For the past two decades, newspapers have faced an existential challenge as our lives have transitioned from print to digital. Yet The New York Times has successfully made the biggest strategic shift in its 165-year history. It has transformed from an old-school print publication into a digital powerhouse.
SocialChorus recently had the pleasure of hosting Cliff Levy, Deputy Managing Editor, The New York Times, who was one of the architects of this digital transformation. A two-time Pulitzer prize winner, he brought his dynamic insight into creating an internal communications strategy for our new multi-channel world.
One of the most exciting outcomes of this digital transformation and move toward a subscription-based model is The New York Times’ The Morning Briefing, which has more than 1.3 million weekday newsletter subscribers. It’s offered in multiple, location-specific editions, delivered to each audience as they start their respective morning in the U.S., Europe, Asia, and Australia.
Here are the top 10 questions (and Cliff’s answers) he received during the webinar.
1. What are the lessons you’ve learned from the New York Times’ digital transformation?
We had three main lessons in our digital transition:
- Strategy: The Times has both newsroom and corporate strategy teams that synthesize data, analytics, research and competitive analysis to chart a way forward for the company, aligned to our overall goals (such as the 2020 report).
- Leadership: The Times masthead is bought into and clearly values reaching these goals and emphasizes the importance of the work to get there.
- Implementation: Having a team of trainers – ours is called the Digital Transition Team – that works 1:1 with people across disciplines; meeting them where they are at and bringing them along to build their skills is critical.
2. How much resistance did you get from traditionalists at The Times as you made this journey, and how did you manage the “hard” transition internally?
Change is hard. One way to meet the resistance was reframing the terminology and calling them “experiments.” By calling them “experiments” with a specific time frame, we were able to try new things. And if they worked we would continue them. If it didn’t, we would try something new. We were able to get buy-in and innovate in a way that is measured.
3. How do I steer my company’s employees to a mobile platform when they are clinging to their weekly email newsletters?
It really is about testing new ideas and analyzing the metrics, which could be open rates and click-through-rates depending on the platform. You need to see what’s working and what’s not. And different people prefer different formats. Understand your audience and then select the right format for them. It could be that some want a mobile experience, while others want the email.
4. Tell us more about The New York Times’ new revenue model.
The New York Times is investing into its core offering, it’s journalism. We’re being authentic to who we are, while moving to a digital model. We have more than 3.7 million total paid subscriptions, of which 2.8 million are digital-only, more than any news organization in the world. Additionally:
- The Times has subscribers in over 200 countries and territories
- We have 1,450+ journalists on staff
- Our newsroom is home to more visual journalists than any of our competitors, and we employ more journalists who can write code than any other news organization
- Each year our journalists report from more than 150 countries
- The New York Times has won 125 Pulitzer Prizes and Citations, far more than any other news organization
5. What specific metrics do you use at The Times to measure engagement and behavior?
We like to use qualitative surveys, adding a callout at the very top of the page. It would clearly state we were trying something new and wanted feedback. And we would get it. Surveys helped us understand our audience. We learned what they liked and what worked.
6. What if the feedback you get is that the group doesn’t want to hear “corporate” news? And we’re going to send it out anyway? It will seem as though we aren’t listening.
You do need to take negative feedback with a grain of salt. You can’t please everyone, and if you have specific needs for the “corporate” news, perhaps you need to rethink the format or how it is presented.
Our The Morning Briefing has been successful in part in that it is a daily email. It gives you the information you need to get your day started. It wouldn’t work the same if it was weekly or even monthly. Test out your ideas and see what works for your audience.
7. How do you use all those platforms without rewriting or reframing the same article in multiple ways?
Building the right team is very important. The team needs to think “natively” about that platform because what works in the email version of The Morning Briefing is not going to work on social media or even Snapchat. So it is not necessarily thinking about rewriting but understanding the platform and creating relevant content for it.
8. What’s an example of how you engage readers?
We are helping The Times reimagine its relationship with its readers, and a key part of that is making The Times more transparent and more accessible. A good example is The Reader Center, which harnesses our readers’ experiences and insights to strengthen our journalism.
During teacher protests at public schools in the U.S. this past winter, we spotted on social media a photograph a teacher had posted showing a duct-taped textbook in her classroom. We reached out to teachers across the country and asked them to show us conditions in their schools, and we heard from 4,200 teachers.
9. Does mobile content need to be short?
No, we found that it doesn’t, but it needs to be “snackable,” which means breaking up the long text into short paragraphs, adding photos, and headlines. You can easily have 1,200 to 1,700-word articles that people would read as long as we used this approach. It is really being a digital native and understanding visual storytelling. People will read 6,000-word articles or watch 2-hour movies on their phone. It all boils down to good storytelling.
10. What are some key takeaways?
Three key takeaways are:
- Stay true to who you are. Always be authentic to your core values.
- Storytelling is key.
- Digital change is hard.
If corporations want to engage their workforce, maybe they need to take a more journalistic approach to cover what’s important for them to communicate with their employees. Thank you very much! Watch the full recording of Engaging Your Audience on Mobile, featuring Cliff Levy, New York Times now.