“We have to be more willing to try new things, and if they fail, that’s fine.”
On a recent episode of Recode Media, New York Times digital editors Sam Dolnick and Clifford Levy talked with Recode’s Edmund Lee about why the Times is trying to think like a tech startup.
You can read some of the highlights from their interview at that link, or listen to it in the audio player above. Below, we’ve posted a lightly edited complete transcript of the conversation.
Transcript by Celia Fogel.
Peter Kafka: Ladies and gentleman, meet Ed Lee. He came in a few weeks ago as a special guest. Ed, what’s your job?
Edmund Lee: Well, I’m what they call the managing editor at Recode.
PK: You’re my boss.
PK: You’re one of my bosses.
EL: In theory, yeah. Right. [laughs] Sometimes.
PK: And because you’re a boss, you said, “I want a podcast.”
EL: I said, “Hey, Peter, you know what? Can you move aside for a second? I want to talk to these guys over here.”
PK: I interrupted you, boss. So who did you interview?
EL: I interviewed these two guys from the New York Times, Sam Dolnick and Cliff Levy, two pretty important guys. Cliff Levy is a masthead editor — that basically means he’s one of the top editors. And Sam Dolnick is also a big-time editor, but just as significant, and he’s a member of the Ochs Sulzberger family that owns the Times. Controls it anyway. And why did we talk to these two guys in particular? They’re in charge of the digital transformation of the New York Times, so, you know, they had some interesting things to say about their app, what works, what doesn’t work, more apps potentially to come, and of course their paywall, which is actually doing pretty well for them, at least as a business.
PK: Cliff Levy is a former editor who sort of got moved into this digital role, and then Dolnick is — I don’t know if you talked about this, probably not to his face, right — he’s one of the three guys who are part of the family who may be one of the publishers.
EL: Exactly. So I did mention it. He didn’t bite for that, of course, and he’s smart enough not to bite. But basically he, along with two of his cousins, Arthur Gregg Sulzberger and David Perpich. The three of them are considered what they call the fifth generation of the Ochs Sulzberger family, and the three of them are basically up for succeeding Arthur Sulzberger as publisher.
PK: Right. So you’re talking to one of the guys who’s basically involved in a multi-year tryout to be publisher of the New York Times.
EL: Pretty much. And what’s interesting about Sam is unlike most of the family, he’s very vocal. He was willing to come on our podcast and talk publically about what they’re doing at the Times and what the future of the Times will be. So that fact alone is pretty interesting, that he’s willing to talk out loud. And he gets my vote.
PK: And you guys did this for, I think, the day of earnings?
EL: It was the day of the last quarter’s earnings, so we didn’t really get too much of the business of it, but they certainly touted new figures in terms of their paywall subscribers, that sort of thing.
PK: You know how we edit someone’s copy, we say there’s too much throat-clearing at the top of the story?
EL: Yeah, this is it, right here.
PK: Let’s stop the throat clearing, I’ll let you go right to the podcast. Here’s Ed.
EL: And thank you, Peter. And thanks to our guests this week. Sam Dolnick and Cliff Levy, two pretty important guys from the New York Times. I’m going to have them introduce themselves and tell us what they do. Sam, why don’t you go first. What do you do at the Times?
SD: Yeah, well thanks for having me here. I am, I think the official title is associate editor. And that’s a job that encompasses all kinds of things. So I’m doing lots of the new digital projects. So I’m overseeing our virtual reality efforts. We’re just starting our own podcast efforts — I’ve been working on that a lot. We’re doing a big, robust digital training program, trying to bring the newsroom …
Get them up to date?
Yeah. To build up the digital chops, and there’s so much happening. There’s all kinds of other projects as well.
Cliff Levy, you are also an associate editor, but more specifically you’re an associate masthead editor. What does that mean, masthead editor?
CL: Well, I am one of the editors who oversees our digital platforms. So I work very closely with the teams that run the homepage of of the Times, run the apps of the Times. I also work very closely with colleagues from other departments outside the newsroom, such as product, engineering, design, marketing. To some extent I’m a nexus of a lot of these areas of digital innovation at the Times. I’ve been at the Times for a long time. I’ve actually been at the Times for it seems, apparently, more than a quarter-century, I’m about to have my 26th anniversary, practically older than Sam, actually. And, you know, I’ve kind of gone through a lot of changes at the Times. I was a reporter, I was an editor, and now I’m focused on digital.
Well, that’s actually a great way to start about this because I want to start with you Cliff because you are a Times stalwart. You’ve been, as you said, at the paper for a quarter-century and you’ve been on a lot of different desks. You were a Moscow bureau chief as well. You’ve won a bunch of awards. What is it? Two Pulitzers and a few Polk awards, which is incredibly impressive for anybody. And, you know, you’ve made sort of a classic rise at the Times, right. And when you came back from Moscow and you were on the Metro desk, and I guess my question is, what made you or what inspired your … how did that opportunity happen for you to jump onto this side of it in terms of figuring out the digital transformation of the Times?
CL: I actually really got excited about this for the first time when I was in Moscow, and I started doing a lot of projects that were focused a lot on reader feedback. Feedback actually from our Russian audience, the Russian audience at the New York Times, and trying to figure out how I could take the Times journalism that I was doing, that I was obviously writing in English, and get it to a Russian audience in Russian, figure out what the feedback was from that Russian audience and then give it to our American audience, or our worldwide audience in English. That got me very excited about the possibilities. The digital was just this whole new world. That was back, you know, pretty much pre-Facebook almost, or pre-Twitter at least. It was 2006-2011. Facebook and Twitter obviously existed but they weren’t …
They weren’t what we know of them today.
CL: They weren’t the thing that they are right now. Then I got back to New York and I was working as a deputy metro editor, and it was just a great time. I think we were all really starting to realize the promise of digital and how you could take great New York Times journalism and do really fascinating things with them. Really engaging things with them on digital while still being rooted in kind of great Times traditions.
But there was a lot of … the Times is steeped in its traditions, right? They have a way of doing things. And I think for not just for the Times but a lot of traditional outlets, newspapers and even TV if you think about it, making the shift was hard. There was a lot of resistance everywhere, right? What was that like at the Times when you were going through that, when that was happening, when that was being discussed? What was the pushback?
CL: I mean, to some extent, we are very unusual. We’re almost unique. But to some extent we’re pretty typical. And being a legacy organization that’s confronting a landscape that’s rapidly changing, we want to figure out how to change as fast as that landscape is changing, while, as I said, doing it in a way that is rooted in our core values, and for us that means great journalism. That means great journalism that we do not just in New York but around the world. That means having correspondents — in the last year we reported from more than 170 different countries. We want to be doing that great journalism but also doing it in a way that’s very vibrant in this new digital area. And I think that’s the transition that we’re trying to figure out. We still put out an amazing print newspaper, we have amazing apps on the phone, we do amazing things on social media. We do believe we can do it all. Right now it’s really a process of figuring out what I like to refer to as almost a radical evolution of the newsroom at the New York Times. And that’s something that Sam and I are both very closely involved in.
How many people in the newsroom would you say are getting this radical evolution?
SD: Oh, it’s fascinating. I mean the newsroom … there was a cultural shift over the past couple of years. I mean the easiest inflection point I think would be to look at the innovation report, which came out. And you know, the Times had been doing amazing digital journalism up and through that point. “Snow Fall” was before the innovation, before all of that. But that report was still a wakeup call and it helped to really shift the culture of the newsroom.
To remind our listeners, I’m sure a lot of them already know, but the innovation report was a memo that went out internally that described in great detail a lot of the challenges, the difficulties, and, you know, sort of the pushback, sort of the resistance that a lot of the newsroom had in terms of adapting to digital. Becoming more of a digitally focused publication.
SD: That’s exactly right. The innovation report was a catch-up document. It said here’s what we need to do in order to be a first-class digital organization. And we weren’t doing a lot of it. And in a remarkable speed, we did it. We got up to speed. And now we’re at a moment where the newsroom wants to play ball. You know, I think everybody, across editors, reporters, foreign correspondents, people get it. They understand the moment we were in, they want to experiment in their storytelling, and they want to help figure out what a new digital business looks like. And it’s a fascinating question.
But you still need the right talent for that, right? And I guess part of the challenge for a lot of places, including even for us at Vox Media, frankly, is figuring out what, you know, who to get for what kind of thing. A lot of these things are things that still haven’t been figured out yet. What is the proper expertise, you know, where do you go to find someone … where do you find an engagement editor for things? These are disciplines that haven’t really been set down or defined in a lot of ways. So that’s a tough thing. You know, the Times is going through a period right now of transformation where you’re trying to remake the newsroom a little bit. And you’re going through a buyout and maybe some people don’t belong there or are not part of this new thing. You need to get new people in. What’s that like right now? How’s that going?
CL: I think the thing we’re focused a lot on is how can we be a very nimble newsroom? A newsroom that embraces experimentation, that’s not afraid of trying new things, and frankly is not afraid of failure. I think the New York Times tradition is to never fail. And that, I think, is understandable. But I don’t think in this new era we can really hew to that tradition. We have to be more willing to try new things, and if they fail that’s fine. You know, it’s a little bit, forgive the cliche, but it’s a kind of a Silicon Valley way of looking at things. And if you look at the last year or two, we have gotten much better at that. We have spun up new things, we are spinning up new things every week, trying new things. The ones that work well, we’re embracing. And the truth is that the ones that fail, we’re embracing the failures as well. We’re embracing them as an opportunity to really learn about what’s working journalistically, and, more importantly, really learning about our readers. What do our readers want from us? What are our readers’ expectations of us? What do our readers want from us on different devices at different times of day involving different news events? That is all new to us to some extent. We’ve been doing that for years, but we’re doing it now with an intensity that we’ve never done before.
I think that’s a hard thing culturally to adapt to. Which is listening to your readers. I think sort of the old saw of the editor, which is you have contempt for your readers — I mean we’re joking when we say that kind of thing, but there has long been this idea that editors know best, or we know what is important, we know what we think is important that you should be aware of. Now we’re like, “Well, what do you think we should write about? What do you think we should cover?” What’s that like? How far is that really going?
SD: It’s an interesting evolution. I mean the New York Times, the backbone of it is original on-the-ground reporting. And that we’re doing every day across the world. So, you know, Rukmini Callimachi is investigating ISIS, and we’ve Ian Urbina on pirate ships out in the ocean. We’re doing stories that we think are journalistically important, that we think our readers need to know about. But when Cliff talks about thinking about our audience, I think it’s not so much, you know, what do you think the investigative story we should do is? It’s more, how can we make your life better? You’re a busy person who’s got 20 minutes on the way to work, but you want to know what happened at the Democratic Convention last night. We’re going to give you a cheat sheet. Here are the highlights from it. We’re going to give you a morning briefing. We’re going to send it to you in an email newsletter. It’s figuring out how to insert our journalism into your life in the most helpful way.
It’s still journalism, it’s still the Times, it’s just in a format, in a way that’s more up to date, more current, more what readers expect.
CL: Exactly. I mean, look, we want to explain the world to our readers, we want to help our readers to live better lives, and not just readers, viewers and listeners as well. We want to have that role in their lives. To do that, we need to have a much better understanding of how they’re interacting with the New York Times. Now, that is especially important on the phone. You know, over time we’ve really come to understand the role that the phone plays in people’s lives. It is not just something to make phone calls, obviously; it is a deeply, deeply personal object that people take with them everywhere. It has your photos, it has your contacts, it’s how you talk to your mom or your husband or your wife or your girlfriend or your children or anyone like that. That had really changed the nature of the phone and has really changed the way that the New York Times delivers and expresses its journalism on the phone. Sam and I have worked very closely on evolving push notifications which appear on your lock screen. A year or so ago the push notifications from the New York Times were simply headlines. They were written with a particular voice that was almost like the voice of the print front page. Sam and I and some of our other very, very talented colleagues in the newsroom said, “You know what? That’s not how the lock screen on a phone works. The lock screen is where you get texts, the lock screen is where you have very personal communications. We need to evolve a new voice for push notifications.”
It needs to be more conversational, it needs to be more within in the context. You’re seeing … I mean that’s an interesting thing that you bring up. It seems like a small thing, but it’s actually a pretty big thing if you think about that’s how a lot of people are first experiencing the Times in the morning or maybe in the afternoon or whatever point throughout the day that they happen to catch it. So that’s almost like the front page, and you really have to start thinking in those terms. At the same time, there’ve been a lot of criticisms of notifications, especially of the New York Times, either for stories that really are not breaking news, that don’t matter — why are you pushing this notification to me? It’s a perfectly good story, but it’s not push notification worthy. Or you know the Olympics are coming up, and I think a lot of people, especially for sports … “I didn’t see the game yet, I have it on DVR,” or whatever it is. Don’t tell me who won or don’t tell me what the score is …
SD: The Olympics are a crazily divisive thing.
Yeah! How are you guys doing that?
SD: You know, when we first starting doing push alerts, it was big, you know, three-alarm-siren, breaking news. We think that the way that people are engaging with their phones has changed and their expectations have changed. So for instance, I listen to a lot of podcasts. I listen to this podcast. I never open a podcast app. I expect my phone to tell me when a new podcast is there. And we think more and more that’s the relationship people have with their phones and with the media in general. They expect things to come to them. So we’re evolving. Our theory anyway is that push notifications aren’t going to be just for breaking news, it’s going to be, you know, if you’re really interested in basketball, we’re going to tell you when there’s a great basketball story. But if Cliff’s really interested in football, we’ll tell him about a football story. And then notifications become a way for you to connect with the Times. But that’s our theory. We’re paying really close attention to our audience, and if that’s wrong, we’re going to change.
So, let’s … I want to put a little bit more context in this discussion around the digital transformation. It’s not just sort of a hobby or an idea or an interesting thing to do. There’s a serious business consideration here, right? I think as all print media is in decline, digital is the way forward. You guys have a pretty ambitious goal, I think, as outlined by your guys’ CEO, Mark Thompson. You want to grow your digital business into an $800 million business by 2020, in four years or so. I think you guys are about $400 million a year now, so you want to double it in four to five years. So that’s the business ambition. I think that’s a good thing, to outline a big ambition. But I’m just curious from the editor’s point of view, from the people who are actually doing the news, how did that strike the newsroom? How did that ambition sort of fall with the rank and file?
CL: I think it’s fantastic and I think it’s an incredibly worthy goal that we’re going to attain. One thing that I think is important for the listeners to know is that we made more digital revenue last year than all of the new fangled digital upstarts, including Vox Media and BuzzFeed and Huffington Post. I don’t think people actually realize that.
SD: More combined.
CL: More combined.
More combined, right.
CL: So it’s important to kind of keep that in mind. We have a very robust digital business. We are, however, extremely aware that the print business is in what the experts might refer to as a secular decline. Obviously it’s going down and we have to make up for that. I think the really cool thing about where the New York Times is right now is that our interests are aligned with our readers’ interests. We are a subscription business. We care deeply about what our readers want, and our readers are paying us a significant amount of money each month to subscribe digitally to the Times. We have 1.2 million people who subscribe to the Times digitally. That’s an enormous number. That’s far more than anyone ever thought possible when we launched the digital paywall in 2011. If you remember, when we launched the digital paywall, people were like, “No one is ever going to pay for news; it’s never going to happen. The Times is going to be a big failure at this.” Well, we not only have been a huge success, but we also kind of blazed the trail for everyone else saying, “You know what, you can’t really survive on ads alone, it’s too difficult.”
Well, that’s interesting. I mean the paywall of it, as you point out, it’s pretty phenomenal in terms of more than a million paying readers, and if you’re including the crossword app, I think it’s 1.4 million.
CL: And if you include print readers who have digital access, we’re basically talking about 2.5 million subscriptions.
So I bring this up also because I think more recently you guys have sort of hardened the paywall, right? It’s less porous, meaning there’s less chance for people to just read the Times for free. And, you know, it’s a smart business decision probably, but I think a lot of regular readers, and even including a lot of my colleagues at Vox Media, they were like, “Oh my god, I can’t read the Times anymore. Does someone have a subscription? Can you send me this article?”
SD: Yeah. They should subscribe.
Well, so guess what? We bought a bunch of seats at Vox Media so we could do work. But there was a sense that the Times was and is very much a general news service. It’s not specialized in a way that say the Journal, the Wall Street Journal, is a specialized thing. Which started charging online from day one when it first launched, I think 1996 or so. So the idea that you know something that’s supposed to be … have that impact, it’s supposed to have that influence, meaning for everybody, the paper of record, you’re now charging me, and not in a way that you would charge at the newsstand, which is really kind of a token price. An online subscription for people is expensive, or can be expensive. So, I mean, when you harden the paywall like that, does that sort of change, at least in terms of how you gather the news, like your sense of your impact or like when you go talk to sources, “people can’t read the New York Times anymore,” that kind of thing? Is there a concern around that?
SD: No. We haven’t heard that before. I mean, we’ve got a giant audience across social media and Facebook and, you know, every platform. We do think that the New York Times is worth paying for. And we are encouraging people to pay for it. And I think that’s what is behind some of the hardening of the paywalls. We haven’t seen any sign that that is lessening, diminishing our influence or our reach. We still have a pretty giant reach and we think that can get only bigger as we ramp up international expansion plans and get even savvier about social media. But I just wanted to return to one thing … you described the Times as a, I think, “general news service,” and that’s true in some ways, but there’s a whole dimension of what we’re doing and what I think we’re going to be moving towards even more forcefully that goes way beyond news, and it points more towards “the New York Times wants to help you lead a better life.” So that’s Sam Sifton, one of the big personalities in the cooking world, telling you what to cook for dinner tonight. And that’s Tara Parker-Pope showing, you know, the casual weekend jogger, here’s how to train for a marathon. And it’s, you know, our new Watching product helping you sift through Netflix to find your next television series. But it’s also things like the Upshot saying, “Should you rent a home or buy a home?” This stuff goes well beyond just the news into your life. And we think that the Times can play kind of a singular role there in many, many people’s lives.
So you mentioned Sam Sifton, you mentioned cooking. My wife is a big fan of the cooking app, and we use it all the time to find things to cook, to eat, to make at home. And, you know, it’s easily one of those things that I feel like if and when you guys start charging for that, is like, “Oh, we can’t not have this anymore.” Also just what you’re describing is a lot of how publishers have taken to the internet, which is to have, I don’t want to say niches, but specific topics, where you can get really intense, and really sort of delve into a topic area from a lifestyle perspective. Is that sort of the future? Is that the direction that you guys are going in terms of creating all these different verticals?
CL: The overarching theme to some extent is guidance. And as Sam says, we want to help you, we want to guide you, we want to give you advice about how to live your life better. Both in terms of what in newsrooms they refer to as service journalism, but also just in terms of just explaining the world. If you look at that spectrum, on one side is just explaining the world, helping our readers understand the world better, and all the way over, how our readers live better, cook better, find something to watch on television or Netflix. That’s a really broad spectrum and it allows us to increasingly be more and more a part of people’s lives. We want the Times to be an essential daily habit, and that’s how we believe we’re going to continue to thrive in the digital era, by making the Times an essential daily habit.
SD: And the cooking thing — you know that’s my favorite example. I think of in the olden days we would sit atop the mountaintop and hurl forth our recipes and our news. We’re talking about paying attention to our readers, and that cooking app that you described, the product manager, my favorite part of how they develop that, she went into people’s homes and watched them cook and watched them use their phones or their tablets or however they do it. And one of the annoying things that she saw driving people crazy was, you know, their iPad keeps going to sleep and they’ve got butter on their fingers and they have to put in the passcode and this annoying thing. So they built that app so that when the New York Times cooking app is open, it doesn’t go to sleep, it overrides the iPad’s automatic sleep thing and it stays open. And it’s those tiny little things — you know, Cliff calls them the “grace notes” — that I think make a reader, a user, love your product. And the Times is getting really good about that and figuring out how to do that in news, in cooking, in all of these new products. It’s the challenge of the moment.
So it seems like a pretty successful app. It seems like you’re probably going to start charging for it at some point? I don’t know when that’s going to happen. You should give us a little preview of when that might happen so we’re all ready for it. When is that going to happen?
SD: State secret.
State secret. Okay, we’ll crack it at some point. Cliff, I wanted to come back to, in terms of talking about different apps or multiple apps, you were one of the principle guys behind NYT Now, which was the light version of the New York Times, which was I sort of think marketed or sold to the idea of like maybe millennials, younger folks, like $8 a month as opposed to the $15 a month for the main app. And frankly a lot of people really liked it. In fact a lot of people thought it was better than the main app and was a steal at $8. But a few years ago, guess what, you made it free, and it’s still there, it’s still working, it’s still populated. I want to ask, what did you learn from that experience? What worked? What didn’t work? What would you do differently?
CL: We learned a tremendous amount from developing it. It was for the newsroom at the New York Times, for me, it was just a really amazing experience. I worked very closely with other editors, but even just as a important, with people from around the Times, with product managers, designers, engineers. It was a whole new model for developing a product at the Times. Again, something that’s done in Silicon Valley — in there it’s typical. For the Times it was really different to get together this cross-disciplinary team to develop this product that was as Sam says, intensely focused on what readers wanted. You know, we created the morning briefing — which is now in all our products — we created that on NYT Now because we realized that a lot of people, the first thing that they do when they wake up is they check their phone, and they want to quickly get up to speed on the news. And we didn’t really have what is essentially a native article, a native digital product for the phone that existed that got you up to speed at 6 am. We created this product and it was … this platform or this product was a huge hit, the morning briefing. So much so that we brought it into the core of the New York Times. A lot of the successes of NYT Now have actually migrated into the core. They’re now on the main New York Times app, they’re now on the home page, they’re now on the iPad. So we’ve learned so much from NYT Now as a kind of place that we could experiment. We could really think and in a very intense way what our readers want from us.
Sort of a proving ground for what you might institute in the main app or the paid-for app.
It’s still maintained, it’s still populated — how do you guys use it now? How do you think of it now? What do you use it for exactly?
CL: I mean we’re still using it to try new things. It’s very nimble; we can put stuff in there and see how our readers react, and then if it works we can keep doing them in NYT Now and then, of course, move them into the core. It’s just been great for that.
Was it disappointing that it didn’t become a paid-for product, that it just sort of became the background app to the main app? Or what was your sense of that?
CL: I mean, again, we have to be much better at, if something doesn’t work, pivoting and trying something new. So we created three new products at that time. We created NYT Now, we created NYT Cooking, and we created an NYT opinion app. The opinion app didn’t work, so we shut it down. NYT Now, the business model wasn’t quite correct so we pivoted. It was $8 a month, and then it became free. Cooking, I think, learned a lot from the other two apps. Cooking, we did it in a much more … in a way that in retrospect makes much more sense. We’ve gotten the audience; it has a very, very strong audience and very high numbers. And now we’re figuring out a smart way to monetize that audience.
It’s interesting. I mean, I use both. I still have NYT Now. Even just the aesthetic of the app is different from the main app. Even just the colors and the font and the way it sort of comes across, it feels more alive frankly. Is that — I’m just kind of curious — is it very purposeful that you wanted it to have a really different feeling from the main app?
CL: Yeah, I mean the idea was to try something different. The idea was, could you provide a shorter version of the Times. A Times that would just help you get up to speed. The way we refer to it is, “These are the most important, compelling stories of the day from the New York Times,” and we’re also, of course, providing you with stories from other publications; we’re doing what’s known as external curation. That also is something we have never done before at the Times. And like a lot of things that we’ve never done before at the Times, we’re always a little nervous when we start doing them, and when we do that, you know what, the sun rises the next day. And so NYT Now has been great for that. It’s not only been great as just a place to experiment, but it was great as a place to teach us how to experiment. And, you know, historically we haven’t been that good at that, and now we’re getting much better.
The pointing elsewhere was a pretty big thing for a lot of other publications. Whenever we got links from that kind of thing, it would really sort of help our traffic, too, so we’d like to see that go over to the main app.
SD: Stay tuned on that.
Okay, all right. Sam, I wanted to bug you about the virtual reality initiative that the Times has been working on that was really well received. And that also seemed to get a lot of sponsorship dollars as well. So it seems to be a success from both a journalistic standpoint and also from a commercial standpoint. I think one of the things I want to point out that maybe a lot of our listeners may not know and we should say out loud so we can get it over with, that you are a member of the family that controls, that owns the New York Times, the Ochs Sulzbergers. Arthur Sulzberger, the publisher, is your uncle. You’ve also got a few cousins in the shop, notably Arthur Greg and David Perpich. My point in bringing this up is that, you know, you’re a pretty important guy but you also have a vested interest in the future of the Times, as do we all, anyone who’s interested in the Times. How did the virtual reality thing come up in the first place? Clearly it was … you were charged with trying to figure out ways the Times could pivot into digital. Virtual reality isn’t something that’s intuitive. How did that happen?
SD: You know, we were … I was working on mobile. I had the title of mobile editor, which was pretty undefined at the time.
It’s kind of like seeing internet now.
SD: Yeah, precisely. And so we were working … you know, it was clear that we couldn’t just stuff newspaper stories into the phone and hope that nobody would notice, right? The phone was going to change everything. It wasn’t just going to be a new way for people to find our stories; it was going to change the stories themselves. So we were looking for ways to do new kinds of mobile journalism, to figure out what that meant. You know, we think that we had done a pretty good job of transitioning from print to the desktop. And “Snow Fall,” a story that the sports desk did with the graphics department years ago, it feels like ancient history, but it was a big deal at the time. And it was one of the first stories that integrated photos and videos and graphs and graphics and interactives and maps. And it made digital journalism feel like this brand new thing, like all these opportunities. We wanted to find the “Snow Fall” for mobile. Like what was the thing that this mobile phone would allow us to do that we couldn’t do before.
So you took a meeting with a company that produce virtual reality films somewhere downtown, is that right? Is that how you first …
SD: Yeah, so I was downloading every app in the world and trying to find something cool and going over to Cliff’s desk and saying, “Check this out, check that out.” And I downloaded a VR film. The first one I’d ever seen. And it seemed very, very cool. So I looked it up, and the company was 10 blocks away. This company, Vrse. And we went down there with a bunch of our visual journalist photographers and videographers, and that was the first time any of us had, or certainly me, had put on a headset. One of those Google Cardboard headsets. And it was revelatory. Within two minutes it was like, “This is it, this is the one. We’re going to go after this.”
It looks like it’s pretty expensive to produce. It looks like it requires all different sorts of elements, different types of expertise. What was it like to build that up from basically scratch?
SD: Yeah, it was a crazy project. I’ve never worked on anything like that. You know, I came back to the building with this goofy Cardboard headset and went up to the magazine editor’s office.
SD: Jake Silverstein. The magazine is the home of blue-chip storytelling at the Times. Jake’s a really creative, ambitious guy. I went up there and put the headset on him. And if it took me, you know, two minutes to figure out that this was going to be a big deal, it took him maybe 30 seconds. “We’ll launch; let’s do this.” But we didn’t want to just make a VR film for it’s own sake. We knew nobody would watch it. Who’d even heard of VR; how do you watch a VR film? We wanted to provide a big mainstream moment for VR, and we felt like we were kind of uniquely positioned to do it. And we both fell in love with this little piece of cardboard, this Google Cardboard headset. And the delicious part of this was that we were going to use our 19th-century infrastructure, our trucks and our printing plants, to leapfrog into the 21st century. We were going to use … we were going to insert a Cardboard headset with the Sunday bundle. That was kind of the magic of the idea.
You already had distribution — you know, physical distribution — might as well take advantage of it.
SD: That’s what set us apart. Nobody else had that. And we did. So we needed to convince Google. So we called Google. They had … this was a big deal even for them. As much of a behemoth as they are, to print 1.1 million headsets was a big ask. And to their amazing credit, they were in. And they were in because the New York Times said that we wanted to do this. And they didn’t quite realize at the time that “the New York Times” was me and Jake and Andy Wright, the magazine’s publisher, in a conference room.
CL : The best part of this story that Sam is leaving out is when he first pitched the idea to some of the higher-ups at the Times, they looked at him like, “Are you crazy?!” [laughter] Because it was just costly. And all these arms, I mean, Sam tells this amazing story like, you basically have to assemble every arm in the building, right, Sam? Like the union guy who deals with the deliverers of the paper.
SD: Yeah, yeah. It took some bureaucratic jujitsu to get this thing through.
Even for someone like you and your stature and what you represent, you still had to kind of figure out the bureaucracy and cut through and convince people that virtual reality was going to be part of the future of the New York Times?
SD: Yeah. You know, we didn’t know if it was going to be part of the future of the New York Times. We knew this would be a really cool project and we knew that we could do really important journalism about it.
So you say, “This is cool.” Jake Silverstein says, “This is cool.” The masthead is like, “What is this?” And then what happens after that? Like someone says, “How do we pay for this?” Right? Like how did that happen?
SD: So Google says, “We’ll give you a million cardboards.” That was a really big deal. And then if some of the folks … and let me just say, Dean Baquet got it; he loved the idea.
The executive editor, the guy who runs the newsroom.
SD: Journalistically, this was a solid case. We just had a lot of stuff to do, you know, from rebuilding our apps to updating the platform. There was a lot to do. And everybody up to the CEO thought that this felt like a distraction. But we were able to get it passed in large part because the revenue side of the house was really excited about this. And they did an incredible job selling it, so that before we even had a VR film, we had GE and Mini sponsoring this thing.
At what point did the revenue team come on board? The sales team. How did like … was it a natural thing? Again, these are new products that didn’t really exist in the marketplace from a publisher’s standpoint. So how did they decide like, “Oh yeah, we can sell that”?
SD: I mean, maybe the most exciting thing about NYT VR, which is our VR app that you should download if you haven’t, is not even the VR itself. It’s kind of a metaphor in many ways for how the Times needs to work from now on so that … this started journalistically, this started in the newsroom. Very quickly we brought in the product folks and the marketing folks and the design folks and the tech folks and the revenue folks, and we were all there saying, “How are we going to pull this off?” And it was a team. It was this kind of slapdash team that was all passionate about this very funny, crazy idea. But it worked. And if one of those strands had fallen apart, like if we couldn’t build this new app in time, if we couldn’t sell it, if the film fell through, if the design didn’t work, the whole thing crumbled. So we were all reliant on one another in a way that was totally new. You know, before, the newsroom would pick up some idea and at the last minute we’d send an email to somebody on the business and say, “Hey, go deal with it, this is running tomorrow.” This was a very different way of working. And it had huge dividends. And it’s now I think the model for how lots of big projects will go.
How do you guys work together? I mean … [laughs] There’s a whole lot of people at the Times thinking about digital, moving to make the transition — how does this work? What’s that process like?
CL: Inside the newsroom?
Inside the newsroom, yeah. Like when you have ideas for things, when you have … you know, you want to change up how even headlines work for that matter, like what is … I mean you described a certain bureaucracy — I imagine that’s still very much in place when it comes to the newsroom.
CL: It is, and it has to be, a very collaborative process. There’s no way that you can bring about change, especially digital change, in a place like the New York Times, without bringing people along, without convincing them of the worthiness of your cause. It’s just impossible otherwise; it’s not even worth trying. It’s about hearts and minds, it’s about doing it yourself, it’s about showing them. I mean we, Sam and I both, spend a lot of time evangelizing, explaining to people why we think this is the right path. And then doing it with them. We cannot just issue memos saying, “This is the policy from now on. It is instituted, this is the edict. Now you must do it.” That would be a complete failure for a host of reasons. I believe really that you have to get … work very closely, you have to collaborate, you have to partner with people in order to bring about this kind of change.
SD: But, I mean, I think it’s really important to know two things: Dean Baquet, the top editor, has created a culture where good ideas are welcome. Bad are ideas are welcome. It’s just the feeling of, like, we’re open for business. Dean wants people coming up with ideas, and he wants to say yes to them. And I think that message has come across. So, you know, it’s not like Cliff and I are, you know, the innovation lab, like ginning up ideas, though we’ve got plenty of ideas [laughs], lots of them harebrained. Ideas are coming from all parts. You know, there’s the graphics department, the video department. These are some of the most innovative places in the industry, and there’s now I think a culture in the newsroom where they’re able to move pretty quickly and try stuff.
CL: Right. You cannot have top-down innovation at a place like the Times. It’s just … it just won’t work. You have to be cultivating and nurturing ideas all across the newsroom, and creating essentially an environment where people feel they can constantly come up with ideas, approach you with ideas, send you emails, suggest, suggest that.
So I’ve heard very much from, you know, people I know at the Times, and that’s very much the case that there was this sort of energy, there’s this sort of sense of wanting to try different things. At the same time, I also hear from a lot of folks a certain anxiousness. “What do they want from me exactly? What am I supposed to do now? I did this, and I’m really good at this — is that not valuable anymore?” How do you …
CL: The truth is that we don’t have all the answers. And I think it’s really important for us to message that. You know, nobody really knows what journalism is going to be like in two years, let alone five years.
SD: Although we know some things. I mean, what’s not going to change at the Times, right, it’s going to be original, on-the-ground journalism. That’s the backbone of it. So if you’re a journalist who excels at that, we want you to work at the New York Times. And it’s the most creative place I think to tell stories at. So whether it’s a podcast or a VR film or a video or a magazine feature story, we’ve got the muscles to tell all those kinds of stories. But it needs to start with that kind of journalism, and that’s what we value above all else.
So you guys are in charge of your destiny for a lot of things. One big, sort of looming thing for the Times and really for any publisher out there is Facebook, right? So they are … they’re a behemoth in a way that really, really has affected publishers, maybe even more than Google has. They change their algorithm, they change their policies around what kind of stories are trending, and they try to work with all publishers, especially the bigs ones, about how can we best serve each other kind of thing. But the latest algorithm change has really kind of caused consternation in terms of we really want to promote the idea that you’re going to see posts from your friends and family before you see posts from the New York Times, or from Recode, or Vox Media in general. How do you guys deal with that? What’s your plan? How are you facing that?
SD: I mean, Facebook’s hugely important. We get a giant number of people coming to us from Facebook. You know, they are a key partner, and I think they will be for a long time going forward. But you have to remember that we’re different from other publishers in that we’re not reliant on that Facebook traffic. We have this big giant audience that Cliff was talking about that pays for us and we have a direct relationship with. And they come to us. That latest algorithm change, we’re watching it.
It hasn’t affected you guys.
SD: It hasn’t affected our traffic dramatically, but again, I don’t think we are as vulnerable to those algorithm changes because our business model is different.
CL: Right. We have a different relationship with readers, and it’s really, really important. We, as I said earlier, our interest and readers’ interests are really aligned. Because we’re not solely in an advertising business, we can be thinking much more about what readers want. We don’t want to ignore advertisers. Advertising is important for our business, certainly a core part of our revenue stream. Having said that, when you have 1.2 million digital subscribers, you can be thinking a lot about, not necessarily, “Oh, will this go viral on Facebook; I need to craft this post so it goes viral on Facebook.” It’s more like, “Well, how can I write this in a way that’s really interesting and compelling and engaging to readers? How can I bear witness to what I’ve seen in Pakistan, in Iraq, in Washington, in Baton Rouge?” You know? We are first on the scene often. We are there, we are doing this on-the-ground reporting, so we can really create this journalism from our reporting that is very compelling, that is very vibrant, and it’s something that our readers, our subscribers, really care about and really appreciate.
Lastly, I think one of the things I want to kind of get into a little bit is just the changing role of editors these days right? I mean you’re having to think as much in business terms as in journalistic terms in terms of what is a story, what isn’t a story. Not everybody can do that. Not everybody has to do that necessarily. But I don’t know … for you, Cliff, as they say, you’re a Times stalwart, what has this transformation been for you? Like how are you thinking about things or how are you talking to other people or how are you sort of trying to figure out different platforms?
SD: Can I just insert myself for just one little thing?
Yeah, please go, yeah.
SD: It’s … I correct it a little bit. I don’t think we need editors thinking in business terms. You know, our editors are launching important journalism, but there is a shift, you’re absolutely right. I just wouldn’t call it business. It’s more like we were describing: thinking about the audience and the reader and thinking about story forms. That’s not a commercial thing, that’s just a, you know, an urgency to stay relevant and a realization that every editor and every reporter should be fighting to be read. You don’t have the expectation …
Well, so then I guess the logical argument there is you’re looking at traffic stats, or you’re looking at, “How much traffic did this story get, and what did I do wrong? Was the headline wrong? Was the lead wrong? Was the story itself wrong?” To what degree has that seeped into the newsroom?
CL: I mean, it’s seeped heavily into the newsroom. And it should seep heavily into the newsroom. We can’t ignore audience. We have to be looking at traffic. We have to be seeing what engages readers or viewers or listeners. It’s really, really important. However, and I can’t emphasize this enough, traffic does not define what we do. We would do great journalism if we feel, based on our editorial judgment, that this great journalism should be done. We will send reporters to far-off lands. As I said, we’ve reported from more than 170 countries in the last year. We’re sending people to far-off lands without having any idea, is this going to get tremendous traffic. That is not the most important thing here. The most important thing is to really do amazing journalism, and that really kind of changed the calculus for our newsroom.
SD: Traffic is … I mean the numbers that you’re talking about can be really helpful. They can also be dangerous, absolutely, you’re right. But you know, we’ve recently started shifting the tone of our headlines, along the lines of the push alerts that we were talking about before. So now we’re paying a lot of attention to A/B testing, where we’ll do two kinds of headlines we’ll put out there. And we’re monitoring the traffic. The job of the headline is to bring in readers, and we’ll see which ones people are reading.
It’s still the same story, but you know, which one’s going to draw the reader in.
SD: Yeah, and to me that’s where traffic is helpful, and it gets our stuff better read and ultimately leads to better journalism.
CL: But we’re also mindful that we could do a lot of so-called clickbait headlines on New York Times stories and get more readers. We certainly could. But it would also be a violation of trust, it would be a violation of essentially our agreement with our readers that we’re going to put a headline on a story that’s going to tell them what the story’s about. And if we kept doing clickbait headlines, we’d get a traffic spurt, but over time we really erode that relationship and it would really hurt subscriptions. It would really hurt the business model as well. So again, what the newsroom is doing right now is really very much aligned with what our colleagues in the marketing department are doing, or in the product department are doing. And that’s a really, really cool business model that we’re just so excited about.
And you feel like you’re getting … you’re reformulating the newsroom in terms of the people that you’re getting to do this, to think about this. Because frankly, that’s a muscle that you have to develop, right? Not everyone wants to do that.
SD: It is a muscle that you have to develop, but I think that journalists today, maybe more than ever, but I bet in the past too, they want to be read. They want to have a conversation with their readers. So, you know, I think of Farhad Manjoo, our tech columnist.
He’s got his own podcast too, by the way.
SD: He’s got his own podcast, he’s got …
I don’t listen to it, not all the time.
SD: [laughs] He’s active on Twitter, he’s got his Saturday morning newsletter, he’s writing recaps of “Silicon Valley” from HBO. He’s interacting with the audience from a million different levels and he just wants to connect.
CL: Or our fashion critic, Vanessa Friedman, who is amazing. I mean she’s on Snapchat, she’s on Twitter, she’s on Instagram. She is completely reimagining what the role is of a fashion critic. The old-style fashion critic wrote an 800-word story a couple times a week and that was it. Vanessa is actually mastering all these different platforms and is bring that journalism, bringing her reporting, to people in all these different ways.
Does mastering these different forms, does it require reporters, columnists, people with bylines at the Times, to become more of a bold-face name themselves than the tradition, where, you know, you had a byline but you really just stood behind the story?
CL: I wouldn’t frame it that way. We’re not looking for everyone to turn themselves into a media celebrity. They can if they want. If they achieve it, that’s great. It’s really about how can they find new ways of expressing their journalism. How can they figure out these new platforms. You know, again, rooted in what the Times is, rooted in the values of our newsroom, how can you put yourself, your stuff out on Instagram or Snapchat or Twitter or Facebook. And you know, one thing I’ll just add is, once you do that and figure out how your journalism resonates on those platforms, you could then bring it back to the core. You can then say, “Oh, I did something on Instagram or Snapchat that was really interesting. Let me try to take that and kind of repurpose it a little bit or reimagine it for something that we put on the home page at the New York Times.”
SD: But let me just add — and I agree with all of that — I could come up with a dozen of our most important investigative reporters who have probably never sent a tweet and aren’t on Instagram. And they’re hugely, immensely valuable, right? There’s not … this isn’t some kind of new job requirement.
CL: Absolutely. It takes all kinds.
The New York Times will tweet for them. [laughter] What I want to end on is, you know, by this time next year, what am I seeing from the New York Times? What should I be expecting? Am I seeing more apps? Am I seeing more Snapchat? Am I seeing more Facebook? What am I looking for next by this time next year?
SD: I think that … I mean, yes to all of that. The main thing, the high level thing, the Times is going to become more and more visual, I think, so that you see the data visualizations, the videos — we were nominated for nine Emmys by the way last week. The videos that we’re doing, the virtual reality that we’re doing, the graphics. All of that, it’s not off to the side, it’s not bells and whistles. That’s core to our journalism, and I think we’re going to wrap our arms even more tightly around that. We talked before about how we can help our audience lead a better life. I think we’re going to be leaning into that. And you mentioned, you know …
SD: More lifestyle, more guidance. More … the cooking, I think, is a really good model. We’re really excited about that, and we’re trying to find other venues where we can do that. And then more experiments. You know, VR was really fun. We’re going to do lots more of that. But that was fun because it was a new, immersive, experimental innovative way to tell stories. There’s lots of that. Whether it’s messaging or artifical intelligence or augmented reality. You know, we’re exploring all of this.
CL: And I think we’re going to continue to emphasize great, original, on-the-ground, vivid, first-hand reporting. I mean that’s what we’ve always done and what we’re going to continue to do in a way that I think will continue to be really satisfying to our readers.
So you have your own podcast operation going on. What is that looking like right now? How many more podcasts should we be seeing from you, and are you going to be bring them all in-house in one kind of form or another?
SD: Yeah, we’re really excited about audio. We think there’s a huge potential there, and we just hired our first executive director for audio — Lisa Tobin, who was at WBUR, just came aboard last week. And she’s got big, ambitious plans. I think we’re going to do conversational shows around some of the personalities that we’ve been talking about. But I may be even more excited about some of the narrative shows that we can do. You know, I think in many ways we’ve already got the hard part done. We’ve got journalists going out on crazy investigative stories all across the globe. We just need to pair them up with a producer and we think that we’ve got radio gold. So we’re going to see all kinds of experiments, I think, different kinds of shows, shows across the spectrum, but there’s going to be a lot coming from us in that realm.
Great. And with that I want to say thank you to Sam Dolnick and Cliff Levy, as well as Peter Kafka, who let me sit in his chair for this. It’s a very comfortable chair. But you’ll have him back next week.