Batya Ungar-Sargon

What broke the New York Times?

(Photo: iStock)

The New York Times entered the digital era under duress. In 2011, the Times erected a paywall in what it called a ‘subscription-first business model’. The gamble was that readers would want to pay for quality journalism. It was a risk, and at first it didn’t seem to be paying off: after a challenging 2014, the company shed 100 people from the newsroom in buyouts and layoffs.

A.G. Sulzberger, who was getting ready to replace his father as publisher, commissioned an in-house report, its title ‘Innovation’. The report made it very clear who was to blame. A journalist’s job, the report said, no longer ended with choosing, reporting and publishing the news. To compensate for the ‘steady decline’ in advertising revenue due to digitisation, ‘the wall dividing the newsroom and business side’ had to come down. The ‘hard work of growing our audience falls squarely on the newsroom’, the report said, so the Times should be ‘encouraging reporters and editors to promote their stories’.

Of course, journalists have always been aware who their readers are and have catered to them, consciously and unconsciously. But it was something else entirely to suggest that journalists should be collaborating with their audience to produce ‘user-generated content’, as the report put it. ‘Innovation’ presaged a new direction for the paper of record: become digital-first or perish.

The Times invested in new subscription services like NYT Cooking and NYT Games, and introduced live events, conferences and foreign trips. The paper hired an ad agency to work in-house and began allowing brands to sponsor specific lines of reporting. Journalists were asked to accompany advertisers to conferences and were pushed to collaborate more closely with the business side, something many of the old-school editors were loath to do. The executive editor at the time, Jill Abramson, resisted strenuously. She was given the boot.

And then came Trump.

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