gregg Sulzberger, the publisher’s son and a potential heir to the throne, either when his father retires in a few years or sometime thereafter. His involvement in this report shows that he understands the issues facing the institution. That speaks well for the Times’ future.

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Here is a direct link to the complete article.

Jill Ellen Abramson is an American author and journalist. She is best known as the former executive editor of The New York Times. Abramson held that position from September 2011 to May 2014. She was the first female executive editor in the paper’s 160-year history.

Dean P. Baquet is an American journalist. He has been the executive editor of The New York Times since May 14, 2014. Between 2011 and 2014 Baquet was managing editor under the previous executive editor Jill Abramson. He is the first black American to serve as executive editor.

Joshua Benton is an American journalist and writer. He is director of the Nieman Journalism Lab at Harvard University, which he founded in 2008. Before moving to Harvard, Benton was an investigative reporter and columnist for The Dallas Morning News and a staff writer for The Toledo Blade.

 

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