How the New York Times can fight back and win

Tom Grubisich is senior Web editor at the World Bank, a former reporter at the Washington Post and a frequent contributor to OJR.

You don’t have to be a Cassandra to fear for the New York Times. Its stock is at a 12-year low. Wall Street is trying to defenestrate the Sulzberger family, which bought the Times 111 years ago and has ruled it even since the company went public in 1967. Ad revenue at the print Times, as well as the Boston Globe and other Times-owned papers, is weak, and the Times’ national circulation, after years of trending upward, is starting to slip.

But perhaps the Times’ worst news is Rupert Murdoch. In what Madison Avenue describes as the “dog-eat-dog” competition for ad dollars, he seems ready to weaponize his newly acquired Wall Street Journal by broadening the paper’s appeal with stronger international and Washington coverage, possibly converting the website from paid to free (or at least giving away more content) and re-purposing WSJ content for other News Corp. platforms, including the dizzyingly popular but not yet fully realized social media site, MySpace. The biggest target of such a multi-front offensive would be the Times.

How can the Times survive this onslaught? In a media world where print is not just mature but senescent, the only answer is The Times’ website is no slouch. It is, in fact, the company’s best-performing property. It is the most popular newspaper site in unique visitors, beating its nearest rivals, USA Today and the Washington Post, by 50 percent. In June, it had 12.5 million unique visitors, according to Nielsen/Net Ratings. The Nielsen report also said became the top newspaper site in average time per user each month, at 27 minutes and 34 seconds. [Corrected from original, which cited that figure as per user visit, rather than per user each month.] Those numbers will surely improve if and when the Times scraps TimesSelect, its attempt to monetize its marquee columnists and other attractive features as premium content, a valiant strategy in 2005, but unsupportable against the Murdoch offensive. But a 100-percent free won’t begin to produce enough new ad revenue to offset falling ad and circulation revenues at the Times’ print operations. To save those properties, must be reinvented. It must become a total Web 2.0 news and social media site. It must transform its users into participants and attract many more of them. should embrace social media with more goodies than USA Today’s tepid experiment, as Steve Rubel urged in his Micro Persuasion blog last March.

It can.

These are some of the traffic-building initiatives a full-blown 2.0 could take:

  • Poll participants on what they consider the top 25 challenges globally and nationally. would announce and benchmark the choices to shape its day-to-day coverage. (The print Times would be free to decide how it wants to incorporate the choices in its coverage.)
  • Use crowdsourcing to help put together important but hard-to-assemble stories like a checklist of the most structurally deficient bridges in the U.S., or the biggest holes in domestic security. The site could create Google mash-ups to produce some stunning interactive maps that would compare the readiness of cities, especially ports and international entry points.
  • Produce more inside-outside content, like what happened when foreign-affairs columnist Nick Kristof held his Win a Trip With Nick Kristof contest.
  • Create or bring on board culturally adventurous blogs like Freakonomics.
  • Open the door to editorial decision-making with a live video where participants can lob comments at board members… and maybe influence their positions on issues.
  • Let participants register on the site with their biographies and other personal information, a la MySpace and Facebook, and give them opportunities, with widgets, etc., to extend the menu well beyond its presently constricted state. The 12.5 million adult users who now come to include platinum-plus demographics, but also 3 million people who didn’t graduate from college, which gives the site some healthy diversity. Imagine the classifieds that those 12.5 million folks could post! How about looking for a man [woman] who wants to help wipe out poverty in Sub-Saharan Africa?
  • Develop a network of local-local sub-sites across the U.S. With its millions of users spread across America, could jump-start hyperlocal coverage by helping citizen contributors produce content that goes beyond vacation photos and cheerleading-camp announcements. The Times’ deep editorial resources could be deployed, when needed, to mentor citizens – retirees, stay-at-home moms and dads, and community activists who would be thrilled to be part of

    A fully participatory with thousands of hyperlocal sub-sites could, I believe, double traffic to 25 million users. Look at how MySpace and Facebook, which started from nothing, grew. Veronis Suhler Stevenson says in its new report that online ad revenues will soar to nearly $62 billion by 2011, at which point the Web will pass print newspapers. If transform itself into a bigger, livelier and more inclusive news and social media site, wouldn’t advertisers be beating on its door?

    In the 1970s, the Times, then totally print, reinvented the Gray Lady with a series of exciting new sections, science, food and fashion among them, that literally saved the newspaper with an infusion of new revenue. Thirty years later, can and must do something as bold and creative, for the same life-or-death reason.

  • About Tom Grubisich

    I write about hyperlocal grassroots sites regularly for Online Journalism Review. What I've seen checking out proliferating sites has not been encouraging. The content is generally dull "happy news" or aggregated wire stories and doesn't seem to tap into what's special about the communities being covered.

    I am senior web editor at the World Bank in Washington, D.C., where I help develop blogs and other content aimed at broadening the Bank's audiences around the world.

    Earlier in my career, I was managing editor of news for Digital City/AOL and before that co-founder of the free-circulation weekly Connection Newspapers in Northern Virginia. Earlier yet, I was a reporter and editor at The Washington Post. For more information, consult, Who's Who in America (2008 edition). I'm reachable at [email protected]


    1. I think what newspapers should do is focus on journalism.

      Before they try to embrace web 2.0 goofiness, working to improve the writing, fact-checking, and ethics might be a better place to start. The NYTimes, for example, helped lead us to Iraq with reporting from journalist Judith Miller. Bad writing by one or two can hurt the bottom line for everyone.

      The one thing they can do that no one else can do is not web 2.0 – it is world-class journalism.

      Did they add the ability to send dots and dashes when their market share was threatened by the telegraph? Did they add orchestras and entertainers when radio bit into their market share? Did they build each reporter a TV studio when TV came on to the scene? No.

      The new technologies are just tools.

      Sure, give reporters newfangled networked notebooks and 2.0 pencils. At the end of the day, it is the quality of the writing that will decide if the NY Times will whither or grow, not the latest internet fad.

      People love the writing that comes on the web, but they all want a newspaper to cuddle up with away from screens. We internet folks can’t provide that experience (unless the big papers abandon that world… then we’ll jump in and fill their void again)

      Fight back and win? Easy. Do some real reporting on Murdoch.

    2. I’m enthusiastically behind all these suggestions. While excellence in journalism is what we all want from the New York Times (and other papers), even they can’t provide it without the necessary funds. These recommendations:

      • Provide much-needed funding for NYT journalists and their research.
      • Provide more data to be researched from user content. Information is the most valuable commodity now. While I don’t recommend sharing or selling it, the information gleaned from NYT user profiles, blogs, and forums could be a powerful research tool.
      • Provide more information for research from the deeper granularity in local news data. Even without increased user participation this could be very useful. Think about writing on military bases and having the latest columns, editorials, and articles from the Fort Hood region consolidated and on your screen.
      • Could expand the NYT’s readership considerably by making themselves more locally relevant.
      • Could serve as a force for good on the local level, forcing local news groups, online and off, to hold themselves to a higher standard if they hope to compete.

      I know that the “New York” can never be taken out of New York Times (and I would not want to do so). But speaking as a non-New Yorker, if the paper of record chooses to dive into a new level of existence that expands its sphere of local awareness and interaction with the rest of the world, I say, Go for it! I think a lot of us would be ready to dive right in with you.

    3. Memo to Tom: The Times brought on Freakonomics a week before you wrote this.

      Chris: sensible comments, as always.