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Why The New York Times’ Leadership Needs to Collaborate on Small Bets

Dean Baquet, the new executive editor of The New York Times, has his hands full when it comes to the future of the newspaper.

The New York Times recently produced an internal document about their culture of digital innovation, or lack thereof, and it subsequently was leaked to the outside world.

The document is a extraordinarily honest look at organization’s struggle with the move to a digital world. Even better than the document itself is Nieman Journalism Lab’s viewpoint on the document, which is chock full of choice quotes and analysis on the situation happening at the Times.

Most of the blame falls on the past leadership for not fostering the shift to a new digital world. There were three points that demonstrate the current organization is more comfortable in the old model:

  • Leadership is unwilling to experiment in the digital space due to fear of failure
  • Lack of collaboration and respect between editorial and R&D teams
  • Absence of empathy towards the readership

Innovation starts with the understanding that the digital space is always changing. The way to stay in front is having an internal culture that’s willing to experiment with small bets which allows the organization to understand its audience, closely collaborate as a whole, as well as mitigate costly and time-consuming failures.

Small bets are efficient digital experiments or executions used to examine audience behavior change and external cultural shifts.

With each small bet, the organization has to be prepared that they might fail, but recognize that everyone can learn from them in some capacity. Small bets foster collaboration and empowerment for the organization, because of their speed at arriving at small wins.

Once an organization finds success with a small bet, they can blow it out further in a more elaborate manner on the next iteration.

As the document states, this doesn’t mean the journalism must suffer: “We must push back against our perfectionist impulses. Though our journalism always needs to be polished, our other efforts can have some rough edges as we look for new ways to reach our readers.” (p. 31)

The only way to produce these type of small bets is to have a close collaboration between the journalists, editors, and the R&D teams — who are able to build the tools to launch these bets. Currently, this type of collaboration doesn’t exist at the Times, which will drive out talented technology folks and create a vicious cycle of digital stagnation.

Lastly, the Times leadership’s lack of empathy for the readership is one of the biggest red flags. From tagging the content correctly, to repackaging archival content for current stories, there seems to a lack of vision and understanding of what the audience wants.

Small bets can allow the Times to see the world in more compassionate ways, while identifying new opportunities for the paper’s business. The report mentions Gawker repackaged a 161-year-old Times story on Solomon Northup timed with the release of 12 Years A Slave. “We can be both a daily newsletter and a library — offering news every day, as well as providing context, relevance and timeless works of journalism.” (p. 28)

Unlike others, I think this leaked document and loud public response will wake up The New York Times to register their mistakes. They’re already slowly producing small bets – such as SnowFall – but they need to act quicker, feel empathy for their readership, and push for collaboration between parties.


Levi Brooks is the CEO/Co-founder of Use All Five.
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