What can the regional press take from the New York Times’ ‘digital first’ editorial meetings? More than you might think…

Warning: UK regional press journalist writing about one of the big beasts in global journalism is packed with risks. But here goes.

The news that the New York Times intends to change its legendary ‘page one meeting’ to focus more on digital has become big news in media circles.

The weekend interest stems from a report on the Poynter Institute last week, based on an internal memo sent out by Dean Baquet, the executive editor of the NYT. Instead of pitching stories for A1 – aka the front page – departments will instead pitch to get on “Dean’s list” – the handful of stories which will “get the very best play on all our digital platforms.”

The idea appears to have been kicking around for some time. Nieman Lab reported last summer that changes were on the way, after picking up on details from an Insider blog available only to New York Times subscribers. The seminal NYT innovations report, leaked last summer and widely disseminated across the media industry, also suggested too much print emphasis was placed on the front page of the print edition.

There are three themes which come out of this news which I think are relevant to newsrooms across the world, regardless of their shape or size.

The first is perhaps the most obvious:

1. If your most senior journalists are not thinking digital, then there’s something wrong

The most successful newsrooms of the future won’t be the ones with digital bolted on, no matter how fantastic the innovation and ideas which come out of that bolt on. For any news brand, be it a weekly newspaper or the NYT, to succeed in a digital world, digital needs to be at the heart of the newsroom.

Journalism expertise and digital skills aren’t mutually exclusive, as many new organisations are proving. Great journalism is normally powered by great ideas, and those ideas can be applied just as well online as in print, or whatever other platform a newsroom has made its own over the years.

Drawing parallels between the new newsrooms the company I work for, Trinity Mirror, has rolled out over the last year, and the New York Times, may sound a little self-serving, but I’ve seen that by telling those responsible for content decisions that their focus is on digital, great new ideas emerge from all around. That seems to be what the NYT is saying – it’s applying the same journalistic rigour to digital that it always has for its front page.

2. You can’t just swap the word print for digital

Reading the coverage this weekend, it would be easy to think that the NYT is doing a bit of dad-dancing by just swapping out the word print for the word digital. That’s a very real risk in any newsroom coming from another platform, if it’s not managed correctly. Many forms of traditional journalism do translate – and are enhanced – by being pushed on a digital platform, but they are very different skills.

Returning to the original Nieman Lab story about the NYT’s plans, it becomes clear the NYT isn’t dad dancing at all. Referring to the blog the NYT published last summer, it quotes:

We are shifting the focus of the 10 a.m. meeting, away from the next day’s A1 to a more lively discussion about how to create a robust, comprehensive digital report for the day. To accomplish this, we will run the meeting with a keen eye across all of our nonprint platforms — NYTimes.com, NYT Now, mobile, social and INYT — bearing in mind that our aim is to get our best content in front of the most readers.

Karron will start the meeting with a quick overview of the morning home page, and share any interesting/pertinent analytics. She will discuss our lede options and photo plan for the morning.

We will identify the day’s main news targets and start the discussion with that desk. We will quickly brainstorm how we can build those stories out during the day, including input from photo, graphics, video, social, Upshot, etc

The key difference for me here is the inclusion of the analytics. Having never been to the New York Times, I don’t know what passes for ‘interesting/pertinent analytics.’ But I do believe that journalism is enhanced when it pays respect to audience analytics.

That doesn’t mean just chasing the next click or page view, it means learning what makes readers most likely to read about an issue which we know is important. It means learning what readers are really interested in and asking how we can provide content which supports those interests. That probably means going beyond what we consider to be news, too, as we get closer to the readers.

3. Asking what makes you stand out

For the New York Times, the world literally is its oyster when it comes to news. It can bring authority and substance to any issue or matter it chooses to cover. But in choosing to focus on three or four stories which make it on to “Dean’s list”, it is saying very loudly that it is determined to set the agenda.

In a media world which has become dominated by millions of page views and unique users, it is easy for a herd mentality to kick in. If something is proving to be popular, you can guarantee everyone will be doing it quickly. Think the low-grade quizzes and listicles which swarmed Facebook after Buzzfeed and others made an art of clever, witty ones.

For regional newsrooms in the UK, the NYT’s approach – essentially ‘less is more’ when it comes to focusing on stories – is worth noting. Is story count really that important in this day and age? Is it really a metric which defines value for money, in print or online?

Surely the future is largely reliant on being memorable to readers so they come to you first. If that is the case – and I’m convinced it is – then less surely is more. It used to be the mantra that we should ‘do what we do best and link to the rest.‘ Surely the challenge is also to make sure we’re doing the stuff which makes others want to link to us too. In that sense, less probably is more.

Meaningful parallels between the NYT and the UK regional press have tended to be few and far between. Maybe, like so many other things, digital has changed that too. 

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