New York Times
Credit: Joe Shlabotnik on Facebook. Some rights reserved.

The New York Times Innovation Report, leaked in May last year, was a stark portrait of just how much the legacy outlet was struggling to adapt to the digital age.

Highlighting new, digital-only competitors such as BuzzFeed, Vox and First Look Media, the internal 96-page report noted: "They are already ahead of us in building impressive support systems for digital journalists".

"Meanwhile, our journalism advantage is shrinking as more of these upstarts expand their newsrooms. We are not moving with enough urgency."

Since then, The Times has taken steps to pick up the pace of its digital strategy and address the recommendations made by the report.

As a result, digital traffic is up 28 per cent from April last year while mobile traffic has increased by more than 50 per cent over the same period, according to comScore figures.

"We've made experimentation the rule, not the exception, recognising that if you don't fail occasionally you are simply not trying hard enough," said Arthur Sulzberger, publisher of the Times, speaking at the World News Media Congress in Washington DC today.

Sulzberger was joined by Alex MacCallum, assistant managing editor for audience development, who explained some of the changes the outlet has implemented since the leaked report.

Reshaping the newsroom

We come up with a hypothesis, we test it and get feedback on that through the data that we see to make informed decisionsAlex MacCallum, New York Times
Over the last year the Times has made new hires to lead innovation in the newsroom, such as Kinsey Wilson, who joined the outlet in March 2015 as vice president for product and technology.

Three new teams have also been introduced, covering audience development, newsroom analytics and newsroom strategy.

"We have a group of generalists that are really embedded with the different desks across the newsroom, who help with all the different strategies," said MacCallum.

There are also separate teams focusing on search, social, community and newsroom analytics. The groups are "very much" part of the newsroom.

The outlet has also moved its historic "page one meeting" to the earlier time of 9.30am. The meeting, which traditionally focused on the first page of the print product, is now much more centred around the outlet's digital offering.

"The shift has really changed to 'what is our digital report going to be over the course of the day'?" MacCallum explained.

This includes thinking about what format stories will take, from videos and photos to graphics and interactives, to the best time to publish a story depending on reader interest and its relevance to a particular country or time zone.

"Just from a logistical perspective it's been really great because it helps us plan out for the day," said MacCallum.

Audience development

The Times has put a lot of research into audience behaviour, said MacCallum, "thinking about how are readers encountering the news, and how can we be in front of them when they're looking for things".

The Times is actually making the news that becomes a trending topicAlex MacCallum, New York Times
This takes the form of anything from a better presence on search and social, to newsletters and push notifications.

More work is also being put into identifying key audience data, although MacCallum noted this is something that "informs our strategies – it doesn't necessarily drive them.

"We come up with a hypothesis, we test it and get feedback on that through the data that we see to make informed decisions about how we perceive our different strategies."

As the Times operates a metered paywall, a lot of work is being done to understand how people return to the website at different points throughout the day and become habitual readers.

Trending stories

More work is now being done to increase the reach of the Times stories, both on social media and elsewhere across the web.

One example is the recently published two-part investigation into US nail salons, highlighting the terrible conditions and low pay experienced by salon workers from Korea and the Philippines.

"That story has reached almost five million people, it's been a huge viral hit, it was a trending topic on Facebook for a number of days in a row... the Times is actually making the news that becomes a trending topic," said MacCallum.

The story was translated into Korean, Chinese and Spanish, with accompanying social media posts. Editors also worked closely with the teams responsible for email newsletters and push alerts to promote the story.

The Times also had "a little command centre" which focused on search and social media "in real time" as the story was published, to ensure maximum reach and impact.

New storytelling formats

The outlet has been experimenting with new formats for mobile storytelling and breaking news, particularly with regards to thinking about how to get readers to revisit the site during breaking news events.

Giving people a space to think creatively about all of these new strategies can sometimes be a challengeAlex MacCallum, New York Times
This might mean using a live blog to cover a breaking event, rather than a single updated story.

Lessons learned from the Times' NYT Now app – such as how to write news for mobile and adjust headlines for search and social – are also being incorporated into the core website.

Social media strategy

The Times is one of nine outlets that have signed up to the Facebook Instant Articles programme, which MacCallum said was part of an experiment to see how the outlet can reach people "off-platform, in addition to on".

Key to the outlet's social media strategy is thinking about where people are "looking for news," she explained, such as understanding that image-led feature articles on topics such as travel and cooking will get more referrals from Pinterest than from Twitter.

However, MacCallum admitted that "giving people a space to think creatively about all of these new strategies can sometimes be a challenge" for a newsroom which also has to publish a newspaper every day – an obstacle the likes of BuzzFeed do not have to contend with.

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