Can the New York Times kill its blogs without losing the soul of blogging in the process?

The New York Times has been gradually shutting down some of its blogs over the past year or so, including its environmentally-focused Green blog, and this week the newspaper company confirmed that it plans to shut down or absorb at least half of its existing blogs, including its highly-regarded breaking news blog, The Lede. As the Times describes it, the plan is not to get rid of blogging altogether but rather to absorb and even expand blogging-related skills and approaches within the paper as a whole. But will something important be lost in the process?

Assistant managing editor Ian Fisher told Poynter’s Andrew Beaujon that the newspaper is going to continue to provide what he called “bloggy content with a more conversational tone,” but that it will appear throughout the paper’s website, rather than in specific locations called blogs. While high-profile brands like Bits and DealBook will remain, other smaller blogs will be shut down or absorbed into the sections of the paper that fit their topic — although Fisher wouldn’t say which specific blogs were destined for the boneyard.

A blog is just an “artificial container”

As far as the reasoning behind the move is concerned, Fisher mentioned a number of things in his Poynter interview, including one technical reason: namely, the fact that the Times‘ blog software doesn’t work well with the paper’s redesigned article pages — and Times staffer Derek Willis suggested there were other technical benefits in a discussion on Twitter. But Fisher also said that many of the blogs didn’t get a lot of traffic, and that not having to fill a specific “container” with content would free up writers to spend their time doing other things:

“[Some blogs] got very, very little traffic, and they required an enormous amount of resources, because a blog is an animal that is always famished… [and the] quality of our items will go up now, now that readers don’t expect us to be filling the artificial container of a blog.”

As Willis pointed out during our Twitter conversation, blogs are — from a technical perspective at least — just one specific kind of publishing format, with posts that appear in reverse chronological order. But for me at least, this is a little like saying that a sonnet is just a specific way of ordering text, featuring iambic pentameter and an offset rhyming scheme. Obviously not every blog post is a poem, but there is something inherent in the practice of blogging (if it is done well) that makes it different from a story or news article.

New York Times building logo, photo by Rani Molla
New York Times building logo, photo by Rani Molla

Blogging pioneer Dave Winer once said that the essence of a blog is “the unedited voice of a person,” and I still subscribe to that view. Blogging has grown up to the point where even something like The Huffington Post is described by some as “a blog,” which effectively stretches the meaning of the term beyond all comprehension. But it’s more than just a reverse-chronological method of publishing, or the fact that you include embedded tweets or a Storify, or even that you link to other sites — although it includes all of those things.

Absorbing can also mean weakening

When it’s done properly, as Lede writer Robert Mackey often did, it’s a combination of original reporting, curation and aggregation, synthesis and analysis, and an individual voice or tone — and all of that done quickly, and in most cases briefly. As Brian Ries of Mashable argued during a discussion of the Times‘ decision, the problem with trying to absorb the blogging ethos into the paper as a whole is that not all of those skills are going to be present in every writer.

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This reminds me of when newspapers started to absorb their web units into the larger editorial structure. In the early days, the web was a separate operation — in some cases even in a different building, as it was with the Washington Post. The best part about this arrangement was that it allowed those who worked online to develop their own practices and to some extent their own ethos. When those units were absorbed, some of that was watered down or even lost completely, as editors and writers more focused on print took precedence. That arguably retarded the progress of those papers towards a more digital-first future.

In the end, I think that while the motivation behind killing off blogs might be the correct one — that is, a desire to get away from the format as a specific destination and find a way to get everyone to experiment with blog-style writing and reporting, regardless of where they work — the risk is that the latter simply won’t happen. In other words, some of the momentum that having a blog gives to the skills I mentioned above will be lost, and along with it some of the innovation that blogging has brought to the Times.

Post and thumbnail images courtesy of Flickr user Shutterstock / Alex Kopje and Rani Molla

The New York Times innovation report is great, but it left out one very important thing

A shockwave hit the media industry in May, when an internal “innovation report” prepared for New York Times executives leaked to BuzzFeed. The report makes for fascinating reading, in part because it is a snapshot of a massive media entity that is caught in the throes of wrenching change, unsure how to proceed. But while it contained many things of value, it glossed over one of the most important factors for the paper’s success — and that is whether the content itself, the journalism that the New York Times produces, needs to change.

This question came up recently in a post by Thomas Baekdal, an author and media analyst. In it, Baekdal made the point that the “quality journalism” the innovation report continually refers to — the bedrock, foundational value of the New York Times — is never questioned. In other words, it is assumed that the journalism itself is fine as is, and all that needs to happen is that the paper has to do a better job of marketing it and engaging with readers around it. But is that true? Baekdal says:

“This is something I hear from every single newspaper that I talk with. They are saying the same thing, which is that their journalistic work is top of the line and amazing. The problem is ‘only’ with the secondary thing of how it is presented to the reader. And we have been hearing this for the past five to ten years, and yet the problem still remains. There is a complete and total blind spot in the newspaper industry that part of the problem is also the journalism itself.”

Not just what kind of journalism, but how

Baekdal’s point isn’t that the New York Times produces bad or low-quality content, but just that the paper should be questioning how it reports and writes that content, and whether it meets the needs of the market — just as it is questioning whether its current business model and/or industrialized printing process meets the needs of the market. It’s not a trivial question, but it doesn’t really appear anywhere in the innovation report, at least not in any depth.

New York Times innovation report

This argument got some support this week from an interesting participant: Martin Nisenholtz, the former head of digital operations for the Times — the man who not only started the paper’s website in 1996, but later drove the acquisition of and other innovative efforts on the digital side. In a blog post, Nisenholtz defended Baekdal, and also provided a fascinating glimpse into what could have been an alternate future for the New York Times.

Nisenholtz, now a consultant and journalism professor, describes an interview that Henry Blodget gave to the creators of the Digital Riptide project (a group that included Nisenholtz). The former NYT executive said that one of the things he liked the most about Blodget’s interview was how optimistic he was about the future of journalism in the digital age — in large part because there is so much more of it than ever before, and much of it is of fairly high quality:

“We are awash in news from an almost infinite number of global sources, much of it of very high quality. For this reason, news providers can no longer force their readers to “eat spinach.” Instead, they need to work hard to entice readers with relevant and interesting content, structured for easy access. In a world of almost unlimited choice, the reader is king.”

The Times is no longer alone

As Nisenholtz suggests, that reality is the primary challenge the New York Times is facing: not just that it has to de-emphasize print and adapt to digital, or do a better job of engaging with readers around its content (although it very much has to do all of those things) but that it has to somehow grapple with the fact that it is no longer one of a privileged few — a tiny number of exalted media and journalism producers with a one-way pipe directly into the homes of readers, and therefore a large share of a kind of information oligopoly.New York Times building logo, photo by Rani Molla

Now, the Times is just one player in a vast and differentiated media landscape — one that makes the previous era look like the Pleistocene Age. Not only does every traditional publisher now have access to the exact same market that the NYT does, but there are a host of new and more nimble players with the same access: dedicated news apps like Circa or Yahoo’s news digest, mobile readers like Flipboard and Zite, and digital-only publishers like BuzzFeed and more recent entrants such as Vox. Many of them do journalism in a completely different way. Nisenholtz’s view from 20 years ago is even more appropriate now:

“My feeling at that time (and today) was that ‘quality’ was – in large part – a function of the user experience, and that – particularly in the dial-up world of the mid-90s – Yahoo was doing that best for exactly the reasons that Baekdal outlines. Putting a newspaper on the web seemed very limiting.”

The competing product that is good enough

Many of those who work at the New York Times (and other legacy media organizations) no doubt console themselves by thinking that while their newer, digital-only competitors may be more technologically savvy, their product — i.e., their journalism — is inferior. And that may even be true in some cases. But as any student of disruption theory knows, the most dangerous competitor isn’t the one whose product is better than yours, it’s the one whose product is good enough.

tigers attacking

For many readers — especially those who only want to get a brief update about what is happening in the world, or who want news that is tailored to them in some way, or news that has more of a point of view — will likely look to other outlets, even if the objective “quality” of the Times‘ journalism is arguably better. This is the point I think Baekdal is making when he says that newspapers like the Times take more of a supermarket approach to journalism than their competitors. The market’s needs have changed, and it’s not clear whether the Times can change quickly enough to meet them (although apps like NYTNow and features like The Upshot are interesting experiments, and the Times deserves credit for trying them).

In addition to his thoughts on the state of digital media, Nisenholtz also describes a fascinating moment 20 years ago that could have changed the face of online media: as he describes it, when his digital team asked for financial resources to start the website, he also asked for a small sum to finance a “skunk works” research lab to experiment with the web — but his request was ultimately denied. At one point, Nisenholtz says, one member of the team even suggested that the Times should buy Yahoo (he says “we would probably have screwed it up,” but I’m not sure he could have done a worse job than a series of a Yahoo CEOs have).

Imagine what might have happened if the Times had started that lab when the web was young — what innovations could it have developed? What new directions could it have found for all that high-quality journalism? And now, the paper struggles to catch up to a market for digital news that may be permanently out of reach.

Post and thumbnail images courtesy of Getty Images / Mario Tama, as well as Rani Molla and Flickr user Abysim

Twitter struggles to remain the free-speech wing of the free-speech party as it suspends terrorist accounts

Twitter (s twtr) hasn’t been having a very good time of it lately: turmoil in the company’s executive ranks — including the recent departure of the chief operating officer and the head of Twitter’s media unit — has raised concerns about deeper issues and the service’s lackluster growth. But the real-time information network has other fires to put out as well, including a fear that the company’s global and financial ambitions may be stifling its previous commitment to free speech.

Twitter recently suspended the account belonging to the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) after the group — which claims to represent radical Sunni militants — posted photographs of its activities, including what appeared to be a mass execution in Iraq. The service has also suspended other accounts related to the group for what seem to be similar reasons, including one that live-tweeted the group’s advance into the city of Mosul.

So far, the company hasn’t commented on why it has taken these steps, but the violent imagery contained in them could well be part of the reason — that and specific threats of violence, which are a breach of Twitter’s terms of use. Others have suggested that the company might also be concerned about a U.S. law that forbids any U.S. person or entity from providing “material support or resources to” an organization that appears on the official list of terrorist groups.

It’s not as though the action against ISIS comes in a vacuum either: in recent months, Twitter has removed or “geo-censored” tweets in Turkey, Ukraine and Russia at the request of governments in those countries. Twitter obviously has to deal with the law in the countries in which it does business — but every time it takes such a step, it engages in a little more censorship, and each time it loses a little bit of the “free-speech wing of the free-speech party” goodwill it built up during the Arab Spring.

(Twitter does sometimes restore the content it blocks: on Tuesday, the service restored access to tweets and accounts in Pakistan that it blocked at the request of the government there, saying: “We have reexamined the requests and, in the absence of additional clarifying information from Pakistani authorities, have determined that restoration of the previously withheld content is warranted”).

Who decides which accounts to censor?

Part of Twitter’s problem is that it doesn’t want to be seen as a tool for terrorist groups, and yet its decision to police this kind of behavior forces it to make choices about whose speech is appropriate and whose isn’t — so the al-Shabaab account has to go, but the Taliban can continue to have an account, and Hamas (which is categorized as a terrorist organization by many groups and governments) was able to post what many saw as a specific threat of violence directed towards Israel during the attacks on the Gaza Strip last year, and Twitter didn’t appear to mind.

But the larger issue is that whether or not accounts like ISIS are posting troubling or disturbing — or even politically sensitive — images and other information, there’s arguably a public interest in having them continue to do so. As Self-trained British journalist and weapons expert Brown Moses has pointed out a number of times, images and videos posted by such militant or even terrorist groups provide an important physical record of what is happening in these countries, and also allow journalists like Moses to verify events. Removing them, as Facebook has done with pages related to Syrian chemical-weapon attacks, makes it harder to do that.

Anthropologist Sarah Kendzior noted in a piece she wrote for Al Jazeera last year — about a similar move to suspend an account belonging to the Somali militant group al-Shabaab — that one of the other frustrating things about Twitter’s moves in these kinds of cases is that the company provides very little transparency about what it is doing or why. For the most part, the only response is a standard disclaimer about how Twitter doesn’t comment on specific accounts or users.

Twitter may be more focused on building up its user base and satisfying the desires of the financial community or the investors in its stock, but that doesn’t mean it can ignore the other elements of its business — and that includes its alleged commitment to maintaining an environment for free speech.

Twitter’s executive turmoil masks a deeper problem: Confusion over what Twitter wants to be

Fans of Silicon Valley’s version of “Game of Thrones” got a front-row seat to a shake-up in Twitter’s executive suite this week, in which the company’s chief operating officer Ali Rowghani was ousted and Chloe Sladden — head of the media unit that has been a big driver of Twitter’s success with TV networks — also left. Somewhere between the backroom intrigue and the cheerful public-facing tweets of support for those departed executives is the source of Twitter’s real challenge: Namely, what does the company want Twitter to be?

But we already know what Twitter is, you protest! It’s a lightweight, real-time information network or platform that allows users anywhere to post things of interest and reach a potential audience of millions. Within that description, however, lies a multitude of experiences — a hall of mirrors in which my version of Twitter is nothing like your version, and nothing like that of the person sitting next to you on the train or the airplane, or at the basketball game.

Is Twitter for connecting dissidents in Ukraine or Turkey with their supporters in other countries, and for speaking truth to power? Yes. Is it for people who want to live-tweet their dissatisfaction with the Oscars or House of Cards or Game of Thrones or the World Cup? Yes. Is it for celebrities who want to reach out to their fans to correct some horrible rumor? Yes. And it is many other things in between.

Who is Twitter intended to serve?

Even those descriptions fail to capture the variations of Twitter usage: some users — in fact, close to a majority of users — never tweet at all, or have tweeted only once. For them, it is a consumption mechanism, or maybe just another source of noise. A smaller group of users (many of them in the media or marketing field) create the vast majority of the content on Twitter, and use tools like Tweetdeck to manage the streams, and complain bitterly (as I have) about the lack of filters and features to help them tame the ocean of information.

social media

Which of these markets is the one that Twitter needs to focus on or amplify? It’s not clear that anyone at Twitter even knows the answer to that question — and I can’t blame them, because it’s a difficult one. As freelance tech analyst Ben Thompson noted in a recent post at his blog Stratechery, a big part of Twitter’s problem is that it was too successful too quickly, before it even realized what it was:

“The initial concept was so good, and so perfectly fit such a large market, that they never needed to go through the process of achieving product market fit… the problem, though, was that by skipping over the wrenching process of finding a market, Twitter still has no idea what their market actually is, and how they might expand it. Twitter is the company equivalent of a lottery winner who never actually learns how to make money.”

According to a number of reports, one of the reasons Ali Rowghani was ejected (and won’t be replaced) is that CEO Dick Costolo wanted to bring control of the product under his purview, rather than the COO’s. Twitter also recently hired a new director of product, former Google Maps executive Daniel Graf, presumably to try and get some traction with users and improve the lackluster growth numbers that investors seem concerned about. Last year, Costolo projected Twitter would have 400 million users by the end of 2013, and it has about 250 million.

A revolving door of product chiefs

As Thompson and others have pointed out, one of the most crucial factors for a tech or consumer-facing company is product-market fit. Twitter has spent years now trying to get that right, and in some ways it seems to be farther from its goal than it has ever been. Co-founder and former CEO Evan Williams tried to shape the product and was ousted, then co-founder Jack Dorsey was supposed to help, then came Michael Sippey. Along the way there have been aborted features like the “Dick bar” and multiple redesigns that are supposed to appeal to new users but appear to be simply irritating the loyal and not attracting anyone.

Photo from Shutterstock/Anthony Corrella

And while Twitter’s numbers fail to impress, newer services that connect people quickly and easily and focus on short messaging — from WhatsApp and Instagram to Snapchat and Whisper — are rocketing skyward growth-wise. This is not lost on Costolo, one source told Business Insider: “When you talk to Dick about messaging, he’s like, ‘Sigh, that should have been us.’”

The media team that Chloe Sladden built up was supposed to be the savior of Twitter, because it brought in large media companies as partners for second-screen type deals like the Olympics with NBC or the Oscars. And reaching out to celebrities to get them to tweet was designed to appeal to users who just want to follow a few high-profile accounts and see what they are doing. But many of the things that were done in the name of both of those efforts — large images, auto-play videos, and so on — have made the service less appealing for others.

Stranded between many worlds

So at this point, Twitter is caught between two (or more) worlds: The catering to media entities and celebs doesn’t seem to have produced enough traction compared to other players like Facebook to make it worthwhile, and there hasn’t been enough of a focus on tools or design features for hard-core users to keep them loyal. In some ways, the company is failing to serve any of its theoretical markets very well — and that includes advertisers, at least until acquisitions like MoPub start to show that they can help solve that particular problem.

As a longtime fan of Saturday Night Live, I can’t help but think of an ancient skit in which a husband and wife are arguing over whether a new product is a floor wax or a dessert topping. “It’s both!” the cheerful salesman (played by Chevy Chase) exclaims. The joke, of course, is that if it’s a good floor wax, it’s probably not going to be a very good dessert topping, and vice versa.

In the same sense, the things that make Twitter useful to advertisers and large media companies and celebrities aren’t necessarily the things that are going to appeal to Turkish dissidents or free-speech advocates or even just fans of the kind of quiet link-sharing that Twitter used to be known for, rather than the stream of frenzied hashtag and multiple-photo blasting that it has become.

Increasing the pressure is the fact that Twitter is a public company, and it has to show the kinds of growth in both users and revenue that can justify its vast market value — something it has so far failed to do — and the public markets are not known for their patience. Not only that, but as previous social-media superstars like MySpace have shown us, the road to short-term market acceptance can also be the road to long-term irrelevance. Best of luck, Dick.

Post and thumbnail images courtesy of Flickr user Mark Strozier as well as Shutterstock / noporn and Shutterstock / Anthony Corella