nyt-innovation-coverIn the wake of last week’s dismissal of executive editor Jill Abramson, someone at the New York Times decided to leak a remarkable internal digital strategy document.

The leaked document gives us an important glimpse behind the scenes of a storied media brand that is struggling to respond to the disruption of its market, its readership and its entire business model by a combination of changing consumer habits, rapid technological change and more innovative competitors.

Joshua Benton of the Neiman Media Lab calls the leaked New York Times digital strategy document “one of the most remarkable documents I’ve seen in my years running the Lab.” His overview of the leaked document has served as the basis of this post.


The New York Times, long the gold standard in journalism, has been falling behind upstarts like Huffington Post, BuzzFeed, Business Insider, Upworthy and even USA Today, in online audience growth rates, engagement and overall strategy. While the seeds of many of these online media innovators were laid a decade ago, the last five years have brought them to the forefront of online journalism.

Every company is a media company

Social media and digital technology is not only disrupting traditional media companies like the Times, it is forcing all companies to take a hard look at how they communicate in sales, marketing, PR and customer service.

In the financial services space, there are growing indications that the seeds of a similar disruption have been sown over the past several years and are starting to sprout, setting up the coming years as a period of rapid change. For instance:

Strategies to help you ride out the coming digital disruption

The leaked New York Times document identifies a number of key digital strategies that are worth considering in your own organizational context:

1. Repurpose great content

No one questions the quality of The New York Times’ journalistic output. Yet the leaked strategy document argues The Times have not been effective at squeezing digital value out of their great journalism. In some cases, their competitors have used Times content to build their own audience more effectively than The Times used it themselves.

An oft-cited “law” of the social-digital era is that you need to create great content – this is true whether you’re a media property or any company that wants people to pay attention to its products. But creating great content alone isn’t enough. You need to optimize how you publish, repurpose and re-package that content in order to build audience.

Takeaway: Dedicate as much energy to digitally leveraging your great content as you do to creating it in the first place.

2. Curating content adds value

The leaked Times document cites an example of the Flipboard collection of the best New York Times obituaries as a case where Times content is curated elsewhere rather than on the Times site itself. To me, the message here is not why the Times doesn’t have their own Flipboard technology, but how curation can add meaning and value to content even when you are the content creator.

Smart curation enhances content value by adding context and structure. Content marketing efforts in virtually any setting are enhanced by both creating and curating great content.

Takeaway: This resolves the age-old debate between content creation vs. curation. The answer is – do both!


3. Your website is not your most important digital real estate

It’s natural for a media business like The New York Times to see their website as the centre of their digital business. After all, it’s owned media and the closest surrogate to the newspaper’s front page. Yet, social networks and earned media are rapidly emerging as effective channels for building audience and driving content distribution.

This is a common misunderstanding of digitally-challenged organizations: the corporate website is all they think they really need. Yet, if you do a Google search on any person or organization, you’ll find that only one of the ten organic search results on the first page is an owned website. The other nine links are earned media.

Takeaway: If you want to grow your audience and build the value of your owned media properties, you need to leverage earned media and social networks effectively.

4. Adapting to digital disruption is a process, not an end point

“Transformation can be a dangerous word in our current environment because it suggests a shift from one solid state to another,” the writers of the leaked Times report say in the executive summary. Effective digital strategy is less about controlled transformation from one stable system to another and more about riding the wave of change and “muddling through.”

This can be a hard reality for established organizations and corporate cultures to swallow. Effective digital strategy is more iterative and requires an innovative, trial-and-error corporate culture.

Takeaway: Stop waiting for the perfect digital strategy to be pitched and putting off any action until it is. Wade in, try some new things, evaluate – then try again.

5. Technology plays critical role in competitiveness

The leaked report details many examples where technology at The New York Times is lagging behind competitors resulting in missed opportunities to build its online audience. Despite its esteemed brand and its superior journalism content, The New York Times is now falling behind many competitors because it is slow on the technology uptake.

Takeaway: Technology is no longer a “nice to have” – it is a necessity. We are in an era when leading with technology, or at least keep up with the innovators, is more crucial than ever to overall business success.

6. Individuals drive social network engagement

Despite overall corporate short-comings in its digital strategy, authors of the leaked NYT report cite as success stories the self-promotion efforts in social networks of a number of their individual editors who earned their social media chops while promoting books they’d published. There are even some examples of Times success gained through adopting an influencer outreach strategy.

This reinforces the notion that social networks thrive on human to human connections. Social engagement on behalf of corporate organizations is driven by individuals empowered, trained and supported in their social networking activities by their employers.

Takeaway: If you want to leverage the power of social networks for your business, focus on how to empower key individuals and thought leaders to engage on behalf of your organization.

7. Attracting and retaining digital talent is key

Jobs with digital responsibility or innovation mandates within the NYT, according to the leaked report’s authors, go to people with seniority – not the people with the most relevant experience. The result is that the digital talent within the organization is often under-utilized and wasting time fighting internal bureaucratic resistance. So, the talent walks.

Digital strategies are not only about big data and smarter algorithms. You need digital natives that are immersed in the tools and understand your business. In order to find and retain this talent, you need to develop an internal digital culture that sustains it.

 This will be a challenge in every organization that confronts a digital disruption.

Takeaway: If you don’t make digital a priority, you will struggle to attract talent that can lead you in this area.