At long last, the New York Times decides to become digital first

It’s been several years now since The Guardian and other newspapers and media entities started talking about being “digital first,” meaning the web and digital platforms were the most important home for their content, with print as a secondary offering. But the New York Times resisted any such sweeping statements, even as it invested more in online. Now, the paper’s executive editor has announced what — for the Times at least — amounts to fairly momentous change: the daily news meeting will be about digital, not what is going to appear on Page One of the print version.

The Page One meetings at the Gray Lady are somewhat legendary, both inside and outside the building — seen by many as a kind of crucible in which the best Times journalism is forged, like the blacksmithing operation that the Greek god Hephaestus used to run on Mount Olympus. Now, however, executive editor Dean Baquet says the morning news meeting will be devoted to pitches by the various section editors about which stories they think deserve to get the best play on the paper’s website.

In a memo that was widely circulated (I got it from different sources), Baquet described the move as “a small but significant step in our digital transformation,” and an attempt to “elevate the primacy of our digital platforms in the daily life of the newsroom.” So in addition to its functional purpose, the move is a signal to the rest of the newspaper about what he sees as important.

“These changes are intended to ensure that our digital platforms are much less tethered to print deadlines. We need to be posting more of our best stories not in the late evening, but when The Times’s digital readership is at its height: between 7 a.m. and 7 p.m. This new system will, in particular, give us more flexibility in targeting readers on mobile… and on platforms like Facebook.”

It would be easy to criticize the Times for being late to this particular party, but at least they have decided to show up. And while the morning meeting change might seem like a cosmetic adjustment, such signals can have an over-sized effect on the insular culture within a newspaper like the Times, where every tea leaf and perceived slight in the lunch-room is pored over for what it signifies.

And the ripple effect of those meetings could be significant: for all the newspaper’s talk about wanting to adapt more quickly to the web, and all the great suggestions in the widely talked-about innovation report that got leaked last year, those morning news meetings with their traditional pitches for Page One continually reinforced the fact that print was what really mattered at the end of the day.

The latest move is the next step in a process that started about six months ago, in the wake of the innovation report: Baquet said that the Page One discussions would be de-emphasized in the morning meetings, with digital getting more stage time. But now he has removed the print discussions from those meetings altogether, and made it clear that digital — and multi-platform — needs to be the focus. Welcome to the party, Dean.

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