Could Crowdsourcing Help Save the New York Times?


New York TimesThe New York Times is in trouble, big-time. That’s about all everybody can agree on. (The opinions on consequences and options differ widely. Check out The Atlantic’s judgement and Jeff Jarvis’ comments, for example.) To get an idea of how bad the newspaper is hit, here’s the figures quoted in The Atlantic:

Earnings reports released by the New York Times Company in October indicate that drastic measures will have to be taken over the next five months or the paper will default on some $400million in debt. With more than $1billion in debt already on the books, only $46million in cash reserves as of October, and no clear way to tap into the capital markets (the company’s debt was recently reduced to junk status), the paper’s future doesn’t look good.

Now that’s the NYTimes. For other papers the future looks even more bleak. After all, the NYTimes has some advantages over their competitors: A long-standing tradition and strong brand, national (rather: world-wide) distribution, and extremely high journalistic standards. Also, being the respected news organization the NYTimes is, they have a strong supporter community. (I’ll come back to the community at the end of this post.) That said, continuing business as usual surely isn’t an option. So what is?

Cutting costs has been proposed a great many times (and sadly led to mass layoffs). Micropayments have been discussed. Ditching print for online has been proposed and done. (The Christian Science Monitor will switch from print to online-only this April.)

A completely different way, and probably a much better one, is the one proposed by Janet L. Robinson, the president and chief executive of The New York Times Company. Instead of cutting down, Robinson proposes to aim at keeping up the major asset the NYTimes has over it’s competitors – high-quality journalism:

“As other newspapers cut back on international and national coverage, or cease operations, we believe there will be opportunities for The Times to fill that void,” she said, for both readers and advertisers.

This sounds like a plausible way to go. More importantly, though, it also just like a generally good idea, eh? The New York Times has proven over and over again, that they know how to work the web, and have experimented a good deal over the years. Just now, they launched a prototype of an experimental user interface, the Article Skimmer. (More prototypes.) Certainly not the next big thing, but a solid experiment in other ways of displaying news.

NYTimes Article Skimmer New York Times Article Skimmer Prototype (Screenshot)

But back to the community. The NYTimes clearly has a strong, and large, community of supporters. (And that’s both private readers and instituions of all sorts.) Couldn’t the paper go the way of many a web projects and give their community the chance to support them directly? We’re talking community support of all sorts: Fundraising, marketing, but also content. Why not adapt a citizen reporter segment of sorts, a strong online community site, all that kind of stuff? Surely there must be a way to crowdsource for effort and cash when one of the flagships of old-school quality journalism is at stake?

I would give a few bucks to rescue the NYTimes. And I’m not even based in the U.S.

Why Social Media Will Help (Not Suffer) in the Crisis


Robot by Flickr user genewolf, released under Creative Commons by-nd 2.0Ever since the financial crisis hit the stock and real estate markets, there’s been a fair bit of discussion about its impact on the web scene. Venture capitalists Sequoia made some powerpoint slides that became quite famous. That was one month ago. (Others, more recently, have been way more positive. Describing the atmosphere at Web 2.0 Expo Berlin, Nancy Williams speaks of optimism, which would be my interpretation as well.) Ever since, I’ve been asked a lot by friends and colleagues if I felt a downturn in business (short answer: no) or if I expected to see one (short answer: not really). It got me thinking about the role of Social Media in times of crisis; here’s a brief summary of my thoughts.

Social Media, I think, won’t suffer through the financial crisis, not at all. Quite the contrary, really: Even if the crisis killed the ad market (which I don’t think it will), Social Media will at least stay very stable. Rather than that, I assume they’ll grow even quicker than before. This isn’t simple optimism at work here, but rather a mix of both the work-related requests I’ve been getting over the last few weeks and months, and of some very simple reasoning:

Where users/customers/guests are insecure, they are less likely to spend money on products, services and companies they don’t know. Instead, they turn towards trusted sources: Ones they know personally or that are recommended by trusted folks. Trust must be earned. And that’s the core business of Social Media.

I don’t know about you (but I’m curious, please share in the comments), but I base my purchase decisions on a mix of research, instant gratification and recommendations by experts and friends. (If you’re lucky, the latter two overlap.) My extended network plays a crucial role there. Yes, I’m speaking of the folks I interact with primarily online: via Twitter, Skype, my blog. This is where the mavens of the web world hang out, this is where I turn to advice (and am being asked for advice, too).

So, short and simple: If someone has money to spend, they won’t throw it at a random faceless company. They’ll turn to those brands who’re open and approachable. They might even speak to them before deciding. And you know what? That’s good for both sides.

Example? Before buying my beloved messenger bag from Alchemy Goods, I had some very specific questions about it. Within a few hours the owner himself, Eli Reich, had answered them in a brief, but informative and personal email. I got it right away, even though it meant ordering a bag all the way from Seattle to Berlin and picking it up at the customs office. And I couldn’t be happier with it. This might seem weird, but I don’t think I’m the only one thinking like this. Lesson learned #1: Listen and respond to your customers. Lesson learned #2: It doesn’t matter which tools you use (Alchemy Goods isn’t on Twitter) as long as you get the basics right.

So am I worried about the financial crisis? Not really. (Knock on woods!) Actually, I’m pretty psyched about the way Social Media will hopefully be embraced by companies outside the tech sphere now. Let’s see where it’ll all go!

Image: Robot by genewolf, released under Creative Commons (by-nd 2.0)