Industry Icon Martin Nisenholtz on Digital Journalism, Today & Tomorrow

As noted earlier, as part of SHIFT’s work for the Pivot Conference, I’m talking to several industry luminaries.  The guest star of this post, Martin Nisenholtz, is – well, the man’s an icon.  Before we progress to the interview, here’s a blurb from the NYTimes article announcing his recent departure from the Gray Lady:

Martin A. Nisenholtz, a senior vice president at The New York Times Company who helped start the Web site for the company’s namesake newspaper and later carried out a plan to charge online readers, is retiring at the end of the year, the company announced Monday.

In a message to the staff, Arthur Sulzberger Jr., the chairman, and Janet L. Robinson, the chief executive, noted Mr. Nisenholtz’s role in shaping The Times’s Web strategy from its infancy. When Mr. Nisenholtz joined the company in 1995, they said, “we had zero Web page views. Indeed, we had zero Web users. Further, we had no Web revenue. Today, thanks in large measure to Martin’s vision and leadership, our digital numbers are dramatically different.”

Mr. Nisenholtz, 56, was involved in virtually every major digital initiative at The Times, from the creation of the Web site to multiplatform projects involving mobile phones and tablets.

See? An icon.

An edited version of the lengthy chat I had with this genuine world beater is below, and is cross-posted at the Pivot site:

Q: Martin, can we talk about the 24 hour news cycle?  Do you think this “always on” style of reporting has helped or hurt the journalism profession?  Now you can read only the news you agree with, with little regard for competing views…

Nytimes120406_3_560A: I think it’s done both. It’s certainly helped in the sense that it’s made the news product a lot more vibrant, in real time.  It’s exciting to have a product that’s continuously updated and changing.  The whole point of the web is to be always on and so I think that’s been a big positive. The problem is that it introduces a very significant level of risk; you have to work doubly hard to make sure that that the stuff you put out there is true. 

It’s easy to idealize the Walter Cronkite days a little bit: it was easier to create a sense of community because there were only a handful of sources; there wasn’t a lot of diversity in news production.  The danger in today’s environment is that you can lose a sense of serendipity.  One of the problems with having such a kind of directed, niche view of the world is that you don’t see stuff that you don’t care about; that’s something to be pretty mindful of and I think it’s something that the Times does particularly well. Part of the reason that people read the Times is because of that serendipity. It’s not so much because readers are looking for stuff that they know they want, but because they’re looking to be surprised with that editorial overlay.  That’s a valuable thing and it will be for a very long time.

Q: From a business perspective, journalism has been on a bit of a long, slow slide for a while now, with many theories about how the industry can save itself, etc.  Let’s pick one area of discussion, the role of SEO and advertising.  Should journalists care about the number of clicks one of their stories might get?

A: That’s a great question.  Do I think people should care about how many clicks they get? No, in essence I don’t think that is something reporters should care too much about. Here’s why: in a great news organization it is not just a popularity contest; rather, the job is to make sure that the folks reading the product have a breadth of worthwhile content available.

If you look at the stuff that gets tons of clicks on websites, often times it is very interesting stuff, there’s no question about that, but a lot of it is the opinion and health content – how to lead a healthier life, exercise more, etc. What you won’t see in those cases are stories about the war in Afghanistan or the revolt in Syria because frankly people just for whatever reason aren’t as focused on that stuff.

Let’s assume that a story about the “ten most important exercises” gets 20x the number of clicks as the story about Tunisia.  Does that mean that the health story is 20x more important or interesting than the story on Tunisia? No, and that’s my point: the reporter who is writing the story about Tunisia shouldn’t have to feel that they’re a failure because they didn’t get the number of clicks that the health story received.

The end result of a website that is single mindedly obsessed with driving clicks in order to get more advertising revenue is a narrowing of a content to appeal to the lowest common denominator.  I don’t want to sound like an idealistic fool in saying that it doesn’t matter whether people see that content or not. My point is that in a great news organization you have that diversity of content and the more popular stuff makes up for the less popular stuff. 

Q:  You’ve talked about the importance of engagement in some of your keynotes and addresses. What does the media industry need to think about to continue to reach the digital reader?

A:  First, “engagement” is probably an overused word.  Let’s talk about getting and keeping customers, because that’s what counts, especially as we’ve talked about the business needs of the industry.  And the metrics that people have used over the years to measure and define success have taken people in an odd direction.  Media companies are kidding themselves if they think they have customers because ComScore or Nielsen has told them they have X number of users a month:  someone who clicks a link on Google, reads your article without really knowing where they are, and then hits the Back button is not a customer.  Once you start to actually charge people for the stuff that you do, that’s when you know whether you have customers.

What are the techniques to ramp up those customers interactions?  A lot of the current techniques used in news sites have come from e-commerce (e.g., Amazon) and that is positive but the industry is now experimenting heavily with techniques in the social space.  Clearly the folks in the social area understand engagement probably better than anyone else. So, to the extent that the media and the news industry in particular can take advantage of that they should. 

But there is no silver bullet.  Look at Facebook.  They have a billion customers.  They have more engagement than anyone else.  Look at their metrics; they’re amazing; no news organization will ever be as large or as engaged as Facebook.  Yet even Facebook is having trouble justifying its valuation because these advertiser-only models are very difficult to make work.  Facebook is fine, Facebook is going to be very successful but keep in mind, no one is paying for it.  It’s very challenging to create sustainable engagement models that also lead to sustainable businesses.

Q: Anything that particularly worries you about the future of journalism?

A: The one dark cloud is that so much of the content that people have put into aggregators comes from traditional news organizations that are funded in large part through offline businesses.  More than anything the local news industry is like that so the one thing that we need to be somewhat mindful of is that in most local places, most cities, the major news organization is the newspaper and those places have been in crisis now for several years.  You don’t really want a situation where a city isn’t adequately covered by journalists. It is possible that in some places bloggers or citizen journalists are trying to make up for that, but it’s hard for a citizen journalist to do a deep dive over a long, sustainable period.  To cover a municipal corruption case, for example, takes real resources and it’s not clear to me that citizen journalists are going to be able to do that in a consistent way. I’m not saying that they can’t do it, just that it needs to be done day after day, year after year – not once or twice.

Q: You’re an industry legend.  Is there anything in particular from your experience that you hope the industry learns?  Do you have any predictions about the way people will consume news in the future?

A: The most important thing is quality.  I don’t mean quality just in terms of the writing or the editing, but also the overall user experience, the overall feeling that the product gives you.  The guy proved that for retail is Steve Jobs: look at what he was able to do in a completely commoditized industry.  To the extent that I’ve been able to learn anything about business, I learned from Steve Jobs and Apple to focus on quality and usually a lot of the other stuff takes care of itself.

With respect to the future, nobody has a crystal ball, but directionally, just consider what people use today to read the news.  Thinking back, most of these modes of consumption didn’t exist a few years ago; a few years ago there would have been other things that now seem archaic.  The general rule has always been it will get more and more diverse and fragmented.  That’s been the trend for the last twenty years and I don’t see that stopping.  Not only is there a whole lot of content available globally that’s of very high quality, but you can organize it and read it in ways that make that content so much more accessible and easy than it was twenty years ago or even five years ago.

From a user perspective, it’s kind of a golden age. 

… The more I speak to folks like Martin, who have made waves with Social and are willing to share their experiences, the more excited for Pivot I become. If you are interested in hearing more from Martin and others of his caliber, I encourage you to register for Pivot. As a special thank you to readers, you can receive 20 percent off registration fees by using code: SHIFT20.

Posted on: September 13, 2012 at 9:51 am By Todd Defren
5 Responses to “Industry Icon Martin Nisenholtz on Digital Journalism, Today & Tomorrow”


  • Peter says:

    Wow. That’s great.

  • Gayle Baigelman says:

    With the advent of instantaneous information, the kind of in-depth, long-term journalism and analysis provided by organizations like the New York Times is more important than ever. A few years ago I was at a conference where the head of the news division at NBC commented that if, during WW2, we had access to immediate unfiltered information, the outcome of the war might of been different. Photos of London being bombed would have felt like “the end of the world” to many. Clearly, if information = power (and we know it does – we’ve seen it in action), then we have more responsiblity than ever to analyze and wield that information carefully.

  • Zeeland says:

    A great interview with a great man.

  • Tony says:

    Wow! Great interview! Just a question – how do you come about interviewing people like him?

  • Charles Hall says:

    Martin Nisenholtz has changed the face of journalism completely. This change brought news and newspapers into the future. The most impressive part of what Mr. Nisenholtz has done is monetize news, newspapers have always come at a cost to the consumer, then the internet came along and all of a sudden people could access all kinds of news with out having to pay for it. This put the newspapers in a difficult situation, lowered readership led to a decline in the amount of money available to pay journalists. Then Nisenholtz came up with a way to make readers pay to gain access not to news but to the quality of news that comes from the New York Times. It is not just paying to read the Times, but instead gaining access to exclusive news stories and reports that are not available to people who choose not to pay. This brings to question for the reader, why should I pay for the news when I can find it other places for free? The Times provides quality news reports that not only cover the breaking news but provide indepth reports that other free publications cannot duplicate. Thanks to Mr. Nisenholtz the Times can continue to employ journalists comitted to providing the public with not just the sensationalist stories we see on TV but the in depth news reports the public deserves to know about.

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