How Does a Print-Centric Publishing Culture Become Digital-First? [Smart Set]

Smart Set

Welcome to the weekly The Smart Set, where I curate new smart reads about the publishing and media industry. I also point to issues and questions raised, and welcome you to respond or ask your own questions in the comments.

“To seek: to embrace the questions, be wary of answers.”

—Terry Tempest Williams

The Leaked New York Times Report Is One of the Key Documents of This Media Age by Joshua Benton

For anyone working in magazine, newspaper, or digital journalism, last week was a flurry of opinion and analysis on the New York Times Innovation Report, a nearly 100-page internal memo documenting how the NYT’s culture remains steadfastly print-centric. (There was also a lot of commentary last week about Jill Abramson’s departure from the NYT, but the two events are not connected.)

Some of my favorite tidbits-findings-commentary:

  • From the report: “The hardest part has been the realisation that you don’t automatically get an audience,” said Janine Gibson, editor-in-chief of the Guardian’s website. “For someone with a print background, you’re accustomed to the fact that if it makes the editors’ cut—gets into the paper—you’re going to find an audience. It’s entirely the other way around as a digital journalist. The realization that you have to go find your audience—they’re not going to just come and read it—has been transformative.”
  • From the report: “The Times doesn’t offer much of a career path for people working on the digital side of the newsroom. And many staffers feel like their skills are either undervalued, or misunderstood. One larger problem for the Times is that there is a shortage of people in senior positions who understand digital news, which also leaves the paper not knowing who should be promoted on the digital side, the report says. “The reason producers, platform editors and developers feel dissatisfied is that they want to play creative roles, not serve roles that involve administering and fixing. It would be like reporters coming here hoping to write features but instead we ask them to spend their days editing wire stories into briefs.”
  • Unsurprisingly, print accounts for a small percentage of New York Times readers; most readers are predominantly reading off their desktop computers, followed by mobile devices. Yet the Times remains a print-dominant culture; e.g., journalists get evaluated by the number of stories on A1, and stories get posted online in the evening (even though traffic is highest in the morning), as a result of print deadlines.
  • Fédéric Filloux: “Journalists are still too often picked for their writing capabilities while many other talents are needed. … In today’s print-oriented newsrooms, most writers and editors consider their jobs done once the story is filed in the CMS (Content Management System). Unfortunately, in every fast-growing digital media outlets such as Buzzfeed, The HuffPo, Politico, Quartz, Vox Media, now part of the competitive landscape, throwing the story online is actually just the beginning. The ability to cause a news item to reverberate around the social sphere is now as important as being a good writer.”

Filloux called the report “a plea for the necessity of dumping the obdurate print-first obsession.” And some of his own questions are encapsulated below.

Questions raised:

  • What should the NYT’s primary goals be in a world saturated with commodity news?
  • What should be their key performance indicators—measurements of success?
  • Should the paper continue to be printed daily?
  • How much do these same concerns apply to book publishing?

Why the Authors Guild Is Wrong About the Future by Brad King

This week, a new U.S. authors advocacy organization launched, the Authors Alliance. Before they had even thrown their launch party (on May 21), the Authors Guild—the prevailing advocacy group for commercial authors—came out with a letter of attack at their blog. They accuse the Authors Alliance of being for authors who prefer to “give your work away for free” and discourage authors from joining.

Their characterization is misleading at best, blatantly dishonest at worst.

Author and professor Brad King, someone with a career’s worth of history in publishing and media—and lots of insight into the issues at stake—wrote a post over at The Geeky Press (his newly formed authors collective), explaining why the Authors Guild was wrong to attack the Authors Alliance. The issues are very complex, so I’ll let him explain what’s going on.

Questions raised:

  • Can’t we all just get along?
  • How much is it a sign of weakness that the Authors Guild clearly feels so threatened it would lash out with a FUD strategy? What about a collaborative approach instead?
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