Monday, May 19, 2014

Of Innovation, transformation, and steering the Grey Lady into the digital age (lessons from the NY Times for GLAMs?)

While much of the popular media world was focused on the drama occurring in the upper echelons of the New York Times with the ouster of Jill Abramson as Executive Editor, the real bombshell about the Times (rather than from the Times) was the leaking of Innovation (dated 24 March 2014), an honest and cutting look into the struggle for the true soul of the newspaper written by key staffers, including A.G. Sulzberger, son of the owner/publisher Arthur Sulzberger.

The report, first leaked by BuzzFeed on 15 May 2015 ("Exclusive: New York Times Internal Report Painted Dire Digital Picture") tore through the social media world. In my own small(ish) world of GLAM (galleries, libraries, archives, museums), the report exploded with "likes" and Tweets. There were also plenty of "Uh, oh, we're in the same boat" comments from my colleagues, which, broadly speaking, I would agree with.

Now the report itself is fascinating, both for what it actually says and what you can read between the lines. Clearly written for an inside audience (full of journalism lingo like "the Newsroom" and "the Masthead" used as personal nouns almost!; and telling Timesian metaphors such as "Church and State" to describe the separation of the capital "J" journalism side of the house with the Mammon-esque business side). There's also a rehashing of the bible of disruptors, Clayton Christensen's The Innovator's Dilemma: When New Technologies Cause Great Firms to Fail (1997) that clearly gives the impression the report is pointed directly at the heart of a entreched oligarchy.

There are also interesting asides in praise of some of the operations that seem like bones being thrown to the Old Guard to distract them while they're being scourged by facts, statistics, and hard-edged examples of just what a wrong path the Times is on in maintaining a print, page one focus with their staffing, content, marketing, and technology.

To return to my GLAM world, I think that museums, libraries and archives all fact much different problems (in the detail) than newspapers. The problem, at its core, is the transition from analog, place/time-based repositories to digital, unmoored interactive resources. I'll narrow down my GLAM comments to just the "L" (since that's where I spend most of my time).

Libraries are in a particular difficult situation when looked at through the lens of the Innovation. Libraries have rich, deep content they need to surface in new ways, but because they are not owners of new content, are at the full mercy of intellectual property owners (e.g. publishers) on how that content can be distributed electronically (or NOT distributed in most cases). In looking at the three "How to Get There" step of the report ("De-emphasize print", "Assess digital needs", and "Explore more serious steps"), the first is hardest. If print is the only way our content providers will sell content and digital is how our users increasingly want content, there is quite a conundrum indeed. The report ends rather abruptly. I would have like a grand closing statement, but we're left to "explore more serious steps" (which sounds somewhat ominous!).

The official response from the Times to the leaking of the report:
"We are extremely proud of the Innovation report," a spokesperson for the Times told Mashable earlier this week. "It is a candid assessment of our digital transformation with insightful recommendations, many of which we have embraced and are working to implement."
In thinking of the other two steps, libraries are stuck right in the sights of Christensen's Innovator's Dilemma. How do you build the "new" library that will work in a rapidly changing environment without marginalizing current operations and alienating key happy customers? Sorry, no real answers to this question at the moment, but plenty to ponder.

A few other stats from the newspaper world that may or may not be congruent with the GLAM world. The first is the real soul of newspapers, which is advertising. The freefall of ad revenue, the historic (or at least 100+ year history) primary source of income for newspaper is astounding.

This chart, from "And Now Let Us Gasp In Astonishment At What Just Happened To The Newspaper Business" by Henry Blodget (15 September 2012) shows just how much money newspapers have lost from the shift of ad dollars to other media (if anyone is looking for the killer of their local paper, BTW, I think your chief suspect is none other than Craigslist).

Likewise, demographics are pointing a dagger at the print newspaper. In a Adults' Media Use and Attitudes Report 2014 (reported on by Business Insider "Most-missed media - top five mentions among all adults: 2013"), shows that only 2% of adults would "miss" reading a newspaper (as opposed to 42% who would "miss" watching TV. But the trenchant statistic for newspapers is that while 9% of the 75+ audience would miss the paper, 0% of the 16-34 year old demographic would. That's zero, as in none. The Innovation report also highlights a variation of this stat in that it has 1.25m print subscribers but 30m web readers (and similarly high numbers for other "online" access - I'll also note the 760k digital subscribers here). Likewise, another statistic in the report shows that in 2013, the Times had a revenue split of 43/52/5 (ads, subscribers, other), vs 51/43/6 in 2009.

Overall, the Innovation report is a bold statement of speaking truth to authority (the drama at the Masthead and participation of the Publisher's son in the report add to the intrigue of course!). It also holds up an example of how an industry, or more specifically an especially valuable property in an otherwise, is doomed too strong a word? industry, could chart a way forward with some hope of success.

Does it hold lessons for the GLAM and specifically the library-world? Possibly. For many of us, especially those that work in marquee institutions, we're used to getting our pick of quality talent, but as noted "our storied brand is less a draw among the digital natives. They are drawn to opportunities to create something, experiment and solve problems, and re-think how news is made -- without the guardrails and bureaucracy of legacy organizations" (p. 91).

Some suggested reading:

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