National Press Club

Author says New York Times lacks strategy for digital age

June 27, 2014 | By Lorna Aldrich |

Nikki Usher, author of "Making News at The New York Times," told a National Press Club audience June 25 that the newspaper lacks a strategy for the digital age.

Her book is based on five months she spent in the newsroom between January and June 2010, when she had unfettered access to meetings and reporters as they worked.

An internal report leaked a few weeks ago said the Times is stuck in print.

"That is largely what I found, " said Usher, an assistant professor in the George Washington University School of Media and Public Affairs.

In the Times' culture, a group of 12 men and seven women meet daily to select page one stories, determining, in their view, the five most important stories for the world to know, according to Usher.

She contrasted the attention devoted to the front page of the print edition to the one person who makes all the decisions on the website and simply lists the stories at the page one meeting.

Nonetheless, Usher said, "The New York Times has one of the best websites in the world, one of the most trafficked websites in the world. Thirty one million people go to that website every month."

There is no general online strategy, Usher said. Decisions are made "minute to minute."

The need to keep the website fresh means that reporters are continually updating their stories, she said. This rush to get stories posted online quickly can compromise accuracy.

She described an example of a monthly U.S. jobs report, which was first interpreted as negative but later versions of the same story took a positive view.

The online pressure intensifies competition between news sources, she said.

"Even if you have a huge scoop, you can instantly get matched by a competitor," she said.

She found uncertainty about the use of social media in 2010 and thinks there is still confusion about it. She termed it "really concerning" that a new editor-in-chief had a dormant Twitter account when he took office.

Social media helps branding, reporting and distribution, Usher said. It establishes the personality of the content, finds sources and facts and distributes content to the audience.

Usher -- and the recent internal Times report -- point out that the paper does not have a clear strategy for using social media or measuring its effect.

Usher closed with an optimistic outlook for the paper. She gave it a good chance to survive because of a "really powerful tradition" since 1851, a strong brand, an ability to draw top talent and its role as a leading news organization.