Keeping Up With The New York Times


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It seems baffling to me that in 2011 there are media companies that are still so clueless about the realities of digital publishing. In fact, many act surprised, as though it's something new that just dropped into their laps rather than a transition that's been happening over the past decade.

I recently watched a trailer for a new documentary called Page One: Inside The New York Times, which looks at the problems the newspaper faced as it tried to come to grips with its shifting market. Big media properties such as The Times seem to be caught between two worlds. In the old world, life moves on print deadlines as it did throughout the 20th century. Large buildings house huge printing presses. Trucks wait at the ready for the printed copies of the newspaper to head out the door and then deliver the papers to the newsstand or doorstep once a day.

In the new world, the news moves minute to minute. Stories break on Twitter and Facebook. Ordinary people armed with smartphones, not just trained journalists, snap pictures and shoot video-and sometimes even beat news organizations at their own game. There is no time to wait for print deadlines. Some reporters have made the transition better than others: As with any technological shift, some will get it and some won't, but there's more to it than a simple model shift.

Media properties such as The New York Times feasted on ad revenue for the better part of the 20th century. While some forward-thinking companies have continued to make money by making a gradual transition to digital, those caught in the old world are quickly realizing that the money is simply different online. Ads are much cheaper on the internet. In many cases, people bypass traditional advertising altogether, using craigslist for classifieds or social media to promote events for which they would have bought ads in a newspaper a decade ago.

Meanwhile, many old media properties continue to tie the hands of their reporters. GigaOM reported in June that Scripps Newspapers, for example, had threatened employees with termination if they used Facebook, Twitter, or other social networks "improperly." Such restrictive policies are not going to help newspapers that are trying to engage a new audience online.

Then there was the story last June about the New York Post, which was blocking iPad access to its website using the Safari browser because it wanted to protect its iPad app subscription revenue. Again, it's a wrong-headed, protective way of thinking, and it's completely counter to the way the internet works today.

As with the music industry, which seems to make the same mistakes over and over again when it comes to conducting business online, newspapers for the most part continue to stumble their way through the internet era. While you can blame an older generation of editors and executives for not understanding, at some point, a new generation that was raised on the internet and gets the digital model has to take over. Perhaps these voices were drowned out 5 years ago, but today there have to be people in positions of power at these organizations with some vision and understanding of the future of the business. Yet these voices seem strangely silent, and that's what's so frustrating about watching the media industry today as it repeats these patterns.

The sad thing about all of this is that the world still needs well-financed news organizations. We still need people traveling to news bureaus in hot spots around the globe and journalists on the ground reporting on news as it happens. And that requires money. Lots of money.

At the same time, it's hard to have any sympathy for newspapers that still cling to the old ways, trying to protect the print side at the cost of the new digital one. In the end everyone-from the consumer to the top of the publishing food chain-ends up losing because newspapers can't move forward.

We have seen some publications beginning to make that transition more gracefully. Forward-thinking media companies such as the Guardian Media Group in England have announced a "Digital First" policy, meaning that the print publications are no longer leading the way, and that's as it should be.

Print might not be dead, and, in fact, I believe there is still a market for it, but it's time to accept the unavoidable fact that times have changed and that we're not going back in time. The sooner media companies realize that, the sooner we can start to deal with reporting in this new reality and trying to find ways to keep venerable news organizations from fading away.