What Publishers Can Learn From the New York Times’s Digital Transition
An internal report on innovation leaked from the New York Times last week suggests that the ouster of executive editor Jill Abramson might not ultimately be the most significant change for the newspaper. The 91-page document proposes to remake the Times into a modern digital business. Many of the issues it identifies are just as critical for book publishers navigating the digital market.
Like the New York Times, many book publishers are rightly proud of the content they produce. The Times report repeatedly commends the high quality of the paper’s journalism, much the way publishers tout the value they add to content on behalf of authors and readers — not just for self-congratulation but as a core business proposition.
Thus, according to the report, the key challenge isn’t in creating new digital products specific to digital reading, but in finding new ways of getting quality content into readers’ hands — that is, audience development.
The erosion of brick-and-mortar bookstores in the digital era is the book industry’s analog to newspapers’ loss of subscribers and home-delivery networks over the past few decades. Those shifts left both industries scrambling for alternative methods of reaching audiences whose attentions had moved online.
Coinciding with those changes, the report’s authors point out, was a rise in attrition of talent from institutions like the New York Times to newer, more agile, digitally-driven media companies. For publishers, the growth of self-publishing and the early successes of ebook-only publishers like Open Road Media represent a similar form of disruption.
So what, according to the Times report, can be done to keep audiences engaged and the business equipped for the future? The authors call for a reevaluation of the organization’s “print-centric traditions” and a “comprehensive assessment of our digital needs,” and propose the following:
Reorganize around digital-first production. The caveat — as well as the key — here is “production,” not “product.” For the Times, that means publishing content online before much of it makes it into print. While most trade publishers have successfully instituted e-first publication, especially in genre fiction, the broader emphasis is more on establishing workflows that support digital products than on giving them categorical precedence over print ones.
On average, newspaper readers in the U.S. have shifted much more decisively toward digital than book readers; conventional wisdom has the ebook market currently parked at a plateau. That could change, but for the present, print is still very much alive, leaving publishers at pains to run efficient print and digital operations under one roof. The challenge is to fine-tune an operational structure that considers both outputs at the earliest stages of the publishing process.
Appoint leadership to guide company-wide digital strategy. Just as most news media organizations have social editors and digital marketers working solely on that side of the business, most big publishers also employ executive-level digital officers. One task for both is moving that leadership out from the marketing functions to which it’s traditionally been limited in order to help steer everything from the editorial process onward.
Again, that doesn’t mean reinventing the wheel. “Because we are journalists,” the authors of the Times report concede, “we tend to look at our competitors through the lens of content rather than strategy.” Quality content has a crucial competitive value, but only if it’s deployed strategically. The report proposes appointing a head of audience development to bridge previously separate divisions, so the packaging, promoting and selling of content gets more editorial oversight and editors can become more adept at conceiving of projects with a sharper eye for positioning them in the digital market.
Mine the archives. The Times report advocates repurposing “evergreen” content for new uses. For publishers, that means back-list marketing, content verticals featuring new titles alongside older ones and comprehensive metadata allowing any published work to be immediately searchable.
Learn more: Audience and Metadata in Back-List Marketing
“Make it easier to launch an experiment than to block one.” The report’s authors don’t mince words: “We must push back against our perfectionist impulses” in order to innovate. How? Any “digital experiment,” they suggest, “should be released quickly and refined through a cycle of continuous improvement — measuring performance, studying results, shuttering losers and building on winners.” For publishers, that could mean A/B testing different marketing copy, packaging, metadata tags and promotions, beginning with a small portion of users and building out. Experiments that succeed must also prove themselves scalable.
For publishers, the fact that many of these issues and their proposed solutions are already familiar will either be an encouragement or disappointment. As the Times report makes plain, there is no silver bullet for the challenges the digital marketplace poses to every form of traditionally print-based media. In some ways, book publishers are leading the way. For example, “many of the reporters who are best at social promotion,” the report says, “learned these skills from their publishers as part of their book-promotion efforts.”
Yet at the same time that publishers can learn from experiments in other media (and vice versa), one reality will continue to set the book industry apart: the way we consume books is unique. Unlike movies, music or journalism, books require their own distinct form of engagement from consumers — whether in print or in digital. In one sense, then, solutions to the book industry’s challenges begin and end the same place they always have: in readers’ hands.