As a New York Times technology reporter and its deputy editor for digital operations, Amy O’Leary has had a hand in many of the paper’s efforts to stay viable in the age of the Internet, including the much-discussed innovation report released in May. O’Leary was one of 10 co-authors of the 96-page report, summarized by our sister publication the Nieman Journalism Lab. Recommended strategies include focusing on audience development, creating a newsroom strategy team, and prioritizing hiring for digital jobs. Though she is no longer deputy editor for digital operations—she has moved to the Times’s international desk—O’Leary is still an authority when it comes to digital storytelling. She spoke at the Nieman Foundation in November.
What do you think of the response to the innovation report?
It’s crazy. Over a million people downloaded it, first of all. We’ve had calls from everywhere from universities to libraries to museums to a whole set of newspapers, especially overseas. I’ve hosted journalists from Sweden, Greece, Argentina, Spain.
There are also a lot of journalists who have been given an assignment from their editor to go make an innovation report for their own company, which I think is insane.
I’m glad if the work can help raise all boats. Fundamentally, we all got disrupted by the same thing, which was the Internet. Again, none of these ideas were original to us. There were no geniuses on the team who figured this out. We just collected all of the best wisdom that had been lying around on the shop floor and packaged it up.
We’re totally different than almost every other newsroom. We’re 1,300 people. [In mid-December the Times began a round of layoffs and buyouts that will shrink this number.] We’re huge. We have all these specialty teams. But I think the principles are universal. You can’t just publish a story in the most crowded content landscape in all of human history and expect people to find it. I think that’s universal.
How much of what you’ve recommended has started to happen ?
When we were building the report, we thought we would be lucky if the leadership took one of the five recommendations. As soon as they read it, which was about a month or two before it was leaked to the public, both administrations, under Jill Abramson and Dean Baquet, enthusiastically embraced all five.
I’ve been at The New York Times about eight years working almost exclusively in a capacity where I’m trying to further digital change. I have never seen in that time any single thing that changed people’s hearts and minds more persuasively or thoroughly.
We have an audience development team now. We have a strategy team now. We’re growing our use of data. We are having fluid and frequent conversations with those reader experience teams. And we’ve really ramped up some unusual digital hiring.
The thing that really struck me with the innovation report is the question of how to make change happen in the newsroom, which could require journalists to leave behind older methods. How do you deal with this cultural change?
In my experience, there have only been three real things that have caused fundamental change in the newsroom. One is when you have leadership, strong leadership saying this is where we’re going, this is where I want all of you to head.
The second one, which I’ve been very motivated about for a couple years now, is data. I could go to an editor or department head and say, “This needs to change” … but, man, nothing works faster and as efficiently as showing them what you are doing is not reaching readers.
The third—and I have to add this, normally I would’ve just told you the two—the third is what the innovation report experience has taught me. That was a completely unique, weird, isolated event in New York Times’s history to have this 100‑page report that was super well researched, edited within an inch of its life, to be a good read. And then it was leaked in this bizarre way at a time when The New York Times was going through this difficult leadership transition.
We wrote it as a persuasive document. We put right up front really negative numbers about our home page traffic. That was how it kicked off. We shared data about competitors that were growing readership at an astounding pace. We used negative data that unsettled people and then gave them a pathway out. It said, yes, this stuff is unsettling, but if we buckle down and really embrace this discipline of audience development, we can compete. People just latched onto that.
How do you see the change from desktop to mobile? Do you think that it’s going to be the next step for The New York Times newsroom to create other small teams dedicated to mobile?
No, because I think mobile has to be infused throughout the newsroom. More than half of our digital readership is on mobile. It always makes me crazy how we write stories differently for the front page. The editors and the apparatus have all this work they do to deal with the printed jump off of A1. We don’t have any thinking that goes into how we write stories for mobile. I think these technologies will fundamentally change the basic structures.
If you’re teaching the inverted pyramid at some journalism school, how does that connect to mobile? All those structures and formats that we learned in school were developed for an earlier era. I think there’s going to be a lot of innovation in this area but I don’t think we have the luxury of time of siloing it in little teams yet. I think everybody’s got to figure it out pretty quickly.
What aspects of an in-depth feature work better in multimedia? Do you have any practical advice?
Again, I would really encourage you to pay attention to your own attention span. It’s hard, because we fall in love with our tape, we fall in love with our sources, we think our story’s the most important thing in the world. If you’re not able to be brutal with your own material, focus group it. Get your friend, your roommate, your mom. Moms are great because they’re like, “What is this crazy technology?” Sorry, didn’t mean to knock moms.
Road test it. One of the things that journalists don’t typically do is use testing. If you look at any Silicon Valley start-up, they’re testing shit constantly. They’re testing it all the time. We try new stuff, and we still rely on gut editorial judgment, which can be great for covering the news, but it’s not great when you’re building a new product.