5 insights for Australian media companies from NYT’s Innovation Report

In mid-May the New York Times (NYT) leaked its innovation report. The 96 page report was the result of a 6-month review into newsroom innovation and digital strategy at the NYT. At the heart of the report is an outline of the cultural change still needed in the shift to digital. It’s detailed, emotional and touches on everything from social media to print culture and how editorial works with the product, design, technology and business strategy.

The report reflects on many of the challenges currently facing Australia’s ‘traditional media’ companies. In this post I summarise 5 insights which I believe are highly relevant to Australia’s media industry.

1. Distributing online content requires more effort than traditional media distribution

Australian media companies, like NYT, need to work harder to ensure that their content reaches the digital doorsteps of their target consumers.Traditional media in Australia (and globally) was based on a value chain where content distribution power was in the hands of few. The ability to deliver media into the hands of as many readers and viewers as possible was ‘one of the most-sophisticated customer-outreach operations in history’. The report (page 23) outlines that in the shadow of this large scale operation putting ‘journalism on the web’ adopted a passive approach – but in fact a new more proactive and even more sophisticated approach is needed. Consumers of media are finding and engaging with content in vastly different ways – these are the realities of a ‘cluttered internet and distracted mobile world’.

2. In a digital ecosystem, strategy defines competition, not content

Australian media companies, particularly free-to-air TV or newspapers, often define their competitor set based on a content lens (e.g. Biggest Loser vs MKR, Tennis vs Olympics). However, competition should be viewed through the lens of the strategies employed to win in a changing audience environment. For the NYT (page 24), Buzzfeed, HuffingtonPost and USA today are not succeeding because of their content, they are beating the NYT because of their ‘sophisticated social, search and community-building tools and strategies’. All this…is in spite of their content.

3. The media company of the future is digital first, physical second

Many of the publicised digital transformations in Australian media companies have been about dragging the physical business into a digital age. For the NYT (page 81) this is not enough: ‘the NYT needs to accelerate its transformation from a newspaper that also produces a rich and impressive digital report into a publication that also produces a rich and impressive newspaper’. For Australian companies that have undergone or are undergoing this transformation aggressively questioning traditional media assumptions is imperative and may mean that existing structures require re-building from the groud up.

4. Digital capabilities and talent must be empowered to create content and define media strategy

Digital talent in many traditional media companies is rare or at worst misused. As the battleground for audiences is not where traditional media companies like the NYT are strongest (the journalism or content itself) building ‘impressive support systems for digital journalists’ is a high priority. The NYT report (page 89) outlines that the newspaper’s digital talent (platform editors, producers and developers) were dissatisfied by the service role (administering and fixing) they play and need to play a more central role in shaping digital strategy and changing the way content is written for the web, mobile and social.


5. A strong analytics operation is essential to the digital needs of media companies

Whilst data analytics has become more important as a function for many Australian media companies, few are using it in a way which helps to inform decision making organisation-wide. The NYT report (page 94) outlines a problem from which many media companies suffer – ‘everyone forgets about metadata…all your assets are useless unless you have metadata’. The ability to personalise content, drive traffic to online properties, understand readers’ needs and measure success all rely on data. Without it, it is difficult to set goals and assess progress.

Having been involved in the creation of similar reports for media and telecommunications companies I was very excited to read this report cover-to-cover and you should too. The style is raw in tone and candid in its discussion of NYT politics and the sense of ‘not doing enough, quick enough’ – not too dissimilar to other strategies with which I have been associated. The traditional vs digital debate still looms large in many of Australia’s media and telecommunications companies and we are bound to see other reports of this nature until leadership begins to acknowledge the gap between them and their digital troops – interestingly NYT’s executive editor Jill Ambramson stepped down days after the finalisation of the report…go figure.




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