20 Years of the NY Times, What’s Changed?

I’ve been involved in digital marketing, and specifically online marketing for a very long time.  Recently reading that the New York Times went online 20 years ago, made me reflect on what’s happened in those 20 years.  Very succinctly “not much has changed”.  A quote from the article in which they cite the thinking of launching the NY Times online was “Now, of all the things, of all the decisions that have been made, I think that one is the most seminal. The idea to publish what was, in essence, the newspaper instead of going in a different direction at the outset.”

Simply put our inability to think of technology differently, to enable different experiences has significantly limited the evolution of the web as a medium. When I first began building websites, in many ways it felt like there was more experimentation going on. Yes this meant many bad websites, but it also meant you had the ability to blend multiple media elements (Video, text, animation) together.  Maybe we didn’t always fully realize this experience but I can’t fault designers of the time for trying.  Maybe it’s because there were no “experts” around to tell us what was wrong and what was right.

While I appreciate the need for standards, and the focus on usability, and I recall very clearly listening as we looked at a redesign for a major website, and the question being posed, “Do you want to sell product? or do you want to re-teach people how to surf the web?”  And there it is.  At the end of the day if your objective is to sell or monetize through digital means, you don’t want to be avant garde.  It’s to your advantage, to be simple, predictable, and easy to use.

So the question is how do you combine innovation with predictable results that won’t impact your users.  A/B testing runs the risk of surfacing tests that favour vanilla experiences.  Much like taking a PC user who’s never used a Mac to understand the concept of a mouse with one button to click, you see a decline in usability, until the user adapts to the new input method.  Sometimes results don’t come immediately, until a critical mass adapts and adjusts their behavior. Sometimes it’s OK to take big swings.  I would love to see more sites integrating the full gamut of media utilizing, video, text, animation, and creative ways in which to integrate and connect these media online.

For some reason we’ve made the barrier of entry for video on most commercial sites extremely high, we’ve focused more on the polish for video, and less on the content. Yet we see massive content marketing machines that churn out reams of text content all day long, of low or little value. Brands worry about taking chances on what they produce outside of text content.  Not to drive innovation for innovation’s sake, but to explore how to use the full pallet available to them in this digital world.

The Ubers and the Airbnbs of the world didn’t do anything radical, instead they looked at how to use the media to connect people.  To create economies based on connections and relationships, in which they act as the intermediary, creating the on demand economy.What if the NY Times had said instead “Let’s utilize the web to provide people real time news in which we enable them to be the reporters”?  Would we have ended up with a print version posted online? or would we have seen a radical shift in how journalism is reported much sooner?

The point is we’ve been talking about disruption for several years now. Every industry is ripe for disruption, and yet very few of them appear to be asking questions, such as:

  1. If I were to build this business today, how would I build it?
  2. If I were to talk to customers of business in my industry, what would I hear from them?
  3. What are all the things we did wrong as an industry? And what did we get right?

Reflecting on your business model, the customer, and thinking about how you could invert everything on it’s side isn’t easy, talking to customers isn’t comfortable if you’re an established business.  Nobody wants to hear about all the things they do wrong. Nobody wants to admit they could have done something better. It’s not an easy thing to do.  Innovation however isn’t driven by the easy things, it’s driven by the difficult questions, and willingness to not destroy your business, but recognize the changes required, and implementing those changes faster than anyone else.

It’s been 20 years and we’re still just putting the news online.  It may look nicer, it may happen faster, but we’re still just doing what we did 20 years ago, and we’re complaining about ad-blocking technology… really??? And it’s not just print, many industries haven’t made radical shifts, until an upstart shows up and disrupts everything or a technology changes that limits your revenue model, but by then it’s too late. Don’t wait another 20 years to watch your business become irrelevant.  Decide today what your business needs to be for tomorrow.

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