brand, community, culture

A modest proposal to save The New York Times


I love The New York Times, the best newspaper in the world. There is no greater pleasure than sitting out on the patio on a Sunday morning, reading The New York Times, and learning.

I stress the word learning because there are so few places left in our world where true discovery happens. Most of the time, marketers, computers, and even our friends are showing us more of what we already know we like, rather than introducing us to things we have never seen or heard of before.

In the pages of The New York Times, I can be introduced to people, places, events, ideas I would have never found on my own. Every day I read The Times I learn something new. The paper expands my understanding of the world rather than reflecting back to me the understanding I already have.

This is an incredibly valuable service. It is a service that very few media companies in the world still provide (my local paper, the Raleigh News and Observer, rarely does these days, sadly).

Yet, the ongoing conversation about how to solve the financial issues of The New York Times revolves around fixing the business model for newspapers. Most experts say the model is fundamentally broken, and a report released last week by the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism doesn’t have a lot of good news for the future of journalism as a whole.

From my vantage point, the answer to fixing The New York Times will not come from exploring a revolutionary business model. It will come from a revolutionary brand, culture, and community model. Let me explain.

A few weeks ago, I watched a documentary called Reporter, which tells the story of two-time Pulitzer prize winning Times columnist Nicholas Kristof and his efforts to record evidence of the humanitarian crisis in Congo and convince the world to care.

The film passionately makes the case (and does so successfully, at least for me) that the crisis in Congo wouldn’t have existed at all in the minds of the international community if it weren’t for the tireless efforts of journalists like Kristoff. From the film synopsis:

Journalism, as we know it, is in trouble. In the Internet age, newspapers and magazines face near extinction. Newsrooms are shrinking, with foreign bureaus hardest hit. With the rise of blogs, in-depth coverage is being replaced by opinion. If current trends continue, we can expect that in ten years most news organizations will be fully devoted to a round-the-clock regurgitation of “info-tainment.”

With the loss of real journalism comes the loss of knowledge and understanding. A healthy and democratic nation will not be able to function, let alone flourish, on this diet of limited information.

This film is a call to action. To me, it is saying The New York Times, and the talented journalists it employs, are crucial and central to the continued advancement of human knowledge and understanding, maybe even to the health of democracy itself.

I couldn’t agree more. I am scared to death of a world where “news” is what I currently see on FOX News and CNN.

My advice to The New York Times?

Don’t let this happen. Stand up and lead us to a better place. Plant a flag that we can rally around. Become the catalyst at the heart of a movement protecting the continued advancement of human knowledge and discovery by advocating a higher journalistic standard.

Become the leader of, and advocate for, the naturally curious, people like me who simply love to learn. Become enemy #1 of the naturally non-curious, calling out those people, organizations, and nations standing in the way of the advancement of human knowledge and discovery, those who profit from keeping the news recycling bin churning itself into mush.

Unfortunately, I’m not sure The Times is philosophically or structurally ready to lead a movement yet. This would require some changes to how the paper’s leadership thinks about the brand, culture, and community strategy of the organization.

Brand

The New York Times brand is an incredibly valuable asset. But to build a brand that can be an effective flag-bearer for a movement will require a different brand strategy than The Times has employed over the past 150 years. It would mean transitioning from what I’d call a service brand to a leadership or community brand.

To make this transition may even require looking deeply at the mission of the organization. Currently, The New York Times core purpose is “Enhance society by creating, collecting and distributing high quality news, information and entertainment.” This is a noble mission, but “creating, collecting, and distributing” is a service mission.

If The New York Times is going to lead a movement and a community, its purpose will need to say so loud and clear. How about something like:

“To be the catalyst in a community ensuring the continued advancement of human knowledge by defining, practicing, and celebrating the standard for journalism.”

You see where I am going. The new purpose would not just be to collect and distribute news as a service to customers, but instead to be the catalyst in a broad and inclusive community of journalists and citizens working together to maintain a higher standard. The Times becomes our leader, our guide, our spokesperson. And the word “in” in the phrase “catalyst in a community” is the key.

We do it together. We all participate in an effort greater than The New York Times or any of us.

Community and Culture

To build a successful brand strategy around becoming the leader and catalyst of a movement, The New York Times will also need to adopt some new practices around community and culture. To build community and a shared vision around a movement requires being more inclusive that The Times is today.

Today, one might envision the service brand of The Times saying something like “We practice the best journalism in the world for you.” It is very clear that they are the journalists, and we are the readers.

Imagine for a second that this statement became “We practice the best journalism in the world with you.”

Wow. I bet Times editors would cringe at that. And by doing so, they reveal a bias that will stop them from leading a movement until they overcome it. A community requires a fuzzier line between creator and consumer than many professional journalists are comfortable with.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying that anyone could write for The New York Times. Very few people have the talent and passion of a Nicholas Kristof. I’m saying that anyone could aspire to write for The New York Times.

As the catalyst in a movement, The Times would uphold a standard of journalism to which anyone could aspire. It would become a teacher, a spokesperson, a beacon of hope for those who try to uncover the truth, no matter their walk of life. The Times could make us better journalists and better consumers of news, simply by letting us in, letting us work with, and learn from, its expertise.

Someone has to do it…

One way or another, someone needs to stand up and lead a movement to save journalism. I can only imagine there are lots of other naturally curious people like me around the world who are terrified by what they see happening to the news and would like to help.

This is not a political movement, and it doesn’t take sides on the issues. It is a philosophical movement, serving the needs of the naturally curious, no matter where they fall on the political spectrum. It is a movement that is desperately needed, yet no one has stood up to lead it.

Why not you, New York Times?

And to those who say this is just happy talk that won’t solve the newspaper industry’s business model problems, I’d add a few last thoughts:

First, look to the green movement for inspiration. How many years ago was it that environmentally-conscious thinking was just viewed as hippy-dippy happy talk too? Now there are amazing, and amazingly profitable business models built around being green. Almost every business today has environmental and sustainability issues squarely on the agenda. This didn’t just happen.

I do not think the green movement has been successful because it developed innovative business models. It has been successful because it convinced people to care.

So how do we rally people to care as much about the threat to democracy caused by poor journalistic practices as they do about the threat of global warming caused by poor environmental practices?

The green movement found some influential leaders (yes, like Al Gore), but, even more importantly, rallied a community of active contributors, people like you and me. It transcended politics and became a movement about improving the global human condition (and the planet’s condition too).

So, New York Times… What do you think? Would you be willing to come out of your journalistic cathedral? Lead those of us who think like you and appreciate the standard you uphold? To work with us, rather than for us, to improve the state of journalism in the world? You might find there are a lot of people (heck you have almost 1 million subscribers to start with) willing to join you.

If so, tell us what to do next. Lead us, and we may lead you back.

About Chris Grams

Chris Grams is Head of Marketing at Tidelift. He is also the author of The Ad-Free Brand: Secrets to Successful Brand Positioning in a Digital World.

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