Saving The New York Times From Oblivion

Great journalism, but alas unreadable

As a young kid I never saw The New York Times.

Around six every morning, the paper delivery truck would roar up the driveway and whiz around circle at the far end. Heading out, the driver would fling two newspapers onto the front stoop and speed off.

One was the New York Herald Tribune for my father; the second copy of the Trib was delivered to my grandmother on the tray with her shredded wheat and tea.

I once asked my father why he didn’t take one each of the Times and the Trib and then switch with his mother.

“The Times is boring,” he said. “Neither of us likes it.”

Seventy years later the Times is still boring—and in deep doo-doo.

The Leaked Innovation Report­
May 15, 2014 was a pivotal day at The New York Times HQ at 620 Eighth Avenue—the scene of two P.R. catastrophes:

  • Managing editor Jill Abramson was fired amidst a swirling media free-for-all that caught owner Arthur “Pinch” Sulzberger with his pants around his ankles.
  • A major internal Times document—The Innovation Report—was leaked and turned up all over the Internet.

The Lede—What the Times Said About Itself
The New York Times is winning at journalism. Of all the challenges facing a media company in the digital age, producing great journalism is the hardest. Our daily report is deep, broad, smart and engaging—and we’ve got a huge lead over the competition.

At the same time, we are falling behind in a second critical area: the art and science of getting our journalism to readers. We have always cared about the reach and impact of our work, but we haven’t done enough to crack that code in the digital era.

… over the last year The Times has watched readership fall significantly. Not only is the audience on our website shrinking, but our audience on our smartphone apps has dipped, an extremely worrying sign on a growing platform.

Denny Hatch is the author of six books on marketing and four novels, and is a direct marketing writer, designer and consultant. His latest book is “Write Everything Right!” Visit him at dennyhatch.com.

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Comments
  • Jim Hart

    Funny, I’ve been getting the Sunday NYT for about 6 months now and I thought it was just me.

    I’m 57, not 27. Can’t seem to make myself read complete stories. I thought perhaps too many long nights had impaired my ability to concentrate.

    Just this Sunday, I said to my wife, "There are 9 stories started on page 1 and not of them is finished there. This is like trying to read a paper that’s already been put through a shredder."

    It is classic arrogance to pronounce that you are now producing the finest journalism on the planet, but readership numbers are falling, so we much have a distribution problem. The only valid judge of your content is the intended audience. They are voting with their attention.

  • Tim Orr

    And yet, one of the current design fads is NOT to indent paragraphs, then compound the felony by not putting a line space between paragraphs. Forbidding and almost impossible to read. Most of the designers I have known were not readers, not even a little bit. Colin Wheildon’s "Type & Layout" has been around for years, but I’ve yet to meet a designer who knew of it, much less consulted it.

  • Chris Bensson

    tl;dr

    (Just kidding!)

  • Patricia

    "The New York Times is longwinded, self-regarding and blathery…" – DraytonBird– I completely agree!

    I can’t remember the last time I bought a newspaper. When going out to breakfast alone or to the gym I used to stop by the nearest candy store and load up on newspapers and sometimes magazines. Now I don’t need to– thanks to the iPhone and sometimes my iPad I have plenty of news to read all the time. And I don’t need to awkwardly fold and refold NYT pages to finish reading a story. And besides, I don’t think overly long and blathery articles translate well to reading on an iPhone.

    Denny – you’re spot on in your analysis, and your takeaways are extremely relevant. I thought this was exceptionally insightful:

    "It should be stated explicitly that there is no single transformational idea in this report."

    When the report was leaked I read the whole thing and was surprised that at the lack of innovative ideas, but eventually realized that that’s the point… there’s so much navel-gazing going on at NYT they’re really clueless at stepping out of their insular journalism box to see how many other people view them.

    I guess all that glorious history (or baggage) behind their brand weighs down or cancels out any incentive to really embrace change, until its too late.

  • Mandy Minor

    Hard to believe I didn’t know the NYT site is still in a serif font. Wha? Per usual, great ideas and systhesis of key issues, Denny!

  • GeorgeM

    Well, I do believe journalism is actually quite dead. The modern jounalista is an unabashed partisan, or unemployed. Nonetheless, do you think humans are just evolving where this style of communication is no longer rewarding? In the last decade, the most cost-effective method to engage a reader in a lengthy messages has been been through long-form style messaging using scrolling text and other techniques. These methods hide the potential time commitment of the reader (but still require many of your recommendations). Look at any "story" on AOL these days- – a series of endless teasers that test the hourly mood of their readers. It is all fast food for the brain, but it sells.

  • DraytonBird

    The New York Times is longwinded, self-regarding and blathery – as that memo shows.

    They didn’t do themselves any favours by hiring a man who went a fair way to ruining the BBC – equally inward-looking. They should look at The Guardian, also a seriious paper, which is doing fine on line – and ask what they can learn.

    People will read all you want if you make it interesting enough. I recently analysed an email sent by The Daily Reckoning. It was 2,888 words long. They send out emails about that long every single day. Without revealing any trade secrets I can tell you they are HUGELY profitable.

    Why? Because they are intent on writing stuff people can’t help reading – even though it is written to sell.

    I don’t actually think the font matters nearly as much as what you write. I recently read – wish I could recall where – that Courier, the typrewriter face – works well online.

  • MET

    I agree with everything you say about readability and longwindedness, but I think the cause of the readership decline is much simpler than that. The Times is actively hostile to non-subscribers trying to read articles online.

    The Times was very early in adopting a paywall. Early-on, there was a relatively high monthly article limit before non-paying readers were locked out, and the lockout technology was very easy to circumvent. People who appreciated the Times’ "world-class journalism" enough to seek it out, but not enough to pay for it at the asked price, could still get plenty of it.

    While at the same time, the Times was getting paid online subscriptions from those who valued full access. It worked.

    Some time along the way, they came out with an app, which limited to 3 articles per day for free. Not a huge number, but seemingly a decent compromise between getting info and exposure out there, and protecting from perceived freeloaders.

    Now, the limit is 10 articles per month (online via web browser or via their mobile app). As a freeloader, that changed my behavior. When I look for current news on a Google search, I used to click on the NYT article if it came up in the search. Now, I’m concerned about hitting the limit, so if I’m looking for information but don’t need the "world’s finest", I go somewhere else. And when I’m at that somewhere else, I do tend to stick there and click around to other articles.

    I still go to the NYT site when I want info that the Times is particularly good at (in-depth analyses, unique-to-Manhattan things, some of the op-eds) or if a friend or unrelated website referred an article that looked interesting. But when I do go to the NYT site to read an article, it does an interrupting countdown of the limit and a subscription solicitation every time. And then an interrupting/blocking paid ad. Unless I’m out of articles that month in which case I’m dead in the water so why bother? It’s a lousy experience. [And, if my finger brushes over a headline or misses its target, and it launches an article, that counts against the limit — even if I hit "back" immediately.]

    I can completely accept that the NYT has made a business decision to push me away because I’m not paying, and presumably has made a calculation that paid subscribers are, overall, worth more than eyeballs and non-subscriber ad revenue. I’d also expect that their decisions on how to manage and limit non-subscribers were approved at the highest levels of the organization and well-discussed. If NYT management doesn’t understand that restricting access will necessarily cause a decline in readership and visits — one they intentionally created — they should all be fired. Make it harder to get your product, and fewer people will get your product. Duh!

  • Whatever

    The author may want to reconsider his statement about serif fonts. Sans became a standard at a time when display technology could not render serifs correctly. Anymore, there is little difference in readability between sans and serif fonts designed for screen viewing. Georgia is a font specifically designed for computer screen viewing. Assuming a font designed for online use is used, the choice of a sans or serif type should be made on considerations other than legibility. Serif is the font of choice for direct. There are reasons for that. There is no reason not to use a serif font for an online site. NYT’s use of Georgia is just fine.