In Merchants of Truth (S&S, Feb. 5), former New York Times executive editor Jill Abramson examines how print newspapers have adapted for online audiences.
The New York Times was facing serious business problems after the financial crisis with the withering of print media. What turned things around?
The key was the decision to do digital subscriptions, to ask readers online to pay. All the so-called smart thinkers said the Times was foolish, that news on the web has to be free. The Times was really the first general-interest newspaper to gain significant revenue from digital readers. It was a gutsy decision.
You oversaw the Times’s shift into digital journalism. Was that a clash of civilizations?
Most of the journalists had spent their careers on newspaper rhythms, so writing news stories the instant they happened for social media was a lot to absorb. The web people were called “the web people,” and some people didn’t consider them real journalists.
What did the Times learn from Buzzfeed and Vice?
After you get the story up on the website, you had to promote it on social media platforms, which were becoming giant publishers. Vice was using YouTube and Buzzfeed Facebook to grow huge audiences. At Times news meetings people started talking about clicks or how stories were trending on Chartbeat. Metrics began to influence where stories were placed and how long they stayed up.
To make money, advertising has infiltrated the journalism side. You fought that, didn’t you?
They call it “native advertising,” which mimics news stories. Vice and Buzzfeed were earliest and biggest into native ads. I fought it at the Times, then I was told, “stop fighting it, it’s coming.” The Times now has an in-house advertising agency; it’s called T Studio and it’s very large. My misgivings have lessened because now subscriptions are the biggest part of revenue, so advertising is not as important.
You write about Buzzfeed and Vice moving into prestige journalism. Given that they started with such radically different models, why did they do that?
One, their leaders grew up. They wanted to class up their brands by doing serious news like the Times and the Washington Post. Two, they needed to keep growing and raising more venture capital.
But the Times and the [Washington] Post are going strong whereas Buzzfeed and Vice seem to be struggling. Why did the dinosaurs beat the upstarts?
Serious journalism is expensive, digital media has grown colder, and raising new venture capital is hard. Buzzfeed and Vice don’t make a nickel off news. A point of my book is that if the Times and the Post went away, Buzzfeed and Vice would not be prepared to take their place.