Wednesday 6th July 2011

by Jennifer 8. Lee

I wrote an essay for a book that coin­cided with the release of the doc­u­men­tary, “Page One: Inside The New York Times,” edited by NPR’s David Folken­flik. It was also put up on Poynter.org.

~~~

For years, the third-floor wait­ing area of the old New York Times build­ing at 229 West 43rd fea­tured a mas­sive replica of the first page of the first edi­tion of the news­pa­per. Dated Thurs­day, Sep­tem­ber 18, 1851, the news­pa­per back then was known as The New-York Daily Times. (I love the hyphen.) It was priced at one cent.

I must have walked by that replica thou­sands of times before I finally paused for a closer look. It was made up mostly of blurbs, many of them just a few sen­tences long. None was more than five para­graphs. The inter­na­tional news con­sisted of dis­patches from Turkey, Bre­men, Bavaria and Prus­sia, in most cases sum­ma­riz­ing local pub­li­ca­tions rather than offer­ing orig­i­nal report­ing. The local New York City report­ing was quite chatty, with head­lines like “Disturbance by Rival Blacksmiths,” “Run over by an Ice Cart,” and “Women Poisoned.”

Even non-news was news back then. A short dis­patch titled “False Alarm” read: “Item gath­erer failed to dis­cover the first spark of the fire.” And I was taken with a brief from another edi­tion: “Not Dead.-Mr. John Overho, of Prince street, who was reported to be beyond all med­ical skill on Sat­ur­day, from the effect of coup de soleil, we are glad to learn is likely to recover.”

But what struck me most that day, as I stud­ied that front page, was a sin­gle thought.

This looks like a blog.

The New-York Daily Times was aggre­gated and chatty. It had flex­i­ble means of gath­er­ing infor­ma­tion, and did not take an arm’s-length rela­tion­ship to its audience.

It reminded me that news­pa­pers have evolved —and evolved again. The sten­to­rian style and not-reported-here syn­drome were not always the way.

My first Times job was as a col­lege intern Web pro­ducer. I arrived just a few months after the arti­cle “The New York Times Intro­duces a Web Site” ran on Jan­u­ary 22, 1996. So my first per­spec­tive on The Times came through a dig­i­tal lens. The best perk was stak­ing out jenny@nytimes.com as my e-mail address.

Back then, the front page of the site was a mas­sive, imagemapped gif file, which could take an excru­ci­at­ing five min­utes to load if you were over­seas. But The Times was keen on main­tain­ing its visual style. Since the Web was not mature enough to offer online pub­lish­ers that kind of con­trol, the paper’s solu­tion was to turn fonts into images. Web pro­duc­ers had to under­take painfully repet­i­tive hand cod­ing, almost like a high-tech assem­bly line. So I, like oth­ers, taught myself some basic perl script to auto­mate some of the processes.

Four years later, in 2000, I started my full-time report­ing career at The New York Times as a tech­nol­ogy writer. I still recall hav­ing to define the term “blog” to the read­ers as “short for web log,” which, we has­tened to explain, “often com­piles entries chronologically.” By the end of the 2004 elec­tion, the need for that short­hand was largely over. Within another three years, The Times was rolling out blogs in earnest. That idea would once have made many in the news­room wince: most blogs were ini­tially con­sid­ered more dri­ven by opin­ion than by reporting.

City Room, the new metro blog where I worked, felt like a lit­tle start-up within The Times. The agility of blogs really landed on the man­agers’ radar when the City Room post on the death of the actor Heath Ledger in 2008 racked up 1.78 mil­lion page views. It was the most viewed arti­cle ever in the his­tory of The Times Web site at that point — in large part because The Times blog was the first news out­let to report his death (thanks to the speed of my then col­league Sewell Chan), giv­ing us a head start on the story and a des­ti­na­tion for world­wide interest.

Since step­ping back from the daily news­pa­per churn, I’ve devoted a good deal of my energy per­son­ally and pro­fes­sion­ally to think­ing about the infra­struc­ture needed to cre­ate account­abil­ity jour­nal­ism in the new media world.

News­pa­per cul­ture most resem­bles that of the mil­i­tary or hos­pi­tals. Papers are designed for a sys­tem­atized rapid response, opti­mized for cri­sis sit­u­a­tions. The struc­ture is com­mand and con­trol, even though on the reporter level it doesn’t always feel that way.

The most vivid exam­ple of this occurred on Sep­tem­ber 11, 2001. I had been at The Times just nine months, and appar­ently looked so youth­ful that my cowork­ers still often asked where I was going to col­lege. On that day of tragedy, the machin­ery of The New York Times snapped into place to respond to an event that unfolded before the vast major­ity of us had even set foot in the office. The chore­og­ra­phy spanned the metro, busi­ness, for­eign, national, Wash­ing­ton, photo and graph­ics desks. Even our cul­ture reporters were recruited to do on-the-ground report­ing. In the chaos, we found order. After all, jour­nal­ists — like fire­fight­ers and police offi­cers — are peo­ple who run toward a cri­sis. That cri­sis trig­gered a mirac­u­lous, months-long marathon.

But that kind of syn­chronic­ity came with a trade-off: a depen­dency on estab­lished process and cul­ture. And like any body with a hardy immune sys­tem, it often rejects new pres­ences as foreign.

For The Times, adapt­ing its processes to the new real­i­ties of an inter­con­nected infor­ma­tion ecosys­tem requires shed­ding or alter­ing the out­dated parts of an organization’s sen­si­bil­ity while keep­ing its essen­tial prin­ci­ples. And that Her­culean task involves qual­i­ties on which few news­room lead­ers were eval­u­ated as they ascended the edi­to­r­ial and man­age­r­ial ranks.

As one pro­gram­mer in a news start-up described the chal­lenge to me: it’s not the tech­nol­ogy, it’s the peo­ple. It’s a trick to find peo­ple who have enough grav­i­tas to have cred­i­bil­ity in the world of legacy media, but are flu­ent in the dynam­ics of tech­no­log­i­cal reality.

After leav­ing The Times, I down­loaded and read Clay­ton M. Christiansen’s clas­sic book, “The Innovator’s Dilemma.” I paused when I real­ized the sce­nar­ios he was describ­ing in the hard­ware indus­try mir­rored what was hap­pen­ing to legacy media out­lets. The dom­i­nant play­ers were struc­turally unable to tran­si­tion in the face of dis­rup­tive tech­nol­ogy because their strengths — brand, processes, qual­ity — became their weaknesses.

In our case, news blogs were upstarts. They took smaller profit mar­gins and embraced flex­i­ble stan­dards on how to gather the news — and what and when to pub­lish. Those choices — unbur­dened by weighty tra­di­tion — gave them a foothold that allowed them to move upmar­ket into the main­stream. They eagerly exper­i­mented, took risks and for­gave failure.

The estab­lished brands, because of their cost struc­tures and their focus on brand and reli­a­bil­ity, were slow to enter new mar­kets. Once they did, they strug­gled to be nim­ble enough to catch up.

For the legacy media orga­ni­za­tions, the very things that cre­ated their record of cred­i­bil­ity — like not pub­lish­ing some­thing until they are con­fi­dent it is true — run counter to a world where speed becomes a com­pet­i­tive advan­tage. The cau­tion about post­ing an item about a devel­op­ing event, some­times just as rumor, on The Times Web site until it had been inde­pen­dently con­firmed ensured the paper’s stan­dards are secure. It largely pre­vented The Times from cir­cu­lat­ing uncer­tain facts, but it also meant some­times read­ers had learned about break­ing news some­where else.

That fierce devo­tion to the newspaper’s brand per­vaded all depart­ments, across the orga­ni­za­tion. I wrote a Sun­day Style piece about the “man date,” the way in which many straight men social­ize, one on one, with­out the crutch of pro­fes­sional sports or busi­ness. When the story gen­er­ated inter­est from Hol­ly­wood screen­writ­ers, a lawyer for The Times helped me sell the movie option based on the idea of the “man date,” which I appre­ci­ated. But she told me her high­est con­cern was “protecting the brand” of the insti­tu­tion. I tried to puz­zle out how you would even cal­cu­late the impact of the inse­cu­rity of het­ero­sex­ual men on The Times’ brand.

Inevitably, ques­tions and even ten­sions arose when the ingrained Times cul­ture rubbed against emerg­ing dig­i­tal sen­si­bil­i­ties. For years, get­ting a story pub­lished on page A1 of The New York Times — the holy grail for most reporters — was a pro­tracted rit­ual that involved two meet­ings with a large cast involv­ing increas­ingly senior edi­tors. The process by which the sto­ries were pitched and debated took hours over numer­ous meet­ings across all the dif­fer­ent departments.

In com­par­i­son, the process of get­ting a story onto the home page of The New York Times Web site often involved lob­by­ing a 20-something gate­keeper, gen­er­ally via instant mes­sage. The edi­tors of blogs, who had no guar­an­tee their con­tent would even appear in the paper, were strate­gic about what we would lobby for — and when to do it. The right home page “refer” could send page views soaring.

When I started work­ing on the City Room blog, I asked to see the traf­fic num­bers, a stan­dard met­ric for any Web site. I was told reporters weren’t allowed to see traf­fic num­bers because we didn’t want to become too much like tele­vi­sion, too ratings-obsessed. Indeed, it made us wince when Gawker tied com­pen­sa­tion to page views. But those fig­ures can pro­vide a real-time eval­u­a­tion of how use­ful our read­ers found what we posted. (A lit­tle report­ing paid off: I found some­one on the busi­ness side to give me an account for the Web stats, through a lead I met on the elevator.)

Now and then, The Times also strug­gles with mesh­ing its stan­dards and those widely accepted else­where. I was told more than once never to link to Wikipedia within New York Times blog posts, even though Wikipedia is some­times the best (and indeed some­times the only) resource on a topic. Some Wikipedia entries are flawed, but many are very good and there is a rea­son why they gen­er­ally rank so highly on Google searches. Rather than hav­ing a reporter or an edi­tor assess our links on a case-by-case basis, a blan­ket edict was put into effect.

A friend who works as a copy edi­tor there has tried for years to launch a col­lab­o­ra­tive wiki ver­sion of “The New York Times Man­ual of Style and Usage,” which could allow for much more agility and knowl­edge shar­ing on con­tin­u­ing, break­ing news sto­ries. The soft­ware was built and the entries were ready, but the wiki has been stymied within The Times bureaucracy.

Yet else­where, the cul­ture was shift­ing. Talk­ing Points Memo helped change the tone in its per­sis­tent cov­er­age of the U.S. attor­neys’ fir­ing scan­dal with its will­ing­ness to say: This is what we know. This is what we don’t know. Can you, the audi­ence, help us? The pieces came together in large part because of audi­ence exper­tise and exam­i­na­tion of legal doc­u­ments. And the story kept being pro­pelled for­ward, ulti­mately lead­ing to the res­ig­na­tion of U.S. Attor­ney Gen­eral Alberto Gonzales.

Slowly, report­ing prac­tices rein­vented and rethought out­side The Times started to rever­ber­ate mean­ing­fully within the insti­tu­tion. The vital­ity and promi­nence of the Lede blog, by Robert Mackey, with a focus on break­ing global news sto­ries — doc­u­ment­ing in real time devel­op­ments con­cern­ing an earth­quake in Haiti or protests through­out the Mid­dle East — show The Times’ will­ing­ness to draw upon and pro­mote high-quality infor­ma­tion from else­where on the Internet.

The Times has sought to main­tain its ded­i­ca­tion to qual­ity while encour­ag­ing a more dynamic metab­o­lism by cre­at­ing a five-editor rapid response copy desk under Patrick LaForge that swoops in to han­dle blog posts and other con­tent across the Web site for the var­i­ous sec­tions. Often they clean up each piece to meet The Times’ more strin­gent stan­dards after it’s been posted.

But jour­nal­ists’ com­pet­i­tive sen­si­bil­i­ties do help drive change. The metro desk broke the Eliot Spitzer pros­ti­tu­tion scan­dal in 2008 with a Web-first men­tal­ity; despite the lamen­ta­tion of at least one vet­eran edi­tor who said scoops should be saved for the print edi­tion, the paper stayed with a Web-first men­tal­ity, break­ing one devel­op­ment after another online. The Times’ cov­er­age — both online and print — was cited by the judges who awarded the paper a Pulitzer Prize.

The twin imper­a­tives of news on the Web have long been imme­di­acy and inti­macy. News orga­ni­za­tions know how to break news, so imme­di­acy has been the eas­ier of the two to adopt. But the qual­ity of inti­macy has proved harder for these orga­ni­za­tions, as estab­lished titles — as brands — to grap­ple with. Too chatty and there isn’t enough grav­i­tas. Too stiff and users aren’t engaged.

For a long time, it felt some­what gauche for Times jour­nal­ists to cre­ate their own Web sites because it was seen as self-promotional, unless they had a book com­ing out. In 2003, a friend bought me jennifer8lee.com andjenny8lee.com for my birth­day but I sat on them for years, uncom­fort­able doing any­thing with them. When I cre­ated a blog for my book in 2007, I pur­posely chose to put it at fortunecookiechronicles.com.

Twit­ter, a plat­form both inti­mate and imme­di­ate, ulti­mately released jour­nal­ists’ indi­vid­ual voices from the con­stric­tion of their host insti­tu­tions. Its emer­gence made Times man­age­ment focus on the poten­tial gains to be enjoyed through social media.

The orig­i­nal @nytimes Twit­ter feed was set up by a news­room engi­neer named Jake Har­ris, who wanted a way to get the RSS feeds on his cell phone. He ran the auto­mated feed out of a com­puter under his desk, until it lost power one week­end and he got an e-mail inform­ing him that a con­sumer had com­plained. From then on, it became an offi­cial feed. (Times folks will often reserve dig­i­tal rights on behalf of the insti­tu­tion. In fact, nyt.com was reg­is­tered by tech­nol­ogy reporter John Markoff around 1991, before the World Wide Web came into being and nytimes.com was registered.)

Jour­nal­ists are ideal Twit­ter users. They gen­er­ally have some­thing inter­est­ing to say, often orig­i­nal or newsy. And they are rec­og­niz­able both as indi­vid­u­als and personalities.

Many of us signed up for Twit­ter out of curios­ity in mid-2007. It felt like step­ping into a cock­tail party where you didn’t know any­one, so it took a while for many of us to return.

Once we did, we dis­cov­ered we had a way to con­stantly update our own voices on the Inter­net. The 140-character length focused our think­ing to a far more spe­cific point than our length­ier bylined arti­cles, but the links back to our own arti­cles gave it a pro­fes­sion­ally jus­ti­fi­able purpose.

And in this case, activ­ity bub­bling up organ­i­cally from the news­room merged with top-down strat­egy in The Times newsroom.

In early 2009, the top lead­er­ship of The Times news­room sent invi­ta­tions to news­room staff to sub­mit new ideas to gen­er­ate rev­enue. That alone was a sign that cri­sis had opened man­age­ment up to new processes. In response, I wrote a memo about Twit­ter, which was cir­cu­lated among edi­tors. Jonathan Land­man, then deputy man­ag­ing edi­tor, announced the cre­ation of a social media edi­tor, a role filled by Jen­nifer Pre­ston, a sig­nif­i­cant state­ment about these new com­mu­ni­ca­tions tools. But the early Twit­ter feeds cre­ated by Jake Har­ris and a young mar­ket­ing employee, Soraya Darabi, had set the stage for a strong Times social pres­ence. The Times now main­tains over 100 Twit­ter accounts, not includ­ing those of the jour­nal­ists them­selves, for its blogs, sec­tions and key top­ics of interest.

If you think of legacy news­pa­pers as depart­ment stores — with all kinds of news avail­able behind a sin­gle store­front — the future of news is look­ing more and more like a mall. A sin­gle com­plex aggre­gates a lot of niche prod­ucts sold under sep­a­rate brands — some favor­ing qual­ity, oth­ers vol­ume. That tar­geted brand­ing is use­ful in a world where our con­tent is dis­ag­gre­gated and reassem­bled via Twit­ter and Face­book feeds. The micro­brands can have their own Twit­ter accounts, Face­book pages and YouTube chan­nels. This aggre­gated mall model is already peek­ing out (some more suc­cess­fully exe­cuted than oth­ers), and not only thanks to AOL’s acqui­si­tion of The Huff­in­g­ton Post and TechCrunch. In the two years since I left, The Times has accel­er­ated its drive to show­case micro-brands in blogs such as the City Room (about New York City), the Cau­cus (politics), Well (per­sonal health) and the revamped Deal­Book (on the finan­cial markets).

Few read­ers would click to “like” The Times’ national sec­tion on Face­book. But they do become Face­book fans of the Cau­cus or Deal­Book. And in the process, The Times has served up evi­dence it rec­og­nizes the strength and value of treat­ing indi­vid­ual reporters and fea­tures as micro-brands.

This is a notice­able change from my early days at The Times, when the reporters reflex­ively deferred to the insti­tu­tion. It was con­sid­ered unsa­vory to appear on tele­vi­sion too much, or oth­er­wise be per­ceived as self-promotional. But a few years ago The New York Times com­mu­ni­ca­tions depart­ment started call­ing reporters to book them for tele­vi­sion and radio inter­views, and the mar­ket­ing depart­ment started to cre­ate Twit­ter accounts and Face­book pages for many of its reporters.

A lot has hap­pened since The New-York Daily Times first reported on Mr. Overho’s “coup de soleil.” The newspaper’s ded­i­ca­tion to qual­ity, and the tal­ented peo­ple exem­pli­fy­ing that ded­i­ca­tion, per­sist. But the news has changed. The peo­ple report­ing, edit­ing and pre­sent­ing that news have changed. The way read­ers receive the news has changed.

And so, too, has The Times.

Excerpted from “Page One: Inside the New York Times and the Future of Journalism,” edited by David Folken­flik. Avail­able from Pub­li­cAf­fairs, a mem­ber of The Perseus Books Group. Copy­right © 2011.

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