If the NYT is broken, can it be fixed?

Seth Godin, marketing guru extraordinaire, has an interesting post about how the New York Times has missed the boat and is fighting the wrong war (to mix a couple of metaphors). In it, he puts his finger on one of the biggest factors that make it hard for newspapers in general — the one I work for included — to make the transition from paper to digital. It’s not a technical issue, or at least not solely a technical issue, but more of a conceptual shift. There are no limits any more, or at least not the usual ones that have worked for the past century or so, and that’s a difficult thing to grasp.

“All the News That’s Fit to Print” is the heart of the problem. It was never that, of course. It was “All the News That Fits.” The entire mindset of (every) newspaper has been driven by the cost of paper, the finite nature of paper, the cost of delivery and the cycle of a daily paper. You run enough articles to fit as many ads as you can sell.These are artifacts of a different age, one that today’s consumer doesn’t care a whit about.”

That’s a very different world than the one the New York Times grew up in and came to dominate. And Seth has some worthwhile thoughts about ways in which the Times — and, by extension, other newspapers — could be working to extend its brand and value online. Among other things, he suggests leveraging the opinion and editorial pages to help spread important ideas online, as well as making it easier for readers to take your content and share it with others, something I also believe in quite strongly (although the specifics of how to do that are still a work in progress).

I’m not sure buying Yelp or the Zagat guides is the way to go, but that’s the right idea, and so is finding high-quality voices on the Web and giving them a platform, something the Times has already started doing with BlogRunner and its syndication deals with GigaOm and others. My friend Mark Evans, a former newspaperman, thinks the Times should buy Twitter. I’m not convinced that actually owning platforms makes sense — or is even necessary — but I think the Times and other papers could make far more use of them, and smarter use, than they are now.

Would that help to stem the slide that the Times has seen, both in its advertising revenue and in its stock price? That’s impossible to say — but it certainly couldn’t hurt. And for all those who have failed, through no fault of their own, to make the transition, there’s always this.

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