What the New York Times’ digital troubles mean for the future of newspapers

Paul GilfeatherOver the weekend, an internal report from the New York Times, leaked to BuzzFeed, revealed the troubles the famous newspaper is going through in the digital space. In this guest post, journalist turned PR executive Paul Gilfeather suggests why this report gives Asian publishers cause to worry.

For obsessive media watchers like me, the events of the weekend signalled another gigantic step towards the demise of print and the evolution of digital news.

As if the shocking attack by The New York Times’ publisher on sacked editor Jill Abramson at the weekend wasn’t enough, a leaked internal report revealed the paper’s digital strategy in disarray.

The fact that the damning 96-page ‘Innovation Report’ was leaked to BuzzFeed was significant too, as if the source was trying to reinforce the huge gulf which has opened up between the traditional and the new.

The revolutionary social content site represents the best of the newbies while, of course, the Times is old guard quality at its finest.

It had – or so we thought – made huge efforts to embrace New Media, even assembling a crack five-man team to cover the changes sweeping the industry while producing a world class news site.

But the report slammed the paper’s print-first mentality and obsession with Page One, and highlighted shortcomings relating to problems with the optimisation of content for search and the packaging and dissemination of content on social media.

It also questioned why the New York Times hadn’t yet overcome the ‘fish and chip paper’ question by consistently failing to find a repeatable model for repurposing content. A recent Flipboard feature on the Times’ top obituary articles proved the site’s most popular feature ever. The report pondered why nobody at the paper came up with the idea for its own site.

For industry observers like me, the whole issue threatens to melt the mind such are the complexities surrounding the future of the newspaper business. But what also interests me is what the report didn’t say.

Firstly, that in five to ten years the world-famous newspaper will probably cease to exist altogether in its physical form. So too will the likes of The Guardian, the third biggest English language site in the world and, in my opinion, currently the greatest paper on the planet.

The Guardian does phenomenally well online, with 90 million unique users every month. Compare this with the number of hard copies sold each day… less than 200,000. Readership has halved over the last decade and if that trend continues, the paper will lose its last reader by the end of the decade. A paperless Guardian is now inevitable, as it is for every serious newspaper from The New York Times to the Straits Times in Singapore.

One Singapore newspaper staffer told me that it was time editors faced up to reality and moved to paperless operations sooner rather than later.

He said: “News will always be here it is just the form of distribution which has changed.

“Newspapers would be much better transferring to digital the huge amounts spent on news print, multi-million dollar printing presses, distribution networks, lorries, vans and drivers.

“Executives appear relentlessly attached to the distribution system which is a ball and chain dragging them under. Do you really think people will be reading hard copies of newspapers in ten years? They will be reading news stories on Google glasses or some yet-to-be-invented device. That’s the reality.

Circulation is crashing and newspapers will have to come to terms with the fact that they will never make the kinds of profits they once did because their monopoly has been busted.”

The second point is staffing levels. They cannot be sustained at current levels.

To run its print and online operations, The Guardian employs 1,600 people worldwide, including 600 journalists and 150 digital developers, designers and engineers.

The newsroom is simply too big for what is now effectively a digital newspaper and it’s no surprise it has lost money for nine years running.

The New York Times also needs to address this issue. Its newsroom stands at around 1,150 people.

As a former newspaper reporter, I applaud such levels of commitment and investment in quality journalism, but the giant elephant in the room here again is BuzzFeed. The site has grown at an incredible rate and recently overtook the New York Times in terms of audience share.

But it achieved such growth with just 150 staff journalists. Building on it success, the site has announced plans to move into more serious reporting, while continuing to host insanely popular videos like the “no no no” cat.

It recently appointed its first correspondent in Syria, has unveiled plans for a new investigative unit, set up a London operation and there’s talk of a new bureau in Singapore.

As my own company, Ogilvy Public Relations in Singapore, prepares to stage a debate next month on these very issues, featuring some of the leading voices in the industry, we must consider carefully these dramatic changes, maybe even plotting out the next move in a series of our own ‘innovation’ reports.

The newspaper business has changed faster and further than anyone could have possibly predicted, but now all of us in PR and marketing must address the question of how we use the growth of digital media to gain greater coverage and exposure for our clients and campaigns.

Paul Gilfeather is the head of content at Ogilvy Public Relations, Singapore. He was formerly principal correspondent for MediaCorp’s TODAY newspaper. He has also worked as political editor at the Sunday Mirror in the UK, political correspondent at The Sun, and a journalist at the News of the World.


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