Journalism Shark about the future of journalism

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Journalism Shark about the future of journalism

Tuesday, 29 October 2013

An interview with Martin Niesenholtz, senior vice president of the New York Times, reveals the integration of journalism into the network and the possible consequences of this process. Martin has his view on all of this: funding for journalism, “Like” buttons under articles, engaging readers, and local media. 

As part of SHIFT’s work for the Pivot conference, I am communicating with the luminaries of the journalism industry. The star invited to this role, Martin Niesenholz, is, in fact, an iconic man. Before proceeding with the interview, here is a publishing review from an NYTimes article announcing his recent departure from Gray Lady: “The New York Times reported Monday that Martin Niesenholz, the company’s senior vice president, helped launch the website for the company’s newspaper of the same name, and then implemented a plan to attract online readers, retires later this year.

In his address to the staff, the company’s president Arthur Sulzberger Jr. and CEO Janet L. Robinson spoke about Mr. Niesenholtz’s role in shaping the Times’ web strategy from its infancy. When Mr. Niesenholz joined the company in 1995, “we had zero web page views. Indeed, we did not have Internet users. Also, we had no web revenue. Today, thanks in large part to the vision of Martin and management, our online numbers are vastly different.”

Mr. Niesenholz, 56, has been involved in virtually every major TheTimes digital initiative, from creating a website to multi-platform projects related to mobile phones and tablets.

Do you understand? Iconic.

An edited version of the long conversation with this significant person is below and is also posted on the Pivot website:

Question: Martin, can we talk about the 24-hour news cycle? Do you think this “always online” style is more beneficial or harmful to the journalistic profession? Now you can only read the news you agree with, without paying attention to opposing and competing points of view…

Answer: I think it does both. This, of course, helped in the sense that the news product came alive, in real-time. It is interesting to have a product that is constantly updated and changed. The main feature of the network is to be always on, and that’s why I think it’s a big positive. The problem is that it (the network) carries a significant level of risk. You have to work twice as hard and always make sure that what you publish is accurate.

It’s easy to idealize Walter Cronkite’s days: creating a sense of community was easier because there were only a few sources, and there wasn’t much variety in the news production. The danger in today’s environment is that you may lose intuitive insight. One of the problems with this kind of focus, a niche view of the world, is that you don’t notice things you don’t care about. That’s something to keep in mind, and I think The New York Times succeeds. One of the reasons people read the Times is their intuitive ability to discover. This is not because readers are looking for things they know they want but because they want to be surprised by the editorial vision. This is a valuable skill and will remain so for a very long time.

Question: In terms of business prospects, journalism is moving in a slightly long, slow lane, with many theories about how the industry can save itself, etc. Let’s focus on the role of SEO and advertising. Should journalists care about the number of clicks their stories might receive?

Answer: This is a serious question. Do I think people should care about how many clicks they get? No, I don’t think reporters should care much about that. And here’s why: in a large news organization, it’s not a contest of popularity but rather an opportunity to make sure that people who read the product have access to valuable content.

If you look at the materials that get tons of clicks on websites, they are often, without a doubt, exciting materials, but many of them are thoughts and tips on how to lead a healthy lifestyle, exercise more, etc. You won’t see in those cases stories about the war in Afghanistan or the uprising in Syria because people, for some reason, are not so focused on such information.

Let’s say that the story of the “Ten Most Important Exercises” receives 20 times more clicks than the story of Tunisia. Does this mean that the “Ten Most Important Exercises” are more important or exciting than the story of Tunisia? No, that’s my point of view: a journalist writing a story about Tunisia shouldn’t feel like he’s failed because he didn’t get as many clicks as a health story.

The result of sites that are purposefully obsessed with receiving clicks to increase advertising revenue is to narrow the content down to the lowest common denominator. I don’t want to sound like a romantic fool, saying that it doesn’t matter if people see the meaning or not. In a large news organization, you have a variety of content, and more popular things make up for less popular ones.

Question: You talked about the importance of participating in some of your leading ideas and initiatives. What should the media industry do to continue to engage the Internet reader?

Answer: First, the word “interaction” is probably being misused. Let’s talk about gaining and retaining customers because that’s what’s important, especially when we’re talking about business needs in the industry. And the metrics that people have used for years to measure and measure success have led us in a strange direction. Media companies themselves joke that they think they have customers just because ComScore and Nielsen told them they have X the number of users per month: anyone who clicks on a link on Google reads your article without even knowing, on which site he is located and then clicks “Back,” is not a customer. As soon as you start to constantly supply people with the media products you make, only then do you know that you have customers.

What are the methods to increase customer engagement? Many of the current methods used on news sites have come from e-commerce (such as Amazon), which is positive. Still, the industry is currently experimenting heavily with technology in the social space. People in the social sphere understand interaction probably better than anyone else. Therefore, to the extent that the media and the news industry can reap these benefits, they should do so.

But there is no one-size-fits-all solution. Look on Facebook. They have billions of customers. They have more contacts than anyone else. Look at their metrics. They are amazing, a news organization will never be as big or powerful as Facebook. However, even Facebook has problems justifying prices and estimates because only advertising models are complicated to work out. Facebook is good. Facebook will be very successful, but no one pays for it. It is challenging to create a sustainable model of interaction that would lead to a sustainable business.

Question: Anything that worries you about the future of journalism

Answer: One dark cloud that so much content that people have invested in aggregators comes from traditional news organizations funded primarily through offline business. We must remember that in most cities, the leading news organization in most location is the newspaper, and they have been in crisis for several years. You don’t want a situation where journalists inadequately cover the city. It is possible that in some places, bloggers and community journalists are trying to make up for this, but it is difficult for a citizen journalist to make a deep dive over a long, sustained period. For example, real resources are needed to cover municipal corruption cases, and it is not clear to me how citizen journalists are going to be able to do this on an ongoing basis. I’m not saying they can’t do it. They just have to do it day in and day out, year after year, more than once or twice.

Question: You are a legend of the industry. Is there anything, in particular, from your experience that you hope journalism will learn? Do you have predictions about how people will consume the news in the future?

Answer: The most important thing is quality. I do not mean quality only in terms of writing or editing, but also the overall impression of users, the overall feeling that the product gives you. The guy who proved it is Steve Jobs: look at what he was able to do with fully standardized industry products. To the extent that I learned something about the business, I learned from Steve Jobs and Apple to focus on quality, and usually, many other things take care of themselves.

As for the future, no one has a crystal ball, but people today use devices to read the news. Most of these consumption methods did not exist until a few years ago. Decades ago there were other things that now seem archaic. As a general rule, there will always be more diversity and fragmentation. For the last twenty years, this has been a trend, and I don’t see a stop. A lot of content is available around the world, it’s not very high quality, but you can organize it and read it to make it much more accessible and easier than it was twenty years ago or even five years ago. From the user’s point of view, it’s like a golden age.

Todd Defren