A year has passed since avid media watchers combed through The New York Times' innovation report, in which a task force examined the lagging pace of the Times' digital growth and how its traditional culture hindered the company.
“We’ve made experimentation the rule, not the exception, recognizing that if you don’t fail occasionally, you are simply not trying hard enough,” Sulzberger said, adding that the Times has "never lost sight of the journalism."
One of the most critical players who has helped shift digital strategy at the Times is Alex MacCallum, the assistant managing editor for audience development. MacCallum initially began working with the business side of the news outlet before switching to the newsroom, and Sulzberger said she plays a "truly critical role in the way the Times functions."
At #WNC15, MacCallum and Sulzberger discussed audience development, the rollout of Times reporter Sarah Maslin Nir's series on nail salons in New York City, mobile strategy and journalists' culture. Here are some key takeaways from their conversation:
Developing new strategies
MacCallum and her team have narrowed audience development down to three things: figuring out where people are discovering their news, letting data inform decisions and thinking about audience behavior.
The Times is doing its best to meet readers where they are by experimenting with its search functions, social practices, newsletters and app push notifications. Anywhere readers are consuming information, the Times is striving to be present too.
Being data-informed about its audiences' habits also helped sculpt strategies, but MacCallum said data doesn't necessarily drive them.
"We come up with a hypothesis, we test it, and we get feedback through the data we see to make informed decisions about how we can proceed with different strategies," she said.
Hiring and repositioning staff to target audience development and have "increased collaboration" was also a task from the innovation report, which encouraged the newsroom "to claim its seat at the table because packaging, promoting and sharing our journalism requires editorial oversight." Now, MacCallum said, there are groups embedded across the desks of the newsroom that focus on search strategy, social accounts and strategy, newsroom analytics and community.
And while news organizations are moving away from letting traffic drive the approach, the Times has seen an increase in the past six months, which lets busy staffers know their hard work is paying off:
Driving good journalism
When Nir's yearlong reporting on the labor conditions of New York City nail salons and health of nail salon workers nationwide finally hit the Web, it went viral. According to MacCallum, the story has reached almost 5 million people. But despite Nir's strong reporting, this didn't happen organically.
"We worked very closely with the editors and reporters for months in preparation," MacCallum said. "We had a really strong plan which we rolled out and executed."
That plan included translating the two-part series into Korean, Chinese and Spanish, creating social copy to promote it in those languages, working with the Times' newsletter team and using push alerts.
The series' ended up being a trending topic on Facebook for several days, and New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo ordered emergency measures be put in place to protect nail salon workers. New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio vowed to investigate and organized a Nail Salon Day of Action.
"It [was] the kind of thing where the Times [was] actually making the news that becomes a trending topic," MacCallum said. "It’s not like the Times was writing a story about something everyone was writing about."
"Our international subscriptions are growing more quickly than our subscriptions in the U.S.," MacCallum said. "We have a big growth opportunity outside of the States, and it’s exciting to see."
With such an opportunity at hand, MacCallum said the Times is beginning to think more about how to translate existing content into other languages and expand its reach beyond the U.S. Sulzberger also noted that there's a reason former BBC Director-General Mark Thompson is now the CEO of The New York Times Co., and he has plenty of experience growing a global brand.
With more than 50 percent of traffic coming in through mobile, the Times continues to experiment with storytelling on different platforms. For example, a team is working on how to better incorporate video into stories, as they are mostly treated as an aside now. By monitoring the habits of how readers check back in on a breaking news event, the Times is also enhancing its live coverage.
Such experimentation with distribution and storytelling has also been a key factor to recognizing change at the news organization. The authors of the innovation report encouraged the newsroom to "push back against our perfectionist impulses," and be willing to deal with "rough edges as we look for new ways to reach our readers."
The Times' certainly went through a trial and error period with these experiments. NYT Opinion didn't pan out, and NYT Now didn't work out as a paid app after being unable to attract enough subscribers. But NYT Now still worked for readers. The now free app has made it easier for news consumers to know what content to focus on.
"Readers have really raved about having NYT editors curate the Times for them," MacCallum said. "We produce 300 stories a week. It’s a lot to get through. Having someone curate the Times on a daily basis has been really useful for readers."
Main image of Arthur O. Sulzberger, Jr., (left) and Alex MacCallum by IJNet