The New York Times Is Going Through a Major Identity Crisis

The media business used to be organized around forms and genres. Books, newspapers, films. Fiction, non-fiction, news, drama. The more current way of thinking is to see the business as a catalogue of "products".

This is not just marketing speak – as in, calling a magazine "our product" – but an effort to acknowledge a new, on demand, a la carte world; one that does not involve additional distribution costs.

The business mantra at the New York Times, causing many shudders in the newsroom, is that the future is all about the development of these new products, which both existing subscribers and a new audience – not necessarily interested in subscribing to the Times – might well pay for.

This view was articulated most recently by the Times' new CEO, Mark Thompson, in a profile by Joe Hagan in New York Magazine. The actual point of the piece, as it happens, was not the new products, but the alienation of the Times' executive editor, Jill Abramson, both from Thompson and this product strategy.

It is, in essence, the next shift away from the business that newspaper people thought they were in – not gathering news for a baited-breath audience, but desperately defining and servicing new content niches, in order to sell to an uncertain and dubious audience.

Arthur Sulzberger, the New York Times' publisher, and Thompson's boss – Thompson is largely the stalking horse for Sulzberger's survival strategies – has long pronounced himself "platform agnostic", which has meant he doesn't care by what means you get his newspaper, and which may now mean that he doesn't care what aspects you take from his newspaper or his newsroom either. Just as long as you buysomething.

The Times is certainly not the only publishing company exploring new product options, but this often tends to be among the most enthusiastic or converted about up-to-the-minute ways of thinking about the media. This new notion of a content business as an agnostic supplier operating under one roof and with one stuff, producing all media genres and forms tailored to whomever might buy them, has not, as far as I can tell, ever quite been accomplished before.

Perhaps Vice, the Brooklyn-based, young-man-focused, hybrid media company, which offers its sensibility to any sponsor who will support it in seemingly any form, is the closest to this notion. That would certainly put the Times in unlikely company. And yet, that seems to be its aspiration: to be able to apply its middle-aged, middle-brow, upper-middle-class, liberal sensibility to any form or genre for which there is a market.

The separate product view has been picked up by media executives from software executives, where the world has always been seen as a collection of discrete functions, and separate rollouts. Google is not simply Google; it is a long list of discrete responsibilities and initiatives, from search, to maps, to mail, to phones, to glasses. Product manager is a software title: the prodman.

The media world has also had a product business model, represented best in books and in film and television. In essence, amorphous distribution entities – networks, studios, publishing houses – contract with outside content-makers who create the many products and brands and, hopefully, hits, that feed the channel. (Media consolidation was a slightly different twist on this model, wherein nebulous entities – Times Warner or Viacom, for instance – bought unrelated media businesses with separate product lines.)

But these models don't really suit the Times. It is not talking about software and new lines of habit changing functionality; and it is not talking about using its capital, of which it has very little, to back outside contractors or partners; and it is shedding businesses rather than buying them.

Much of the newsroom anxiety has to do with staff being unclear what the Times is talking about: what these products are and who exactly is going to develop them. Neither Thompson nor Sulzberger are from a product development background, as say, Steve Jobs was, or Larry Page and Marissa Mayer are.

The Times is investing in a new video strategy, which, to newsroom consternation, is an initiative that emanates from the newsroom but reports to the business side. The Times, of note, is not a video company in a media world awash with successful video companies. The Times has hired McKinsey & Co to advise it; and McKinsey, also with no experience in media product development, thought the Times should come up with cooking-related concepts – in a media world flush with cooking concepts. Conferences, too, are on its list, as they are on every media company's list.

One of the Times' successful product differentiations was its arrangement with Nate Silver, the data packager, who drew handsome traffic numbers during the election season. But it lost Silver in a bidding war. While Abramson fought to keep him, Thompson and the business side did not, it seems, want to pay what this successful product cost.

Nor were they quite ready to acknowledge that these mini-products and brands might each nurture and depend upon as great an ego as the Times itself. They were not ready to be reconciled to the fact that, in a hit-driven world, you have to really suck up to stars.

Indeed, it's quite a confounding, or even existential, shift. Not to mention that it's also a complicated one – moving from a single product and brand, to a whatever-works assortment of them.

For generations, the New York Times strove for singular meaning and significance. The message to everyone who has ever worked there was that they were made by the Times and lesser without it. Indeed, the whole point of a newspaper is to combine and orchestrate information niches and voices into a seamless package and towering brand.

But now, the memo: undo all that.

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