SMPA professor goes behind the scenes at the New York Times

SMPA professor Nikki Usher spoke about her time in the the New York Times newsroom and ways the paper must change to survive in the future. Samira Uddin | Hatchet Photographer
School of Media and Public Affairs professor Nikki Usher spoke about her time in the the New York Times newsroom and ways the paper must change to survive in the future.
Samira Uddin | Hatchet Photographer
This post was written by Hatchet reporter Zach Bernsten.

What do you learn when you shadow some of the best journalists in the business for almost a year?

School of Media and Public Affairs professor Nikki Usher told a group of students and faculty about that experience this week. After spending five months researching how the New York Times makes news, she talked about her latest book, “Making News at ‘The New York Times,’” which was released in April.

Here are three major takeaways.

1. Revenue woes

During her time in the Times newsroom, she said she noticed the highly-regarded news outlet was experiencing the same problem as nearly every other major newspaper: declining revenue.

The Times counted just 80,000 new subscribers over the past two years, forcing officials to find alternative money-making sources. Homepage traffic for its website decreased from 160 million to 80 million over the past two years, she said.

Usher discussed different ways the Times tried to entice new subscribers, including launching new applications, but she said there was little faith within the organization that the efforts would attract new readers.

“They keep throwing out all these new, weird applications, like NYT Now, and they just put up the New York Times First Draft, and all sorts of these new products,” she said. “They’re putting out a food app trying to get you to subscribe.”

2. Staying relevant with scoops

Usher said she watched the Times fight to break the biggest stories and prevent other news outlets from being able to re-report the Times’ work as their own.

She said the organization would sometimes wait until 9 p.m., the deadline for the Wall Street Journal, to publish big stories so the Journal would not be able to pick up the story for its next-day print edition.

During the financial crisis of 2008, the Times broke a story about Goldman Sachs’ dishonesty with investors. Usher said while the story was first released online by the New York Times, it was immediately picked up by another outlet, which she said can be a major problem for newspapers trying to stay relevant while transitioning to digital media.

“All of that glory that comes with breaking a news story is just eviscerated,” she said. “Nobody’s going to know that the New York Times broke that story.”

3. Wanted: Access to analytics

Usher touched on her thoughts about potential strategies for how the Times could regain influence.

She said a better system for knowing who is reading each story will be crucial to the success of the newspaper. That would require analytics to help journalists gain a better sense of which articles and topics are spreading more at a particular time.

“There’s actually no sense among most Times journalists on how their stories are performing online, and the Time wants to keep it that way,” she said. “My guess is that’s going to change.”

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