by Louisa Reynolds | 2014/15 IWMF Elizabeth Neuffer Fellow
December 03, 2014
The New York Times intended the Innovation Report to be an internal document. It was a rigorous exercise of self-examination that was supposed to ignite debate and bring about a cultural shift with the newsroom but wound up being leaked to Buzzfeed in the wake of Jill Abramson’s ouster as executive director of the Times in May this year.
Amy O’Leary, a new deputy editor at the Times’ international desk and co-author of the Innovation Report came to Harvard on November 16th to talk about the document that has caused such a stir in newsrooms across the country.
O’Leary insists that this is nothing new and that it’s all stuff that’s been talked about before only that now “it’s packaged with a language about fear and hope”.
The Innovation Report, explained O’Leary, aimed to address a small group of newsroom leaders in order to persuade them that there needs to be dialogue between journalists and areas traditionally associated with the business side of the news organization, such as experts on reader experience.
“We advocated for a newsroom strategy team and we wanted to prioritize digital hiring and staffing. We talked about the separation between business and journalism, which is like the separation between Church and State. We shouldn’t dismantle that wall but we welcome fluid and frequent conversations between them”, says O’Leary.
Changing the newsroom culture was no easy task. O’Leary explains that she often had to approach each journalist on an individual basis and do her best to persuade them that adding digital components to their stories would allow them to reach a wider audience.
“It’s a hard conversation to have at the NYT. Telling people that a 5,000 word story that won a Pulitzer prize bored me wasn’t easy”, says O’Leary.
The changes advocated by the Innovation Report included embracing testing mechanisms similar to those used by Buzzfeed, in order to get an idea of what the potential impact of a story could be before its publication and embracing data.
She clarifies, however, that she’s not advocating talking about “traffic”, like advertising-driven media do, but thinking about “journalistic impact”, which can mean requiring every journalist to have a social media strategy in order to ensure that when a reader googles a particular topic, that journalist’s most recent piece is the first item to come up on the search engine.
“Audience development is the art and science of getting your journalism in front of readers. Today, people are getting most of their information through feeds”, explains O’Leary.
Content management systems, she says, can transform storytelling because they allow a journalist to “write through video”, unlike traditional writing on a blank piece of paper, where journalists were only required to think about text.
Interestingly, although O’Leary it’s an outspoken advocate of the power of digital media, she says that she doesn’t see print becoming extinct any time soon. “Technology erodes your ability to understand. There’s things that the Kindles and Ipads of this world won’t be able to accomplish”, she says.
In February-March 2015 I’ll be working full-time at the New York Times. No doubt I’ll be arriving at an exciting time in this great newsroom’s history and hopefully I’ll be able to learn a lot more about digital storytelling. I can’t wait!