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Art of Leading

Digital Transformation: A Deep Dive Into The New York Times’​ Playbook

April 22, 2019

Navigating digital disruption is the toughest challenge for companies these days, and The New York Times is fast becoming a case study in succeeding at wholesale transformation. While the outlines of its story are well-known, I’ve been curious to better understand the Times’ playbook. So I sat down with the publisher, A.G. Sulzberger, for an extended conversation to hear his insights and perspectives. I know many of the details first-hand because I worked at the Times for 18 years and was part of the Innovation Report team that Sulzberger led several years ago, but we pulled back the lens to discuss the broader lessons.

Q. Let’s begin at the beginning. When did it become clear to you that the status quo wasn’t a long-term option for the Times?

A. It was after I had been asked to lead the innovation project but before I had pulled together the team. I had been a very traditional reporter with a very traditional background. I started at metropolitan dailies, worked on the metro desk here, became a national correspondent and then an editor on the metro desk. Jill Abramson, the editor at the time, had asked me to lead a team to come up with some great digital product. And that is the kind of construct you hear a lot in companies that are trying to succeed digitally — come up with a great digital product.

It was a mandate that I didn’t feel particularly well-prepared for. So I did what came naturally to me as a reporter, which was to sit down with as many smart people who knew more about the subject than I did and try to understand how they saw the world and where they saw opportunities. Then you can hear where the interesting tensions are, where there are disagreements, and you start to recognize the patterns.

I was having these conversations initially to try to identify if there was specific idea we could build, like a cooking app. But the striking thing to me as I sat down with people was how much the building was overflowing with great digital ideas. The problem wasn’t a lack of ideas; the problem was that they were being systematically suppressed throughout the building. Because of a mix of traditionalism and bureaucratic inertia, the people who were most creative and most fluent in the changing landscape were the ones who were also the most frustrated.

“The problem wasn’t a lack of ideas; the problem was that they were being systematically suppressed throughout the building.”

They loved the place, they wanted to see it succeed, and they had ideas about how they could get us through the next leg of the journey. But they were treated like second-class citizens. They found themselves stymied by the complexity of an organization and institutional silos. A bunch of them were leaving and the folks who were still here were telling me that they might have to leave in order to do great work.

That problem was really front-of-mind for me when I pulled together the innovation team. I wanted to make sure that pretty much everyone on the team knew more about the changing landscape than me or really understood institutional change.

Q. What other qualities did you want in the people on the team?

A. I only wanted people who were willing to ask tough questions and tell me I was wrong. And I wanted them to question not just the status quo but the digital conventional wisdom, which I think is just as dangerous. One other quality I was looking for was someone who is comfortable contributing to a team rather than just being their own brand.

Q. And how do you figure out if people have that quality?

A. When I’m interviewing people, I ask them, “Are you comfortable with someone else getting the credit for your good work?” Because the worst way to lead change in an organization is to dump all your current folks and bring in a new set of people. So if you’re not going to do that, and if you are committed to helping your current people succeed and adapt and evolve and get to the next level, then your job is to figure out how they can succeed in their roles. Which means you need someone who doesn’t need the credit at the end of the day for why, say, a particular news desk is suddenly performing so much better.

Q. Once you started working on the innovation report, you realized that you needed to change course – rather than coming up with a digital product, you needed to focus more on some cultural aspects of how the Times operated. Was that a tough conversation with your bosses at the time?

A. The way I ended up explaining it was this: innovation at the Times was something that we were trying to bolt onto the sides of this giant operation. And I felt really strongly that we needed to devote more attention to the core of what we do. And that was basically the case that I brought to the editor at the time, saying that just a ten percent, or even a one percent improvement, in the core of what we do will make a bigger difference than hitting some other small thing absolutely out of the park.

Q. So the final report was written for a small audience of the top leaders at the paper. But then we all woke up on May 15, 2014, and discovered it had been leaked to BuzzFeed. There was blunt and tough language in there that wasn’t intended for public consumption. How did you react?

A. My heart sank. I felt I had put the Times in a terrible position. Our work on the report had included access to a bunch of internal numbers that were not public, and the writing of the report included some pretty sharp criticism of our direction. I was worried about our colleagues seeing it, I was worried about our competitors seeing it, and I was worried about our shareholders, Wall Street, business partners and advertisers seeing it.

That morning, I was walking through the newsroom and I ran into one of our most accomplished investigative reporters, someone who’s won multiple Pulitzer Prizes. He knows how to ask sharp, tough questions. He pulled me aside and said, “I’ve read the entire report.” And then he said something that really shocked me. He said, “If you started all the way at ‘this place has to change’ and I started all the way at ‘this place has to remain the same,’ your report got me 90 percent of the way to your view. I had no idea what we were going through. But that last 10 percent is full of so many fears and concerns — concerns about myself and whether I’m obsolete, concerns about whether this place is straying from its mission, concerns about whether we’re just following some fad off a cliff.”

And then he gave me the best advice I received in the wake of that report being leaked, which is, “Everyone in this newsroom has some fear that needs to be said aloud and that you need to respond to. You should make it your mission to hear every fear in the newsroom — every question, every concern — because I think you’ve probably thought about them and just getting them out in the open will allow everyone else to lean into change.”

So we did that. We met in groups that we kept to no more than about 30 people, and we set aside 90 minutes for each meeting. We probably saw about 1,200 people, so there were a lot of presentations. The other takeaway I had was that for years the Times had said to its people, the world is changing, so you have to change. “You need to get on social media. You need to file your stories faster. Your stories need to be more visual.”

“We had never given our colleagues the chance to own the problem with us and own the challenge with us. We were just telling them that we had to change.”

But we never explained why. We never really laid out the framework. So you had this profound dissonance of an executive team really versed in the challenges and why we needed to change, and then you had most of the company, the people who actually do the great work that makes this place special, just being told that they had to change without explaining the broader dynamics. In journalism, we have this saying, “Show, don’t tell.”

And we had never shown the problem. We had never given our colleagues the chance to own the problem with us and own the challenge with us. We were just telling them that we had to change.

Q. Do you know who leaked the report?

A. I do not know who leaked it and, in all seriousness, as an institution that receives leaks, I believe really strongly that one of the biggest mistakes that you can make as a leader is to become obsessed with how information became public instead of trying to just meet that information head on. And actually, the leaking of the report really changed my approach to how transparent we should be as a leadership team.

Q. How long did that period of concern last before you said to yourself, it might be okay that the report was leaked?

A. The first day was brutal. The headlines on the internet were about a devastating report, a scathing report, the Times in chaos. I had no idea how my colleagues were going to take it. Like so many people in an institution that really cherishes its traditions, I probably was a cautious incrementalist in how I felt that change should be talked about. But after a day or two, it became really clear that the whole conversation was shifting — that the report felt scary to people but also profoundly empowering, and that for the first time they felt like they really understood the context in which their lives and days and work habits were all changing.

It was opening up this much more honest conversation internally, and externally it had this effect of humanizing an institution that had a reputation for being sort of aloof. It showed that we were wrestling with the same problems that not just the rest of our industry was wrestling with, but that every business in the world was wrestling with, to some extent.

And one of the things I was really struck by in the following weeks and months was how often people in totally different industries reached out to me to say that they were using our report as a playbook for interrogating how they needed to change. It was striking how many hundreds of innovation reports were done at other organizations.

One European journalist who ran an innovation report team told me that after she handed the report to her bosses, they took out all the tough stuff. It takes real spine to have the uncomfortable truths widely shared in your organization. It’s a rare thing, but necessary. Because once you take out the tough stuff, what you have is sort of a bland call for change, and I’m not sure what a bland call for change has ever accomplished.

Q. What other takeaways do you have?

A. I do not believe in silver bullets. I was really struck, in the course of reporting this document, by what I heard when I went to a journalism gathering called the Online News Association Conference. All the traditional media folks were walking around, basically with hat in hand, saying, what do I do? What’s the secret? How do I become digitally successful? And all the digital folks were walking around, extremely confident, answering that question with an absolute “The future of news is X.”

I cannot tell you the number of different things I heard the future of news was, and some of them were ridiculous. Some would say the future of news is social distribution. The future of news is citizen journalism. Others would say the future of news is drones. What became really clear to me is that none of those folks had the answer either, and that all of them were placing bets. I learned that rather than try to copy playbooks, what we should actually be doing is trying to understand what grains of truth were contained in a multitude of bets. I don’t think the silver-bullet method of change works.

“Communication is often the last item on the checklist but it’s always the most important.”

Another big takeaway, and a surprise, was just how much appetite there was in the newsroom for conversations about the report. Many people said they couldn’t remember the last time they had been a part of an open, searching conversation about the company, our strategy, and how we’re executing. It’s a just a reminder that communication is often the last item on the checklist but it’s always the most important.

If you want to lead change in an organization, communication needs to be one of the top items, because leading change means getting everyone not just on the same page but also unlearning habits and learning new skills. And you’re just going to have to successfully communicate throughout that whole process. Finally, I wanted the final innovation report to consist entirely of stuff that was unequivocally true.

Q. Unpack that last point for me.

A. My feeling was that it’s so easy, if you have a big document and platform to articulate your view of the future, to throw a lot of your pet ideas in there. Someone might say, I think the way we write stories should change like this, or that that we should be looking for these particular qualities in leaders. But that model is problematic for getting a consensus around the need to change, because you’re introducing ideas that reasonable people can disagree with. And once you’ve introduced ideas that reasonable people can disagree with, you’ve created a relationship with your recommendations that feels like it could be a matter of opinion. What I wanted was to fly at an altitude where we were certain about every recommendation that we included.

Our statements were backed by data, and even with the things that were softer, they were things you plainly couldn’t argue with. For example, it’s probably not smart to systematically treat the population with the highest flight risk and who are most valued in the broader talent market as second-class citizens, and watch them systematically leave for your main emerging rivals like BuzzFeed and Huffington Post, bringing with them their skillsets and experience from the Times.

My feeling was that if we get these bigger things right, the conversation about how our journalists needs to change will happen organically. In our second internal roadshow meeting, someone who had worked at the Times for 30 years said, “It feels like this report beat around the bush on a really important thing.” And I said, “What’s that?” They said, “I think our journalism might need to change, too.” It was so much more productive for that conversation to come up from the newsroom rather than out of a committee room.

Q. So how did the process of change unfold?

A. Dean Baquet, our executive editor, said something to me that I repeated probably every other day for two years, which is that for an institution to change it needs to separate mission from tradition. Mission should never be tinkered with. You mess with mission at your own risk. Tradition needs to be constantly interrogated. Now tradition isn’t necessarily bad. There are traditions that, once you interrogate them, hold up perfectly. And some companies undergoing change will tear up tradition for the sake of tearing up tradition, and that’s a mistake. But traditions also shouldn’t be kept around for their own sake.

The most important thing you have to figure out in order to change a company or change the culture of a company is what is not going to change. The reason for that is that if everything is up for grabs, if you can change literally anything about a company, then the company has no reason for being. And if the company has no reason for being then some younger, hungrier startup should come and displace you, anyway.

“The most important thing you have to figure out in order to change a company or change the culture of a company is what is not going to change.”

Once you’re able to articulate your reason for being and what’s not going to change, that needs to be communicated really aggressively throughout the company. And if your answer to that is persuasive, it gives people way more permission to lean into change. So for us, what were we not going to change? What is our mission? It is original, reported, independent, on the ground, expert journalism that’s fair and accurate. The journalism was not going to change, but everything else can change if it will better service that mission. A big part of my job in terms of communicating with the newsroom staff was getting everyone to understand that we were all aligned around that, which gave everyone permission to sign on for the journey.

Q. There were clear silos in the Times – the newsroom, editorial and business side – that had built up over decades, often for good reasons of journalistic independence. But it’s hard to get everyone working together in an “us versus them” culture.

A. We didn’t just wall off the parts that represented a legitimate potential for conflict of interest. We also walled off all the other stuff you needed to run a high-functioning news organization. On the other side of the “wall” from the newsroom was human resources, our finance, strategy, product design and technology teams. One of the perverse results was that the folks who were creating the experiences of our journalism weren’t allowed to talk to our journalists. So part of my goal was to figure out what we were protecting against and make sure we continue to protect against that, and then find a way to work together across the company.

The next step for us as a company was articulating our strategy for meeting our digital challenge. But we took a bunch of time and tried to figure out what our path was in this increasingly complex and competitive environment. We released a document called “Our Path Forward” that articulated our strategy as a digital-subscription company, which was a massive change from our historic roots as an ad-supported company.

We did that early and aggressively and have repeated it relentlessly for years now. I think that’s a big reason why we’re in such a strong position today, because it meant that for the first time, almost everyone in the building was waking up and thinking about the same person: the reader. For the first time our entire business was built around making journalism that is so good that it is worth paying for in a world of free alternatives. And that is our business.

Q. Final thoughts on managing change through digital disruption?

A. Inevitably, if you are leading change in an organization, you’re going to try some things that will work and some things that won’t work. And when some of the things don’t work, you’re going to stop doing them, and some people are going to say, “See, you guys don’t really know what you’re doing. You’re wasting our time. A year ago, you said that that this was going to be a big thing and today it’s just disappeared altogether.”

One of the ways I’ve dealt with that is to say, “There is no playbook for us. We are not following a map here. We are blazing a trail. And we are going to try some things that will work and we will try some things that won’t work and it may be a waste of your time. And a year from now you may be grumbling at me and saying why did you ever think this was a good idea at all? But here’s why we’re trying it and here’s what we hope it will do for us if it does work. And if it doesn’t, I’ll explain why.”

Follow Adam Bryant and Merryck & Co. on LinkedIn to see more.