THIS week, New York Times employees in the company headquarters will not be able to access the desktop homepage of their news website. Instead, they will be asked “to look at The Times on your phone and tablet.”
“More than half of our traffic to The Times is on mobile. We’re hopeful that this temporary change will help spur us to make mobile an even more central part of everything that we do,” according to the company memo announcing the initiative.
Developers call this dog-fooding. The word and practice have its roots from a memo with the subject “Eating our own dog food” that a Microsoft manager sent to a colleague asking him to increase internal usage of the product. Programmed internal use allows the company to test and validate products.
The New York Times has been making strides on mobile. Its NYT Now, which used to require a subscription but is now free, is the epitome of a mobile news app—it is responsive, updated regularly throughout the day and more than a mobile companion to the news website.
NYT Now is aimed at a younger set and seeks to drive digital subscriptions as well as earn from mobile ads.
What distinguishes the NYT Now from many news apps of traditional media companies is that it also links to and curates articles that aren’t published by The New York Times. Apart from reporting, curation is an essential task that trained journalist can perform in today’s saturated media environment.
“The battle will be won on the smartphone,” New York Times CEO Mark Thompson said earlier this year.
It will be interesting to find out what The Times can glean from the experiment.
Journalists, being workers in an industry steeped in tradition, are often reticent when it comes to change. “While newspapers were moving at the speed of newspapers, everybody else was creating the Internet,” digital media pioneer Steve Yelvington said in his blog post “Revisionist online journalism history and the ‘original sin’ myth.”
Today, it is companies like Facebook, Google and Apple that are driving change, especially in media. Apple’s iOS 9 will include a news app patterned after Flipboard that is built on RSS and soon, the Apple News Format. Google Now is poised to become a new and, in my experience, better platform for news delivery, taking into account context on geography, preference and browsing history. Facebook, on the other hand, is where many people find their news. Its latest news-related product, Instant Articles, offers a great reading experience on mobile that you’d wish all articles are published that way.
One consequence of tech companies driving media innovation is that platforms are built away from mainstream media companies’ control. Save for NYT Now, I don’t check any other app of a traditional news company daily. As with many other mobile users, I use aggregation apps that offer great mobile experience like Feedly and Flipboard as well as news discovery applications like Zite. This is good for readers but less than profitable for media companies.
Facebook, Google, Apple and all these other tech companies are able to innovate because of a culture of experimentation, measuring impact and finding market fit.
To catch up, media companies need to re-engineer company and newsroom cultures. The transition isn’t just about a new medium or a different screen size—it requires a fundamental rethinking of things.
Thinking mobile first is a good start. It forces one to rethink and reimagine news delivery on a smaller device.
“Instead of running mobile on autopilot,” The New York Times said in its widely-leaked innovation report, “we need to view the platform as an experience that demands its own quality control and creativity.”