The New York Times Should Be a Social Network

The New York Times web site has gotten much better in the past year, but that hasn’t stopped their stock price from sinking like they have rocks in their pockets. And the sale of the Wall Street Journal shows that family ownership is no bulwark against predatory forces.

To survive in recognizable form the Times needs to accelerate their transition from a newspaper company to an information company. They need to find a sustainable business model before someone buys them and either remakes the company in their own image, or bleeds it dry.

One important step they should take: become a social network.

Social networks benefit from an organizing principle. MySpace sprang from the natural aggregators of bands and music, Facebook from academic communities. News as an organizing principle is potentially larger and stickier than either of those, and has the potential to foster a more engaged, less inane community, a social network for adults. In the real world the Times already facilitates social networking: people talk about what’s in the news, and they especially talk about what’s in the Times.

There has been an enormous amount of me-too bandwagoneering around social networks, but in the case of the Times this move makes strategic sense, and can be accomplished gracefully and incrementally. First, allow users to create public profiles, tied to their comments and other site activities. Allow comments on news stories as well as blog posts. Let readers vote up good comments, à la Amazon (and USA Today). Let readers create and join interest groups, and talk to each other.

In practice the Times would be a confederacy of networks. The people talking about books on Paper Cuts and about parenting on Judith Warner’s blog would not be the same polemicists attacking each other on the op-ed pages. This is a good thing. With the depth of content on the Times, there’s something for everyone.

Two things they should not change: the requirement that commenters register, and editorial oversight of comments. The air of gravitas that hangs over the Times is a feature, not a bug, and high standards are and should remain a positive differentiator.

How does journalism fit into this? As it always has: professional journalism should remain the heart of the Times endeavor. But creating an ecology of engaged readers around the professional content could significantly extend the Times reach, raise traffic levels, and create the possibility for significant new revenue streams. A social networking strategy works hand in hand with the Times historic mission of democratizing information, and it would dovetail nicely with recent experiments like My Times.

Other changes that should accompany this shift:

  • Nix mandatory registration. The slight benefit it offers (to advertisers; it doesn’t benefit readers at all) is far outweighed by the downsides. Create an engaging network and people will register on their own.
  • Get people who have led successful Internet companies on the board and in senior management. See my previous post on Marc Andreessen’s piece (which is what got me thinking about all this in the first place).
  • Enter the local news arena. Partner with the likes of, EveryBlock, or my employer, The web excels at local and neighborhood information, and there are ad dollars to be had. Again this would work nicely with My Times.
  • Seriously improve search. Partner with Google.

Right now traffic is dwarfed by MySpace and Facebook. The Times has national and international reach, fantastic content, and an incredible brand. It can and should be one of the most popular sites on the web, rather than the 201st, which is where Alexa ranks it today.

There is a way out of the morass of the past year, and social networking, with the benefits it would bring to both readers and the company, is one step towards it.

5 thoughts on “The New York Times Should Be a Social Network

  1. John, what about NYT Co’s ownership of the biggest made-for-Adsense turd on the Internet, The editorial-to-other-content ratio on some pages is 1 to 25 when measuring by column inches. What isn’t an ad looks like an ad. Nearly all the “guides” are nobodies in their fields and crappy rewrite hacks at best. The web design is atrocious (dear stupid Web designers: nobody needs a “print this page” button, thanks.) I can’t help but think that the whole site could push their bottom line up if only they paid it some basic attention.

  2. Ha! That’s a fantastic description. Yeah I agree, they should do something with–fix it or sell it.

    I think it should be jettisoned. The investment in time, thought and money that would be required to make it not suck would be better spent on itself.

    Plus I’m not sure About really can be made much better. People don’t want pseudo-experts blathering at them. They want to blather at each other 🙂

  3. Another two thing that they could add to

    1. Citizen journalism. I am sure it’s not hard to identify high quality bloggers in various geographic and content areas, and syndicate them. Win for the blogger, win for the NY Times.

    2. I just saw the site last night at NY Tech meetup. NY Times should build something similar, or even better buy TheIssue or anotehr site like it.

  4. You done a good job of showing what could be done.

    Alas.. the New York Times suffers from the disease of most large institutions, filled with people that don’t want change.

    Ultimately, it will have to change or continue to become less relevant..

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