How Did Newspapers Blow It? Not Enough Engineers, NYT Publisher Says

9/18/13Follow @curtwoodward

It would be hard to single out just one mistake from the news industry’s fumbled transition to the Internet era. But the most important newspaper publisher in America—Arthur Sulzberger, Jr. of the New York Times—says one stumble sticks out among the rest.

“Engineers. That’s what we didn’t focus on fast enough,” Sulzberger says. “The need to have engineers building the systems that we are now using, building the tools that we’re now using.”

In a way, that’s a pretty safe and fashionable answer. From huge tech companies to the smallest startups, anyone whose business touches the Web is often heard lamenting the shortage of qualified software developers.

The meat of Sulzberger’s take, however, is a little different from the usual desperate hiring pitch (although they’re having a hard time hiring engineers, too).

In a forum discussion last week at Harvard, Sulzberger was pointing to the specific regret that journalists are now relying on other people’s digital tools to deliver their work—and along with it, seeing outsiders collect advertising revenue based on the eyeballs looking for old-media reporting, writing, and imagery.

No, the news business would never have come up with something that could compete with Google for raw information processing. But more recent upstarts like Twitter, Facebook, Reddit, and many more have created Web and mobile platforms that offer useful, personalized ways of processing and delivering information.

That leaves the news establishment playing catch-up. At the Times, that includes selling off some additional newspapers (including The Boston Globe) and instead focusing on new digital products that expand the footprint of the company’s flagship paper.

Two of those upcoming projects were recently discussed in a leaked company memo: a new digital magazine emphasizing longer-form media, and a quick-hit, youth-focused service under the working title “Need to Know.”

“Yes, we have journalists involved in that, we have people from the traditional ad sales. But [it’s] highly engineered,” Sulzberger said of Need to Know. “Because it’s going to have to be a different experience, and it’s going to have to be a different experience across devices.”

That kind of mixing—traditionally foreign to many establishment newspapers in particular—is key to success in digital media, AOL chief executive Tim Armstrong added in the forum.

“One of the things that I saw at the Huffington Post which was really impressive was the journalists and engineers sat together,” he said. “Huffington Post really helped the whole company rethink that process.”

Here’s the video of their discussion, which also includes Newspaper Association of America CEO Caroline Little and New York Times advisor Martin Nisenholtz (the discussion about engineers starts at about 48 minutes in).

Not everybody agrees that getting more engineering DNA would have helped the newspaper industry succeed.

Dave Winer, a pioneering developer of software for blogging, RSS, and podcasting, wrote in response to Sulzberger’s comments that bringing coders into the old media establishment has tended to increase the number of people protecting the old ways of doing things. Partnering with more innovative outsiders may have been a better way to go, he argues.

“Before they had a lot of programmers it was possible to do deals with them,” Winer wrote. “After the programmers came on, they had yet another set of gatekeepers, who as a side-effect of doing their jobs, kept new ideas from penetrating the Times.”

Curt Woodward is a senior editor for Xconomy based in Boston. Email: cwoodward@xconomy.com Follow @curtwoodward

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  • Matt C Colgan

    why would a good engineer want to work for an organization where the technology is an afterthought and the reporters and media people get all the rewards and authority?

    • Charles Duffy

      That’s not necessarily the case. The Texas Tribune’s engineering staff has been going around giving talks at big data conferences about their work doing analysis of government contracts, bill workflows, etc. David Nolen, of the New York Times, is doing extremely innovative work bringing things that had been academic theory to practical implementation, applying those tools to the NYTimes site — and getting sent to conferences to talk about what he does.

      I’d be happy — no, thrilled — to be in either of their shoes.

      • can_o_whoopass

        The Times has always gone to conferences to talk about their innovations, whether or not any were substantial. They want to be technology players, but never seem to fully commit. Maybe Nolen’s work is part of a course correction, don’t know him and can’t say. But the history I witnessed included recent college graduates in editorial cracking the whip over the experienced technology staff. Which led to quite a few departures.

        • Charles Duffy

          Nolen is definitely good — he’s one of the driving forces behind ClojureScript, core.async and core.logic. All of those are cutting-edge projects being used in the Real World well outside the Times. I certainly can’t say that he’s representative of the organization, but it’s an encouraging datapoint to see his work supported.

    • can_o_whoopass

      Nail on head … and that’s exactly why a large portion of the good engineers the Times once had have moved on … I’m one of them. One of my former co-workers now works for Huffpost. :)

    • Mark Eisenberg

      The content created by the reporters and editors is the end. The technology to deliver it is no more than a means. Engineers are replacing the pressmen. The newspapers stumbled when they got stuck on paper as the delivery means and when they failed to make the case for curated content. And curation matters even more in the wide open anyone can say anything world of the Internet.
      The Times is known to be a hard organization to work for and with. But that is a different issue than where technical people should fall in the pecking order.

      • Matt C Colgan

        Well, maybe contractors then.

      • can_o_whoopass

        Not dismissing the tremendous value of the Times’ content or its editors, but thinking of engineers as the new pressmen is one reason why the Times failed to meet their innovation goals. At a high level the Internet is a delivery mechanism, true. But it’s no more a printing press than a press is a stone tablet. Understanding all the dimensions each new medium adds is crucial to a successful business model, and not something most editors are equipped to handle without their partners in technology. Partners, not plumbers. :)

    • Maurice Walshe

      Exactly C P Snows 2 cultures is alive and well in the traditional media organizations

  • Harland

    Die faster, please. Biased bastards and lily-white to boot.

  • http://www.smat.us/ Rick Smith

    Arthur Sulzberger is wrong and Dave Winer is right.

    If they hired additional classical engineers, they’d just have more people perpetuating the existing, broken business models.

    On the other hand, I don’t think the NYT would have done much better if they had randomly chosen a tech company to partner with.

    The problem isn’t just the tech, it’s the business model. The major innovation in platforms like Google and Facebook is to identify a new business model and make it work. There have been a lot of startups over the past 20 years, and the vast majority have not prospered. If the NYT had partnered with the wrong innovator, they’d be in the same spot they are now.

  • Rick Smith

    Arthur Sulzberger is wrong and Dave Winer is right.

    If they hired additional classical engineers, they’d just have more people perpetuating the existing, broken business models.

    On the other hand, I don’t think the NYT would have done much better if they had randomly chosen a tech company to partner with.

    The problem isn’t just the tech, it’s the business model. The major innovation in platforms like Google and Facebook is to identify a new business model and make it work. There have been a lot of startups over the past 20 years, and the vast majority have not prospered. If the NYT had partnered with the wrong innovator, they’d be in the same spot they are now.

  • http://www.richullman.com/ Rich Ullman

    I agree with Winer. Innovation does not come from the number of engineers, journalists, sales people or accountants. It comes from a willingness to innovate and the confidence to adapt and adopt.

  • kaihu chen

    Adding modern features such as mobile/tablet access or interative media is a good start, but how to reconcile the traditional one-way discourse model with the crowd-driven model for content generation/consumption is a much more important and harder topic. In this respect my view is that journalists need to get off their pedestal and actively take the roles of (in additional to generating quality contents like before) curators, moderator, and influencer for crowd-driven activities. Think of it as changing from performing monologue to become a talkshow host too. For this to happen it requires a revolutionary change of mindset and software design, and I don’t see that hiring any number of engineers will help. Any software architect who has the capability to help likely would just prefer to go off and do his/her own startup instead.