New York Times Fairfax

Just as small events can illustrate the bigger picture of climate change, so often individual stories — and the storm in the media teacup they generate — can tell us a lot about what’s happening in the media today.

So the opening column of climate change “agnostic” Bret Stephen’s career as resident conservative columnist in the New York Times’ op-ed pool gives an insight into the cultural hurdles to reshaping traditional media. Published at the end of April, “Climate of complete certainty” infuriated Times readers.

In the golden, olden days of mass media, the NYT would have been delighted by the response to the sly “just asking questions” conceit of the column. Even the infuriated cancellations (numbers unknown), outraged letters (“an unusually large number” concedes the NYT) and all the tens of thousands of tweets and posts would have pleased the Grey Lady. When you’re in the business of selling advertising space, this sort of brand controversy is great. Good writing, provocative debate, poking “elites” in the eye — all values that advertisers love to be aligned with.

But now that advertising is dead, it’s a dumb play.

Traditional media need to transition to reader revenues. Newsonomic’s Ken Doctor says achieving crossover — getting to the point where reader revenues dominate — should be the key strategic goal of every commercial news organisation.

The NYT knows this. It’s the heart of its strategy. And it’s working. In 2005, advertising was 68% of its revenues. Last year, it was 37%. The company has set itself a goal of 10 million paying subscribers (about four times what it has today). The company has just opened an Australian office, as part of a bid to be a global voice.

Australian publishers get it, too. That’s why they’ve put up their paywalls and are promoting digital subscriptions. And that’s why Australian journalists can learn a lot from this very New York imbroglio.

[There is a war on media, and it’s time for journalism teachers to suit up]

Corporate strategy means more than just re-orienting your marketing team. More than: Stop calling advertisers! Start calling readers!

When they were aggregating audiences for advertisers, media companies were best positioned like the economists’ ice-cream sellers on the beach — one, two, even three voices set up in the middle, equalising access and maximising potential market share.

This has profoundly shaped the culture of journalism, which has interpreted a traditional marketing pose as a profound ethical principle. When this culture clashes with the reader revenue strategy, well, as management guru Peter Drucker says: “Culture eats strategy for breakfast.”

It stops being useful once you have infinite ice-cream sellers – or “the internet”, as we call it. Strategically, it stops being useful once you’re trying to sell directly to millions of individual readers (a business-to-consumer play), rather than aggregate those readers to sell to advertisers (a business-to-business play).

That demands a very different relationship with readers. You have to go out and talk with your readers where they live, not where you want them to be. It’s why Jack Shafer’s analysis in Politico — Times’ readers always hate conservative columnists at first but get used to them — is right looking backwards, but wrong looking forward.

The global media company that seems to understand this lesson best is News Corp. They’re not trying to sell ice cream to all comers. They are targeting a discrete group and sell directly to them.

But The New York Times — like Fairfax in Australia, for that matter — resist being put in a box as the media voice of the left in counter-point to News Corp’s on the right.

The recent Fairfax mission statement was a corporate attempt to deny that sort of box even exists, which is why it came across as mealy-mouthed. 

It’s been the Times’ resistance to being put into the “voice of the left” box that has won them the United Airlines brand management award of the week for customer service by publishing and puffing the Stephen’s column, followed by a sanctimonious “Eat your greens, liberals!” response.

The strategic box that the Times wants to be in — in fact, the box that journalism wants to be in — is the FACTS box. The box that says on the outside: “Here are the facts, diligently sought out and elegantly presented.” A box that says: You can take anything in here on trust.

[New York Times confirms Australian expansion]

And that’s the strategic clash that is outraging NYT readers — something for everyone versus here are the facts. It was the heart of the tweet response from 538’s Nate Silver: “The Truth Is More Important Now Than Ever, Except If You’re Reading Our Op-Ed Page”.

Perhaps, as Vox suggested, op-eds as we’ve traditionally understood them are incompatible with journalism’s facts strategy.

Or perhaps the old division between op-ed and news should be abolished. Comment instead could be written by people who have a profound understanding of the factual grounds of their opinion — and a lot of those are journalists — rather than hacked out from a set of off the shelf politically determined opinions, however entertainingly presented.

PS: You can find a critique of the science in the NYT column at leading climate change site, Australian-based Skeptical Science.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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