Friday, January 30, 2009

How the New York Times can save itself

The New York Times is struggling, right? Its parent company just accepted a $250 million investment from a Mexican businessman. And now there are reports it's looking to sell its share of the Boston Red Sox in order to raise cash. That, after news that its revenue for the last quarter of 2008 fell almost 50% over the comparable period the previous year.

As inconceivable as it sounds, the Times could actually go under.

But it doesn't have to.

There is, in fact, a simple way it can save itself: Go open source.

The Times should lay itself open on the table. Put it all out there. What's working. What's not. Where revenues are coming from. Where they're not. What areas are getting traffic. What isn't. Lay everything out in the open that right now is only discussed in closed board rooms.

Then, invite the world to share ideas about how to get the Times on more solid footing. What should get more coverage? What should get less? How should they rejigger the entire format of the newspaper, how should they integrate social media, how should they use interaction with readers to change the way they report? Where should they look for new revenue streams? What current streams should they jettison?

Do that, and I promise you, the ideas will roll in.

Sure, some of those ideas will be rubbish. Some will be ingenious, but ultimately unworkable. And some will hold the kernels of the solution.

Why not do this? What does the Times have to lose? Nothing, right? I mean, if they're going down anyway, why not open themselves up and see if some smart soul out there -- or souls, plural, more likely -- has a brainstorm.

As the good folks at Wikinomics say, when it comes to innovation, when it comes to creating something entirely new:
"Increasingly, you should assume the best people live outside your organization."
[emphasis mine]

In other words, the folks at the New York Times may be the best out there at beat reporting, investigative journalism, and even long-form narrative (via the Magazine). But when it comes to figuring out the future of journalism, the simple odds are that the smartest people who can help them figure out how to move forward are not within the walls of the Grey Lady. Not even, necessarily, within the walls of any consulting firms they might have retained to help them. They are somewhere out there.

So why not solicit their help? You'd tap the best people for your investigative teams, wouldn't you? Why not do the same for, well, your very survival?

So what do they have to lose?

Well, there is one thing. They'll lose their seat on Mount Olympus. They'll lose their status as the "be all and end all" of the journalism world. They'll have to admit that they're human, just like the rest of us.

The sad thing is, this isn't really a big deal. Anyone who's ever fallen from grace--a high school sports star who gets to college and realizes she's not really all that, a middle manager who flubs and gets demoted back to individual contributor, a parent who messes up big in front of their kid--anyone who's ever been through that knows two things: a) it totally sucks and b) it's never the end of the world. In many cases, in fact, it opens up whole new vistas.

So, come on New York Times. It's time to do the thing that, at some point in life, everyone finds themselves having to do: Ask for help.

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