“Internet people are frontierspeople. [Behind them] are the barbarians like me — the shopkeeper. We’re their worst nightmare, but we’re coming.” — Arthur Sulzberger Jr., publisher of the New York Times, addressing a Nieman Foundation conference in 1995.
Now the barbarians are at the gate. For the last 10 years, Sulzberger has preached that news is not about distribution platforms, but about content that works on every platform. Now the wheels have been put in motion to make the venerable Times newsroom platform-agnostic, a master plan that will have the online newsfolk working side by side with ink-stained types in the new Times HQ in Spring 2007.
The integration of print and online newsrooms is more than just about physical space. In a staff memo they might as well have CCed Jim Romenesko, executive editor Bill Keller and vice president of digital operations Martin Nisenholtz spelled out a philosophical change that echoed into every newspaper newsroom: “By integrating the newsrooms we plan to diminish and eventually eliminate the difference between newspaper journalists and Web journalists — to reorganize our structures and our minds to make Web journalism …”
For the print newsroom at the august New York Times to put its mind on Web journalism in such a pronounced way is part revolution and part evolution. Editor & Publisher declared it a “Web Victory” in its story on the integration, while the cheeky Inquirer noted wryly that “the print hacks and hackettes will no doubt be a little angry that they’re having to share a building with fake Internet pseudo-journalists.”
But nothing is as simple as the stereotypes would have it. Sulzberger and Nisenholtz have been planning for this day for 10 years, through the dot-com dreams of a New York Times Digital spin-off IPO and the dog days of digital cutbacks, to a time where the online side has matured, grown in revenues and is ready to take its place in the hallowed main newsroom. Other newsrooms from Tampa, Fla., and Lawrence, Kansas, might have tried integration, but the Times has 1,200 people in its print operation that will now be helping to lead the digital charge.
The evolutionary change has been in motion for some years, as the Times launched its continuous news desk back in 2000, and online editors already take part in Page One and other print meetings. While Nisenholtz told me the integration was his vision from the very start of his tenure in ’95, it just wasn’t practical then. In the old days, online was the ugly step-sister to print, but how times have changed. Now, according to Keller, there are many print people chomping at the bit, wanting to get online but facing too many bureaucratic obstacles.
“I’m constantly hearing from people in the newsroom who have ideas for cool things we could do on the Web,” Keller told me. “But under the divided operation, all we could do was lob ideas over the transom. Not that the people at the Web site were reluctant to do it. They had other priorities. It was becoming a source for frustration, and I felt that if we were really going to embrace this thing and own it and tap into the creative energy of all these smart people who are filled with ideas that we ought to be in the same place — physically, administratively, in every way.”
The memo mentions that print editors will take on more responsibility for the Web and that Jonathan Landman will head a team that will help the newsroom absorb and take advantage of those new duties. That left a lot of questions in the air about how Web responsibilities will be divvied up in the new era between online and print staffers. Would that mean more work for print reporters? Where does it leave online editor Len Apcar?
“The spirit of that [passage in the memo] is less how it works, because it’s more of a work in progress,” Nisenholtz said. “But the spirit of that is that the foreign editor would be responsible not just for what happens in print but what happens online. In other words, it’s not a question of how it works but a question of philosophy. … Now we’re saying the desk heads are going to be looking in the direction of the Web as well. So when something gets conceived, it’s not just conceived as a print project but as a Web project as well.”
Some Times print reporters told me there were worries among some staffers that the Web work would take away from the basic work of newsgathering.
“I know some reporters think they’ll be asked to write for the Web and then asked to write again for the next day’s paper — two stories in the time they used to use for one — and potentially scooping themselves,” one staffer said, who wished to remain anonymous. “And I think there are more old-timers here who aren’t as comfortable with the Web.”
Nisenholtz and Keller downplayed those worries and said that staffers would take to the Web at their own speed. With the continuous news desk, reporters are not forced to file for the Web while working on a story and have options to work in different ways with the desk. Keller noted that foreign correspondents and business reporters already were huge proponents of filing to the Web and that that would get other people interested.
“There’s going to be some portion of people who are essentially non-adapters but are so valuable for the paper for what they do, and we’ll live with that,” Keller said. “We have a lot of people here, and not everybody will have to be thrown into the Web. There will be slow adapters, and we will certainly try to proselytize for this and explain that this is an exciting thing to do.”
While layoffs were not part of the reorganization plan, the print newsroom recently had 25 buyouts and there were more layoffs on the business side. At the same time, the digital side has been hiring people — there’s a slew of job openings right now — and the company recently bought About.com. Neither Nisenholtz nor Keller would connect the dots, but the resulting image is loud and clear: The print business is stagnant and digital is booming.
Meanwhile, other large newspaper newsrooms looked on with interest at the Times’ plans. WashingtonPost.Newsweek.Interactive CEO Caroline Little said the online operation at the Post would remain across the river in Arlington, Va., from the main newsroom. Wall Street Journal Online managing editor Bill Grueskin said that WSJ.com has been located inside and outside and then inside the print newsroom again.
“On the point of proximity, I’ve seen it both ways,” Grueskin said via e-mail. “When I started working here, we were all in the same building. A few months later, the September 11 tragedy across the street forced us to relocate for a year to New Jersey, then two more years to an office in SoHo, about a mile from where the print newsroom is now. We moved back to the main headquarters a year ago and share a floor with many print reporters and editors. While it was useful for us to be separate from the print side for a while, it is much, much better to have us all under the same roof. …While our setup works well, we are looking at ways to expand cooperation and integration.”
At USAToday.com, vice president and editor in chief Kinsey Wilson said consolidation of the print and online newsrooms is inevitable, but they’re taking a slower approach to make sure they preserve the strengths of both sides.
“We’ve learned a great deal about what it takes to publish in real time across multiple platforms,” Wilson said via e-mail. “But [the online] medium is still in the process of being invented. It often requires a different approach to the news. And it is staffed at a fraction of the level of the parent organization. If the goal is to create a stronger, more flexible organization, it only makes sense to move with some care and deliberation in bringing such disparate operations together. Our inclination at this point is to signal our intent to the staff, but experiment on a small scale, in discrete areas, where we can afford to innovate and occasionally make mistakes, before embarking on a full-scale integration.”
At the Times, Nisenholtz has ambitions to super-charge the Web site and take it beyond the realm of newspaper sites and into the top tier of news sites online. He told me he envisioned multimedia reports going from two to three reports per day to 30 or 40 reports daily, while also building out a new aggregation service that would take on Google News.
“Google News was the fastest growing news site in the first six months of the year,” Nisenholtz said. “So we have to be as good as anyone else at doing that and meanwhile put in our own Times special sauce — which is our journalism — that will always differentiate us. If you look at those as the two pillars of our future, you can think about how we’re approaching this next phase. Weblogs are great, they’re part of the information universe, and people ought to have access to them, and we should make that access as seamless as possible.”
The following is a combination of edited transcripts from interviews with Nisenholtz and Keller. The interviews took place at different times but included similar questions to both.
Online Journalism Review: What were the origins of the idea for integration?
Martin Nisenholtz: I think you have to go back to the beginning on this one, because it’s very important that everyone understand that from the outset we would have a single newsroom that was creating for both platforms. In 1995 or ’96, the practicality of that vision wasn’t realizable. You had a nascent medium, the user numbers were tiny, there weren’t real revenues in the business.
As we’ve progressed into this decade, a couple things have happened. One is we’ve seen a steady progression of usage and broadband penetration so we’re able to serve at NYTimes.com well over 10 million unique users per month. We also have the ability to create whole new forms of journalism that weren’t possible when we had a narrowband world.
The business and medium had to mature to the point where it made sense to do this and where it made sense culturally for the newsroom to accept it and get excited about it and produce for it. It’s been a dream for us [to integrate] from the very beginning, and when you have 1,200 of the smartest journalists in the world on your side, you really want to leverage that. So Bill Keller and I have an agreement that we’re going to put the full thrust of the New York Times newsroom behind this effort.
Bill Keller: It’s something I’ve been thinking about and I’ve talked to Martin about off and on. And I’ve talked to people in the newsroom here who are smart like Rich Meislin and Andy Rosenthal, who’s actually the deputy on the editorial page but he’s an early adopter, Len Apcar at the Web site. And when Neil Chase came in here, bringing some experience and some more frustrations from places he’s worked. … I don’t know when I decided to write this up as a proposal, maybe two months ago; I wasn’t too sure how it would be received.
But it fits very neatly with what Martin has been saying for some time. From that point on, it became a joint venture, which is great, because we’ve both had enough of these two operations being apart, coming from different cultures and not always understanding each other’s language. I’ve always gotten along really well with Martin. From the early days of the Web, we’ve been on committees together, we’ve been scheming to try and get more money into the digital stuff. I think of him as very much a comrade in this.
OJR: So the source of frustration has been on the print side?
Keller: I’m sure there were frustrations on the digital side, too. Where I live is in the print newsroom, and you have a movie critic who goes off to Cannes and wants to do a blog. There are limits to what a reporter can do, but for critics, it’s a great thing. But we weren’t set up for a critic to do a blog, so it required a lot of work-arounds to make it happen.
Andrew Sorkin does this DealBook in an e-mail and in the paper, and he’s been really bursting with ideas for what he could do in that realm. But to get it done, you have to organize a committee, one for digital, one for the newsroom, one for business and one for strategic planning. It’s all sort of cumbersome. Some of this stuff should be carefully studied, but there are day-to-day things we could do that are hard to do if you’re separate.
I had an experience not long ago with a reporter coming back from a foreign assignment and was planning to do a big project that involved a trip she had taken. And I said wouldn’t it have been cool to take a videocamera with you or a tape recorder on the journey and file 500-word daily reports? It doesn’t mean you don’t do the big print report. But you don’t think about it when the project is being conceived, it tends to be an afterthought. It’s not going to apply to every story, but there will be a lot of cases where somebody will get it in their mind to think of a cool way to do something for the Web that may be entirely different from what they do for the paper.
OJR: Was it hard to convince the upper management of the Times Co. to do this?
Nisenholtz: This has the full support of everyone in senior management at the Times Company and particularly of Arthur Sulzberger. I remember in my interview with him, back in 1995, he said he didn’t care whether people got their Times news from a Star Trek beam. His view is we have to be in the news business and not in the ink and paper business. If you go back and read his stuff for at least 10 years, that’s always been his mantra.
OJR: What steps have already been taken in this integration effort, such as the continuous news desk?
Nisenholtz: The continuous news desk is the principal one. When we started the continuous news desk in 2000; we started it in the newsroom. We thought at the time that in order to have a vibrant news report during the day it has to be embedded into the newsroom itself. That’s been going on for five years, and it’s getting better under the direction of Bill Brink, and it will continue to get better as we pour more resources into it.
One thing I would point to is multimedia. I think that all you need to do is go into the multimedia section of the site to see the breadth of the reporting we’re doing now. It’s still baby steps, but it’s a hell of a lot more robust than even two years ago. Our multimedia now is embedded into the rhythm of the way we produce the Web site, and all of that is done in collaboration with the newsroom. The enabling technology behind this has been broadband, but the cultural change we had to make was getting our reporters into that rhythm.
The second thing I would point to is the efforts where individual reporters or columnists put up their hand and say, “I want to work specifically on the Web.” I would point to two things there — one is Andrew Ross Sorkin’s DealBook, which was a Weblog before Weblogs existed. It’s an annotated version of the M&A [mergers and acquisitions] community that we put out every morning in an e-mail at 8 o’clock. It’s a wonderful compendium of reports that goes out and is read by 175,000 people who are interested in those financial matters.
The third thing I would point to on the OpEd side is Nicholas Kristof’s stuff. His collaboration with Naka Nathaniel has included incredible stuff from Thailand, from North Korea, from Iran, from every interesting place that you can imagine. Hopefully a lot of people from around the newsroom have seen these things and said, ‘This is an interesting way to extend the voice of the New York Times.’
OJR: One of the things you talked about in the memo was having print editors in charge of Web sections, or blurring the lines between print editors and Web editors. How would that work exactly?
Keller: In the first stage it’s going to be more about philosophy. Not quite philosophy, it’s more about attitude. If you’re a foreign editor, it’s about thinking of the foreign report on the Web as your domain along with the paper. There are editors who edit the foreign stuff and producers who do the foreign reports on the Web, but they should be sitting on the foreign desk when the stories are conceived, and the foreign editors should be looking at foreign coverage on the Web. And if there’s something amiss, it won’t just be, ‘Oh, I guess I better send an e-mail to Len Apcar.’ She can actually call the correspondent and say, ‘What about this?’ At first, it’s about taking responsibility and having it in your brain.
Nisenholtz: The interesting thing about it is that Bill and I have discussed not just the journalistic aspects of that, but also the new things that the Web is capable of doing and all of the ways that you leverage software, which we’ve gotten better at doing over the years, and how the newsroom can leverage software to bring journalism to life online.
One of the breakthroughs here is that we’re not just putting word people into the newsroom. We’re putting people in all of these functions into the newsroom who will exercise a very different kind of report for the Web than what would be characterized as a repurposed newspaper. That’s huge. To me, that’s a big signal event for the New York Times and for any newsroom. It’s a matter of growing new muscles in new areas that are Web-oriented and have little or no application in the print world.
OJR: What type of software are you talking about, Martin?
Nisenholtz: If you look at our Web site, you can see them all over now, and we’re just beginning. What is an RSS aggregator? It’s essentially a software application. It’s not just a way of creating content, it’s a way of mapping content to a user’s needs. However we need to use software; we will use software to add substance to this Web report, and that will be melded into the general business of the way we do things in Web journalism, and that’s where I see so much potential.
If you think back historically, there was a time when the Times had no photo desk. Now we have a vibrant photo desk. There was a time when there was no graphics department. Now we have a huge graphics department. I’m talking about competencies and abilities that add to what we offer. You can imagine whole new departments beginning to flower that are particular to the construction of Web journalism.
OJR: Editor & Publisher had a story about the Times integration titled ‘Web Victory.’ Do you see this as a victory for the Web side?
Nisenholtz: Yeah, I think it’s a huge gain for the Web side.
Keller: I’d like to think that there weren’t any losers in this, that we all win. This is really an important step in the recognition of the Web playing a big part in our future. I’m honestly bullish about newspapers. For all of the difficulties in the industry, I think there will be at least a few good newspapers that will be healthy and profitable for a long time, and I’m pretty sure this will be one of them. I tend to be skeptical of this fatalistic hand-wringing you see at conferences of newspaper editors. There was a nice line in the American Journalism Review, ‘Newspapers may be dinosaurs, but dinosaurs walked the Earth for millions of years.’
Okay, maybe not millions of years, but we’ll be around for awhile. But we all realize we must adapt, and we’ve been doing that with the continuous news desk. This should take it to a hugely higher level because we haven’t figured out who at NYTimes.com gets absorbed into the bigger newsroom. It may be 40 or 50 people at the most, and we’ve got 1,200 people, and they’re mostly really smart, creative people, and they’re going to come up with some really dumb ideas; but one out of seven is going to be a really smart idea, and one out of 50 will be a really transformative idea.
OJR: The memo might worry people in the newsroom who think they’ll have to do more work. How do you respond to them?
Keller: That’s not a new worry, that’s been around since we’ve started the continuous news desk. What we’ve tried to do since the inception of the Web is to not have the situation where you’re ordering reporters to do double duty. We built the continuous news desk to be a kind of buffer. It doesn’t just have editors on it but also has rewrite people.
If you’re covering the bombings in London, and the continuous news desk calls, you have a bunch of options. You can say ‘I don’t have enough time right now, I’m going out the door right now.’ You’re entitled to do that. Or you could say, ‘I have time to bang out 500 words for you, I’ll sit down and do that right now.’ Or the third option is you could say, ‘I’m really rushed I’ll just take two minutes to tell you what’s going on and can give you some guidance.’ And between that and the wires and what you see on TV, you can put up an interim story yourself. As a result reporters have been able to come to this at their own pace.
People are already filing for the newspaper, and the Web when it doesn’t interfere with their ability to cover the story. That doesn’t mean that they have to pay a price in quality. This is an opportunity for them to play around with forms, try new things. I’m not going to put a gun to someone’s head and say ‘you’ve got to blog’ on top of everything else. And I’m not going to expect a reporter to cook up a journalistic form that they’re not comfortable with. I understand the anxiety, because we’ve lived with it for seven years, but I don’t think it’s going to be a big problem.
OJR: When people hear about a reorganization, they immediately think of layoffs. Is that part of your plan?
Keller: I know, ‘merger’ is often a cute way of saying downsizing. But that has not been in our plans at all. I suspect that the opposite will be true. I think two things will happen. First of all, if we’re serious about the Web being our future, then we’re going to have to invest in it. So instead of downsizing, we’ll be upsizing, if that’s a word. We will be super-sizing it — now there’s a word that will scare the bejesus out of the publisher.
There’s clearly going to have to be investment and growth, and a lot of the skills that are down there will be more in-demand and not less.
The second thing is that there will be some shifting of resources from the print side to the digital side, almost subsidizing the Web journalism. That might be just in print reporters shifting some of their time. I don’t know how microscopic you want to get, but when we design a new section, for example, we have a whole set of procedures we go through. … In the future, I suspect the Web will enter into that as well. We might do the same procedure for a Web product, or for a product that has Web and print manifestations. We’re going to be swimming in the same pool.
OJR: Apcar told E&P that online people would start moving to the newsroom even before ’07. With the recent print layoffs, is there an image of print people leaving and digital people taking their place?
Keller: You mean did we drop the neutron bomb to open up space to move these people in? No. The actual physical merger, the complete merger, won’t happen until spring of ’07. We’re still tinkering with the floor plans, but we expect the digital producers and editors and software developers — all the people we expect to do this — to be contiguous with people who do the print paper.
Until then, we’ll do a few things. In each major news desk, they have an empty seat where we can pretty much right away move in a producer or editor from the Web sitting at each desk. The other thing is the copy desks, which have a lot of space contiguous to the main news desk. They usually start work at around 3 in the afternoon. So in the mornings we could bring in as many people as we want for the first half of the day, which is the time when stories are being hatched.
OJR: There are some people within the newsroom who are Luddites, who don’t like using the Web. Is there going to be an educational aspect to this?
Nisenholtz: In any large group of people, there will be people who go faster and people who go slower. I think if you look on balance at the number of people in the examples I gave before, we’ve made tremendous progress. I’m sure there will be a few people five years from now who won’t be fully capable of doing this. But ultimately most people should understand that the Internet offers an enormous new group of interested, like-minded readers who appreciate Times journalism and do so not just in the U.S. but around the world. The folks who have stepped up and worked with us have seen how much further their voices have been extended when they get behind the Web.
Most people in the newsroom understand that and want to work toward that. I have no doubt there are people who don’t, but by and large the people I’ve spoken to have been excited about it.
Keller: There’s going to be some portion of people who are essentially non-adapters but are so valuable for the paper for what they do, and we’ll live with that. We have a lot of people here, and not everybody will have to be thrown into the Web. There will be slow adapters, and we will certainly try to proselytize for this and explain that this is an exciting thing to do. And people will see what other reporters are doing and think, ‘That looks intriguing; I’d like to try that.’ I’m not going to frog-march reporters into Web journalism; I don’t think we have to. We have plenty of people who will be lining up to do it. The enthusiasts will be giving you the most exciting ideas anyhow.
OJR: If there were terrorist strikes on New York, walk me through how you would currently deal with that story and how you might deal with it in the future with an integrated newsroom?
Nisenholtz: Something like that, we’re pretty set up to deal with that. That’s not a good example for what this would achieve. It’s a rare example, and we’re already set up with the continuous news desk to make that happen. A much better example has to do with the day-to-day rhythm for the news department. The Web becomes a part of the DNA of the newsroom. It’s not the extraordinary example, because we already have the extraordinary example story covered. It’s the everyday example; that’s where the integration is really going to work.
OJR: Some people say that their Web operation is more a ‘skunkworks’ where they can try experiments without the pressure of the full newsroom. Do you think you might lose some of that with integration?
Nisenholtz: I don’t consider our digital newsroom to be a skunkworks or a lab. I consider it to be reasonably innovative, and I consider the Times newsroom to be reasonably innovative, too. I think we’re at the point where they’ve earned the right to be taken seriously. The Times Web business grew 37 percent on the advertising line in July. We’re doing quite well.
I certainly believe that we have to be innovative, and that’s like motherhood and apple pie. But even more important than innovation is scalability, and that’s really what we’re after here. We’re after the ability to move the Web process much more deeply into the lifeblood of the New York Times newsroom so that the Web site becomes much much better. And that’s not just about having more words on the Web site; it’s about having more multimedia, more software, more graphical design, more aggregation of content. It’s a whole range of new competencies and capabilities that we’ll start to see flower. And as they flower, we’ll see them flower at scale.
Traditionally these skunkworks are about one-offs, the Web special. So people work incredibly hard to put up a Web special that is viewed by a few thousand people, then it disappears until you do another one in six months. That’s not what we’re talking about when we talk about scalability.
OJR: Where do you see the Times going with blogs, podcasts, video and wikis? Do any of these stand out as more important to you?
Nisenholtz: What the Times needs to do is be as good as anyone in the world at the commodity stuff. In other words, how you manipulate content and make it accessible. What newspaper Web sites have ignored sometimes is the emphasis on usability and application value. And that’s why some of the portals have stepped in and developed news sites without having any content — because they’ve been really good with the commodity stuff. It’s not very hard to write a news aggregator. There are half a dozen of them, and they all basically do the same thing. But very few newspaper sites do that.
Meanwhile Google News was the fastest growing news site in the first six months of the year. So we have to be as good as anyone else at doing that and meanwhile put our own Times special sauce — which is our journalism — that will always differentiate us. If you look at those as the two pillars of our future, you can think about how we’re approaching this next phase. Weblogs are great, they’re part of the information universe, and people ought to have access to them and we should make that access as seamless as possible.