Saving The New York Times From Oblivion
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.
Our core mission remains producing the world's best journalism. But with the endless upheaval in technology, reader habits and the entire business model, The Times need to pursue smart new strategies for growing our audience. The urgency is only growing because digital media is getting more crowded, better funded and far more innovative.
It should be stated explicitly that there is no single transformational idea in this report.
Here are two transformational ideas from a Times reader of 60 years.
1. The New York Times Print Edition
If the Times wants to "to pursue smart new strategies for growing our audience," the editors, writers and designers damn well better start talking to younger readers.
This is 2014. Communications coins of the realm are:
• The 140-character tweet: Twitter has 645 million registered users worldwide.
• The 160-character text:
Allison Miller, 14, sends and receives 27,000 texts in a month, her fingers clicking at a blistering pace as she carries on as many as seven text conversations at a time. She texts between classes, at the moment soccer practice ends, while being driven to and from school and, often, while studying. Most of the exchanges are little more than quick greetings, but they can get more in-depth, like "if someone tells you about a drama going on with someone," Allison said. "I can text one person while talking on the phone to someone else." —Matt Richtel, The New York Times
The brains of these young tweeters and texters have been rewired. They can absorb information only in small bites.
"The addictive nature of Web browsing can leave you with an attention span of nine seconds," wrote Dr. Ted Selker of the MIT Media Lab, "the same as a goldfish."
Texters, tweeters, Internet surfers, YouTubers, couch potatoes and game players absolutely cannot deal with the copy-heavy 19th-century design model used throughout The New York Times.
[Check out the first and second images in the media player at right to see what I'm talking about.]
The 21st century design model for the Times can be found it its own pages back in 1967.
[See the third image for a full-page, broad sheet New York Times ad pictured and discussed in Ogilvy on Advertising.]
Created in the 1960s for Merrill Lynch by the late Louis Engel, former managing editor of Business Week, here is a textbook example of David Ogilvy's philosophy: "Avoid gray walls of type."
"This advertisement contains 6,540 words," Ogilvy wrote, "the most anybody has used in a single page."
To keep the reader engaged throughout, Engel and his designer used every design gimmick in the book:
- Upper deck
- Lower deck
- Large subhead at right: How to Buy and Sell Securities
- 18 crossheads to introduce individual paragraphs and sections
- Always a space between crosshead and preceding paragraph
- 2 boxed sidebars
Forcing the Reader's Eye to Keep Moving
If interest flags for a moment anywhere in the piece, the reader's eyes will flick to a crosshead nearby and attention is recaptured.
Further, if the reader is interrupted by a phone call or doorbell, touchpoints throughout make it easy to see where to resume reading.
Why Hold This Advertisement Up as a 21st Century Design Model?
Many, many people read every word of it.
At the very end of the ad—in the box at bottom right—is the description of a booklet being offered: How to Invest. The last 5 words of the ad are: "It's yours for the asking."
Responses from 5,033 readers were received requesting 20,000 copies of the booklet.
Quite simply the mesmerizing copy and interruptive design kept readers engaged all the way to the very end.
What's more, no order coupon was used. Readers had to write in on their own notepaper, stationery or postcard. In addition, 947 telephone requests were received and 552 visitors stopped by Merrill Lynch offices to pick up booklets in person.
For the complete text of this historic advertisement, click here.
Why declare an advertisement—which sells something—to be the model for every editorial page of The New York Times and indeed all writing in print and online?
As writers, we are all selling.
We are selling the reader on continuing on to the next word, next sentence, next paragraph and next page—all the way to the end.
Create one boring paragraph, and the reader is gone.
We are all a mouse-click away from oblivion.
2. The New York Times Online Edition
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. —NYT Innovation Report
Coming late in life to the computer, I was slow to pick up on the digital reading experience being different from print.
I was schooled primarily by Vrest Orton's screed on the evils of sans serif type (opens as a PDF)—my bible for 30 years.
When I started this cranky column in 2005, a reader wrote me with a question about the ideal font for online readability. It set me off on a quest resulting in a long column on the subject.
The upshot: where serif type is the best practice for print, sans serif is ideal for digital reading.
The best quick discussion of digital readability is "In Search Of: The Best Online Reading Experience" by Sara Dickenson Quinn.
Suffice it to say The New York Times website—the entire thing—is in serif type.
The Times editors are shoveling a 19th century design model into 21st century media.
Takeaways to Consider
- "Neatness rejects involvement." —Lew Smith
- Compared to film, television, YouTube, texting, Tweeting, surfing the Internet or attending a sporting event, reading a lot of words is hellishly hard, boring work.
- "It takes hard writing to make easy reading." —Jack London
- It takes world-class design to make easy reading.
- "Short words. Short sentences. Short paragraphs." —Andrew J. Byrne
- Any sentence longer than 29 words is extremely difficult to read.
- A display subhead of two or three lines between your headline and your body copy will heighten the reader's appetite for the feast to come.After two or three inches of copy, insert your first crosshead, and thereafter pepper crossheads throughout. They keep the reader marching forward. Make some of them interrogative, to excite curiosity in the next run of copy.
An ingenious sequence of boldly displayed crossheads can deliver the substance of your entire pitch to glancers who are too lazy to wade through the text. —David Ogilvy, Confessions of an Advertising Man
- Skip a space between the crosshead and preceding paragraph.
- Use decks, subheads, call-outs, illustrations and boxed insets or sidebars—and any other bells and whistles to break up the monotony of words, words, words.
- All of the above holds true for letters, memos, white papers, email, blogs, press releases, articles and websites.
- In the print items mentioned in the above Takeaway, skip a line between paragraphs.
- Create one boring paragraph and the reader is gone.
- Creating a product or service is easy. Marketing is very hard.
- The addictive nature of web browsing can leave you with an attention span of nine seconds—the same as a goldfish." —Dr. Ted Selker, MIT Media Lab
- We are all a mouse-click away from oblivion.
- "Good writing is easier to read than to skip." —Arthur Brisbane
- If your company has distributed a juicy, newsy memo or report for internal consumption, assume an impish or disgruntled employee will leak it all over the Internet.
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