The “Gray Lady” Reinvents Itself in the Digital Era as Readers Leave

The New York times innovation studyThe “Gray Lady” is The New York Times, so-called because the type in the print version is so dense. That’s a moniker the newspaper no doubt wishes it could shed as its readership is eclipsed by online journals Huffington Post and BuzzFeed.

Adding further insult, The Huffington Post and BuzzFeed regularly repackage the Times’s content and draw more traffic than the original stories in the Times. How? By promoting the heck out of their content on social media.

Behind on Social Media

In March, the Times circulated a study entitled “Innovation” about its future that was intended for an internal audience. It recommends new strategies to stem the steady decline of its readership.

Of course, the study soon leaked to outlets such as Mashable and Scribd (where I downloaded the full report that you can access at the bottom of this post). The study included interviews of Times insiders as well as outsiders, including a number of its online and broadcast competitors.

This important study by the publication widely regarded as the “paper of record” reveals the Times is woefully behind in its social media strategy. Those of us who are bloggers and publishers can learn from the Times’ deficiencies and its plans to catch up to their competitors.

Among the findings is that fewer readers are visiting the Times’s home page. This is the trend for all media, including bloggers whose visitors often land on their posts via social media and never visit the home page. Social is where readers look first to find content.

New York times social power

The report continues, “Companies like Huffington Post and BuzzFeed have, in the past few years, eclipsed our traffic by building best practices for search and social into their workflow.” Less than 10% of traffic to the Times comes from social media compared to 60% for BuzzFeed.

NY Times - line graph readership

At the Huffington Post, a story cannot be published unless it has a photo, a search headline, a tweet and a Facebook post.

Building An Audience

As bloggers know, it isn’t easy to build an audience for your content. A new position at the Times, director of Audience Development, will focus on expanding its audience by:

Discovery: How we package and distribute our journalism

The study recommends repurposing its rich archive of evergreen content “and organizing and packaging our content in more useful ways.”

The Times has experimented with new kinds of stories to attract and engage online readers, including Snow Fall: The Avalanche at Tunnel Creek, a hugely  successful, multi-thousand-word, multi-media story that won Peabody and Pulitzer prizes for innovative web journalism. The Times plans more of what it calls these “snowfall” features.

Promotion: How we call attention to our journalism

Reporters at the Times will be encouraged (and possibly required) to promote their own content on social media, as do reporters for their online competitors. But the study notes that most reporters don’t know how to use social media and need training. Stories also need to be optimized for search.

Connection: How we create two-way relationships with readers that deepen their loyalty

The study advocates creating more engagement between reporters and readers. A number of Times reporters on their own initiative have developed a following on social media and engaged their readers.

The Times also knows it needs to carry more user-generated content a la the Huffington Post, but also fears that doing so could potentially diminish the quality of its content.

Lessons Learned

So what can bloggers learn from the insights the Times gained in its comprehensive study to help build our readership?

  • Repackage and repurpose content. Take a blog post and turn it into a podcast or slide show that you can upload to SlideShare. Turn related posts into an ebook, as fellow blogger Patricia Weber and I did with Repairing the Elevator Speech to Burnish Your Personal Brand.
  • Become an aggregator. BuzzFeed is famous for pulling content from many sources and aggregating it into new stories. Bloggers Sherryl Perry at Keep Up With the Web and Ana Hoffman at Traffic Generation Cafe are especially adept at researching and writing about social media, and linking to other authorities.
  • Use Backlinks and internal links. Many people think linking to other sites is a way to draw traffic from that site, and that may be true, especially if that site uses CommentLuv. But it’s more important than ever to link to “authority” sites or well-established sites in your space that rank well. Then Google will send more search traffic your way. Also, Ana always links to her own posts and, why not, they are filled with great content.
  • Write guest posts. Yes, we all know the commotion that Matt Cutts caused with his video a while back that said it was a bad idea to accept guest posts because most were “spammy.” However, in response to the uproar, he also made this comment: “A high-quality guest post with nofollowed links can still be a good way to get exposure to a new audience, branding, etc.” Be careful in accepting guest posts from low-quality sites or submitting your own guest posts to suspect sites.
  • Tag your content. No, tagging does not influence search. But tagging enables readers to better search your content.
  • Promote, promote, promote.  Build your social media strategy into every post before its published. Don’t get lazy and neglect to post your content to your social media networks. Invite fellow bloggers to comment. Repackage as described above.

Below is the full New York Times report. It’s very long but worth reading to gain the inside scoop from one of the world’s great newspapers about what it’s doing to regain its competitive edge in a digital world.

The Full New York Times Innovation Report

Leave a Reply


  1. In some ways it’s reassuring to know that a bastion of research, investigation and reporting like the NY Times is still trying to figure out social media. It’s also good to learn from their reflections because we know they will have done their homework well. I’ve downloaded it and it will be my weekend reading. Thanks for this Jeannette.

  2. Must admit, Jeannette – your blog was very interesting, but just didn’t have time nor the desire to read about the New York Times’ issues with social media. They are dropping the ball and are now paying for it. Didn’t see the writing on the wall, apparently about social media and the importance of having a strong presence!

  3. First Jeannette, thanks for the mention in this post.

    Love the lessons learned. And for mentioning who is the blogsphere (Sherryl and Ana) that I might know, we can get more about this aggregating. I use a form of it with ScoopIt and but I am certain better ways are escaping me.

    • Pat — well, you just introduced me to two new tools — Scoopit and The list is endless. Thanks!

  4. Very interesting post Jeannette. I imagine the New York Times is in scramble mode lately; trying to win back readers lost over the years. Thanks for the lessons learned list. I haven’t utilized all the lessons as yet but as I move into a broader strategy I certainly will.

    • Tim — their readership has dropped dramatically. Image a blog — The Huffington Post — drawing more readers than the iconic NY Times. Glad you liked the lessons learned.

  5. I think the Times better figure out their social media strategy quick before they wither and die. It’s amazing that Huffingtonpost and others are simply repackaging their content but drawing more traffic simply because of how they are promoting it. The Times knows they need to change but 2 things jump out in their “new position” on social media: lack of knowledge in social media (will they “get it” in time) and fear of change (i.e. user generated content).

    • Susan — yes, it is amazing. There are other examples in the study, too, where the Times keeps getting scooped or outfoxed by their own content. One of the problems with a publication that has been owned (even though it’s public) by one family for a lifetime. They are in their own little caccoon and the old-timers will resist change as “unseemly.”

  6. This is astounding to me how far out of step the NYT really is! But you are so right that it is an invaluable lesson for bloggers or anyone trying to promote their content in this digital era.

    • Jacquie — yes, I was astounded too and it’s even worse if you read the entire study. As bloggers we need to be sure we don’t fall behind, too!

  7. Lisa — true BuzzFeed and all the other newcomers do have the appeal of something innovative and exciting. The Times has a lot more content but they’ve got to figure out a way to make it appealing to readers.

  8. The findings of the study are absolutely correct, Jeannette. Honestly find it surprising that The New York Times have not yet managed to handle social media to their advantage. They are after all earning money from articles published. It’s not so surprising when a company that sells, say, packaging machines are not masters of social media. But a publishing house….Life is full of surprises…

    • Catarina — you make a good point that the Times is a publisher. Communications is their business and social media is all about communicating to your target audiences. Certainly is puzzling.

  9. Jeannette,

    I found this post very interesting. I was aware that the print version of newspapers are becoming obsolete but I wasn’t aware that the NY Times was so behind when it comes to using social media.

    Being aware of how well their competition is doing in comparison is a good starting point but are they reacting fast enough? I really hope the NY Times can survive. It seems that certain practices should be implemented already. (For example, a protocol similar to the Huffington post, requiring all stories to have a photo, a headline and a share on Twitter and Facebook should have been implemented already.)

    I think repurposing old content is a very effective idea. When my husband was compiling a PowerPoint presentation for his class reunion, he spent hours at the library going through microfiche to find newspaper articles from his high school years. If that had been accessible online, it would have been amazing.

    Thanks so much for the shout-out for my Friday Finds posts. It’s working well for me and I believe it’s been gaining popularity. When I see my site linked to (like you have here), I know I’m onto something.

    I know I should be repurposing content but I just haven’t done it yet. So, thanks for the reminder! My Friday Finds are really time consuming to write. So, I really should start repurposing old content to fill the gaps in providing content.

    • Sherryl — Your Friday Finds posts are so informative and useful, and the effort you put into them shows. I’m sure you have lots of great content that your readers haven’t seen or don’t remember that you could repurpose.

  10. Hi Jeannette,

    With social media being so dynamic, the Gray Lady could also be called the New York Behind The Times. Your lessons learned are very informative. It pays to stay current.

    Kind Regards,

  11. Hi Jeannette and Pat! I’ve been using li.paper as a tool to build my profile in the world of chocolate for the past 3 years as publisher of Chocolatour News. It’s an amazing free tool to help you aggregate info in any given field of interest. If you’re interested, you’ll find my paper at You can also get a paid version for a small fee that offers more customization. I may convert mine to the upgraded version in the future.

    • Doreen — I did pop over to your Chocolatour News (excellent) and realized immediately that I was aware of li.paper because Derek Jones, founder of Bloggers Network, takes the feed from my blog. I just didn’t make the connection. He’s also started a Bloggers Network Community on Google+, where bloggers can post their content, too.

  12. Hi Jeannette; Well, at least they are finally realizing their mistakes. And it sounds like they asked the right people, got the right answers, and are employing the right people and strategies to fix the problem. Wonder if the Times could use some guest posts from the inspirational blind blogger? 😉 This move by the Times officially signals a major change among the long established print media companies. Thanks for breaking down the report for me. I wouldn’t have wanted to wade through all that with my screen reader. Take care, Max

    • Max — the Times has had quite a stable of bloggers from their own reporters, but they are consolidating some of them because of duplicate content. As I wrote in my post, The Times knows it need to accept more user-generated content but is concerned about the quality. That’s their conservative side showing.

  13. I always enjoy reading about ways I can increase my readership and hadn’t thought about repurposing content. I might have to carve some time to give that report a gander!

    • Thanks for visiting, Pamela. We’ve all written excellent content and no reason whey we can’t update some of our posts with new facts and points of view. I’ve done that a few times and there are always new readers.

  14. I’m really wondering if blame should just be pointed at the subscription models started by the NYT. The 10 article limit has really curbed my reading there.

    In addition, I read a similar story about the Onion struggling because it’s heyday was also during the print era, where they could print an issue every week instead of having to keep something out there all the time.

    It will be interesting to see who survives the digital age after being successful before. Interesting post.

    • Carl, thanks for stopping by. Yes, it is a fight for survival. Whoever thought that Businesweek wouldn’t survive, except for being taken over by Bloomberg. Bloomberg Businessweek doesn’t have the same cache.

  15. I don’t read many print news sources, but over the years I can remember each time a newspaper I read or magazine I received changed its layout. I am one who used to not mind dense text, but that’s not the norm anymore. It sees like everything has to try to look like a computer screen (which does drive me crazy in some of the entertainment mags I read). The advent of e-text has impacted my reading habits to such a degree that I regularly find myself wanting to put my finger on a print word to bring up the online dictionary!

    • Jeri — I had to laugh because like your wanting to bring up the online dictionary, I sometimes find myself hitting the pause button while I’m watching a TV show live. That’s because I record a lot of shows and watch them later. We’re all used to everything “on demand.”