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How a 164-Year-Old Dog is Learning New Tricks: The New York Times is Experimenting Again

on June 2, 2015

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I was forwarded this article about the New York Times “cracking the digital media code” recently and I have to admit I was skeptical the 164-year-old media behemoth would reveal any application innovation heuristics relevant to our readers here on the Mendix blog. After all, like other newspaper companies, it’s been on the receiving end of digital disruption. Given the choice of engaging their audience digitally or lining bird cages the world over, though, the NYT is doing an awesome job of demonstrating how rapid experimentation can spur innovation and help defend market share.

Disrupters & Incumbents

We often hear about organizations “needing to take on a start-up mentality” as if over years of complacent profitability, they’d been infected with ‘big company disease.’ Symptoms include legacy systems, disjointed data, manual processes, rogue SaaS adoption, Excel sprawl, etc… All of which are issues that big companies must work through in order to experiment more quickly, harness data, and drive themselves (and their industries) forward through their own learning.

By the very nature of start-ups, that fly-or-die, eat-pizza-because-we-have-no-profit-yet mentality is impossible to truly emulate at a sizeable corporation. Responsibilities are often too abstracted through hierarchies and diluted down across thousands of employees to feel that kind of motivation and passion that an entrepreneur and her team experiences. So, we should take for granted that big companies have different obstacles and impediments to innovation, and look at how this “old dog,” The New York Times, is teaching itself new tricks and pushing the whole industry forward in doing so.

Primitive Digitization

What is it about innovations that are no more than digital copies of non-digital products? Why are we still using email, the digital copy of the post? Isn’t modern messaging better? Why do we read PDFs, the digital version of paper? Isn’t HTML better in almost all cases?

What I find even more astonishing is that we are still reading words across a page, when we’re no longer limited to static paper. Did you know that we can comprehend information much faster when words are aligned and replaced, than when reading across a page? Just think what news media will look like when we read through them, rather than across them!

Speed Reading with Spritz

Transform, Not Transpose

Historically, when we have a new technology through which we can reach an audience, we’ve repeated the same mistake: transposing an existing interaction to the new medium rather than transforming the interaction within its own differentiating characteristic. Malcom Gladwell points out a few moments of true transformation in his keynotes, such as the 1920s Dempsey vs. Carpentier boxing fight that fundamentally changed radio from a news broadcast system to a way for listeners to attend sporting events.

The New York Times initially fell into this trap in their first round of digitization. In the same way that many companies virtualize native business applications, the New York Times initially failed to see mobile as a way to engage and reach new audiences, rather than a more convenient channel for their existing readers. It turns out, building niche mobile apps for niche topic audiences like NYT Now, NYT Cooking, and NYT Opinion has proven quite successful, though not every app itself is a success:

“NYT Opinion, which cost $6 per month, was launched in June 2014; by November, it had been decommissioned. [Ex-CIO Marc] Frons said the app wasn’t bringing in the right kind of audience and wasn’t “differentiated enough from our core application to make that a compelling purchase.” Plus, “I think we tried to monetize it too quickly,” he said, sounding more like the CEO than the CIO.”

A Platform for Experimentation

What we can learn from the New York Times, and commend them for, is the metaphorical laboratory they’ve created for themselves. In the age of the customer, niche apps can be built, targeted, pivoted, replaced, and monetized until they’re wildly successful assets for the company. The faster their development teams can cycle through this innovation process, the more optimized their portfolio of applications will be. Mind you, speed is particularly imperative as hundreds of new news sources and news media applications nip at their heels.

This application innovation process is a machine that will continue to propel companies forward and ahead of competition in a way that allows them to adapt and grow at the speed of startups. It isn’t a “startup mentality” that these corporations are looking for; it’s that rapid experimentation Arc Reactor they’re after. I have no doubt that thanks to this method of optimization combined with the quality of their reporting and loyal readership, we will be reading the New York Times for another 160+ years.

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