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

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.”

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