The New York Times, like all newspapers, is in big trouble.
Unlike other papers, though, they’ve got a shot. And we can all learn a lesson about focusing on the great (by looking at what they should be doing, anyway).
All the News That’s Fit to Print used to be the motto they lived by. Of course, now, all the news that fits = the web. Unlimited space and free newsprint means the web can actually hold all the news. "Fit" is a big question mark.
So, where can the Times excel?
I’d argue they have two opportunities:
1. If it’s in the Times, it’s true
2. If it’s in the Times, it’s important
I should clarify. By ‘true’, I mean vetted as well as can be vetted, I mean more true than other places. They can never reach this level of course, but they can try harder than most and they can be transparent and they can admit when they’re wrong and correct it. Lots of noise online, not so much truth.
By ‘important’, I mean ‘important because everyone else is reading the same thing.’ So, for example, the NY Times bestseller list is important. A half page story about the last factory making washboards is important. A glowing, thoughtful review of an overlooked opera is important. It’s important because the Times becomes one of the last cultural touchstones, the thing the other smart people read.
The mistake the Times is making, over and over and over again, is that few of the stories in the paper are edited with these wins in mind. I’m just not sure that anyone there has a list of what they’re great at, or want to be great at.
Monday featured TWO stories about Barbara Walters and her new book. Why? We don’t need the Times for ‘truth’ here, and while it may be important to Knopf and to Barbara, it’s not really that important to us.
Sunday, my local version of the Times featured an in-depth restaurant review of the Olive Garden! And it was for a location 30 miles from my house (they’re saving money by combining regional editions). Ouch.
If I were editing the Times, I’d look at every single editorial feature, every single article and ask if it met either of the two things the Times could stand for. If not, that piece should be gone, deleted, unassigned. No sports section, for example. If you can’t be the best in the world, don’t bother, because someone else is going to get my attention. The Times needs 50 more bestseller lists, 20 more trusted stories about real political fact and insight, ten more cultural touchstone features… and a lot less filler, a lot less copycat stuff and nothing, nothing about Barbara Walters.
[Not because I don’t like Barbara Walters. Merely because a link to the other sites that can happily review and sell me her book is far more effective than wasting time and resources flogging a book that needs no flogging. Pick 20 books a day and point to them, don’t write vapid features about three every week. The Times does better when they find something we don’t know about and celebrate it instead.]
These choices represent the same quandary you face. Your product line, your choices, your services… if you obsess about doing the thing you are great at and let the mediocre stuff go, you’ll do far better.
What are you great at? What if you did it exclusively?