The art of religion news during the redesign of the New York Times, 2014

By , posted June 25, 2017 at 6:00 am


In 2014 a New York Times’ self-study was leaked out to the public. Called the “2014 Innovation Report,” it was filled with grim news for the Times as well as essential insights about the future of journalism. You came away from the self-evaluation feeling that the newspaper was absorbing the lessons of digital news but also unsure whether the Times could succeed.  The report specifically pointed out the uncertainty.

However, The New York Times reassured itself that the quality of their journalism had always made them successful.  Of course, that is only part of the story. After the New York City newspaper shakeouts in the 1960s and later, the Times was left with a monopoly on its high-brow niche of the New York City daily news media. The legacy of the monopolist period of supremacy made it hard for a former monopolist to engage in a two way relationship with audiences that had many choices for news consumption through new media entities on the web.


End of the News Business. Illustration by A Journey through NYC religions adapted from the NY Herald


The Times claimed that it recognized that it could only gain the loyalty of readers by reciprocally giving them trust. The report stated it this way, “…many readers have come to expect a two-way relationship.”

But in the report the Times’ definition of loyalty still seemed uni-directional. The focus seemed more on defining loyalty as becoming servants to the Times’ authority and interests: the report talked about  “capturing” the readers and using them as “beasts of burden” to take the Times to others.  Our “content so often reaches its broadest audience on the backs of other readers.”

The New York Times report also indicated that the paper was stunned to learn that Gawker had used the Times’ own archives to beat it on coverage of the making and reception of the Academy Award winning movie “12 Years a Slave.” Gawker had noticed that in the 19th Century, the Times published the most fulsome account of the story. By deftly mixing Hollywood gossip about the movie as it was made, anchoring historical coverage in the out of copyright Times story, and lots of awards coverage, Gawker literally hit a ratings bonanza. By the time that the Times noticed what was happening, it was too late. Its replay of its own article drew a minimal audience because most online readers had already seen it on Gawker.


Illustration by A Journey through NYC religions


The Times learned a couple of things from Gawker. First, the digital age favors the quick, “speed wins.” The study proposed a strategy of publish fast “good enough” articles, and then start improving them continuously. The report called this “minimal viable product.” Second, a cause of the need for speed is the fact that everyone has a news device in their pocket. Whoever gets there first dominates. Not even 24 hour cable news can compete with handheld devices that are constantly picked up for messages, notices and glances at the news.

The Times found that the audience was rapidly shifting away from reading the paper or even its website. “Only a third of our readers ever visit our home page,” the report observed. A news media was no longer viable if it was depending upon a web page done like a reproduction of the Front Page-Back Page structure of the newspaper. Readers no longer scanned the website for the front page index or flipped through the front pages of the sections of the newspaper. Rather, reading is more often guided by social network mentions, linking, and mobile updates. Certain news blocks like stories on disasters, controversies, videos, cooking and special projects also lend themselves to binge viewing.

The implications might be that religion news would have to be quickly done and friendly to social media distribution. The design of the religion news would also need to allow options in the social media to go deeper into the stories on the website.

However, as the cacophony in the pocket grew louder, there was a question of when will the audiences de-link, turn-off, or narrow down their providers. What were the implications for special types of news like religion?

Second, the paper’s study team discovered from the Gawker experience that the digital audience liked history if it is mixed into the news as having current relevance. Evergreen content could include: history relevant to current events, personalities and cultural happenings; reviews of books, movies, art shows, and theater; cooking how-to’s; obits; and important long series like Nicholas Kristof’s OpEd columns on sexual trafficking investigative reports and explanatory pieces. The Times called its archive of stories a treasure trove of “evergreen content,” into which it was investing several million dollars for digital indexing.


Nicholas Kristof of the New York Times. Photo: A Journey through NYC religions


A Journey through NYC religions concluded that religion history reporting won’t work if it is for nostalgia or to claim that the religious culture of today derives from the past. Pure history appeals mostly to the history buff and is a harder sale to the general audience.

Rather, religion reporting on history has to show that New Yorkers around the corner, down the street and in our neighborhood have always asked great existential questions at different points in their lives. Their questions and answers can be highly useful patterns of advice for today’s city dwellers.

So, Journey introduced its “Restropective” features. Taken from the Latin word “Retrospectare” for taking a look back, “Retrospectives” look back at the tremendous religious dramas of New York City, the dramas that have made the city what it is, what New Yorkers are, and, maybe, what it will be. Short version of the title is “Journey Retros.”

Journey Retros were designed to be artisanal history: tactile, visual, personally tailored for the audiences, practical, and authoritative. Ideally, they would show new pathways to understanding the past so that readers can craft their present into a continuity with New York City’s biography. Journey journalists found a widespread attraction to the past as a way of being modern. “From Steampunk to vintage to the hashtag #tbt, we are constantly looking to incorporate the past into our present,” reported Pauline Dolle of A Journey through NYC religions. If one can personify a city as a living being with a memory, a soul and a hope, that is what Journey Retros would do.

The poetics of the city embraces a question-and-answer rhythm:

Make a buck here, but better ask, why does it matter?
Look good on the runway, but better ask, do you have substance?
Be clever, but better ask, will your ideas last?
Do entertainments, but have you forgotten those who are in trouble and need?

We are connected with our pasts by the Question/Answer process of religious life. What does it all mean? How can I live a better life? What is right and wrong? How much should I care about my neighbor? Does my secular or other religious neighbors provide anything of interest or value to the city?

Religious Q/A is the way urban life is lived. The fragments of city life are aligned continually with narratives of greater purpose, morality and compassion. The many ways in which this is done constitutes the enduring mystery of the city.

The Times report called for many other changes like new roles for editors and reporters, a re-emphasis on grassroots reporting, a focus on “influentials” in the generation of social media traffic, and extending journalism stories into multiple products.

The Times also experimented with their own journey by sending reporter Damien Cave and photographer Todd Heisler off on a month-long journey, called “The Way North,” up Interstate Highway 35  from the Mexican border at Laredo, Texas to Duluth, Minnesota. The goal was to explore place by place along I-35 how middle America is being changed by immigration. The project was designed to be presented on a digital platform.



In June of 2014 Time Warner spun off its magazines like Time magazine into an independent company with an indebtedness of $1-1.5 billion. Time’s culture of high expenses and dominance of the print news weeklies were going to be hindrances to its development of a new online-orientated strategy. Time also still used the language of privilege. The magazine said that it produced stories that “captured” its audience. The language in the mouth of rich media moguls sounds more like bagging an elephant in a big game hunt than enriching the experience of their audiences.

Surprisingly, because of  the magazine’s historically has had good coverage of religion, Time’s religion reporter Elizabeth Dias continued a high quality of religion reporting. However, some Time-watchers  wondered if the other sections of the magazine were as religiously empathetic and knowledgeable. Time started off on its road of independence by de-emphasizing the religion element in one of its first stories. Its Boko Haram story made no mention of the group’s religion or that of its captives. The story claimed that the radical Muslim group arose because of poverty, not religion. In other words religion is a symptom of the real underlying social causation of economics.

Covers for Time showed a tabloid bent in order to get social media buzz: “RAPE” and “The Transgender Tipping Point.” The covers were reminiscent of Tina Brown’s covers for Vanity Fair and The Daily Beast. The new philosophy of the front cover seemed to be: eliminate complexity so that each cover would have single, simple image or symbol that could be seen better on mobile phones.



Despite its website tagline “breaking news and analysis,” the magazine still seemed to have a “weekly” mentality which may not be really shaped for winning the online news cycle. Time’s circulation dropped by about 8% during the year after the spin-off in June 2014, according to Alliance for Audited Media.

News media also started more tampering with the editorial-business divide. More and more newspapers and magazines reorganized to have the news side to report to the business side. At the Dallas Morning News, a marketing person was made part of the news teams. In August 2014 the Sports Illustrated personnel evaluation included the benchmark: “Produces content that [is] beneficial to advertiser relationship.”

Online news media also faced their own shake-outs in 2014. First Look and New Republic disintegrated under digital-savvy CEO leadership.



Then, Gawker suffered from reverses. Gawker’s Nick Denton sent out a memo, “Back to Blogging,”which  took a few swipes at BuzzFeed and Vox while announcing a reorganization and a refocus on reporting and storytelling. However, Gawker’s gossipy, snarky style continued. Denton has called this, “The desire of the outsider to be feared if you’re not to be respected, nip the ankles till they notice you; contempt for newspaper pieties; and a fanatical belief in the truth no matter the cost.”

In July, ad sponsors and critics forced the online site to take down a snide feature on the hiring of a prostitute by an executive at Conde Nast. Gawker was also sued by Hulk Hogan over their posting of a sex tape.  Denton wrote, “some humane guidelines are needed—in writing—on the calculus of cruelty and benefit in running a story. Everybody has a private life, even a C-level executive, at least unless they blab about it… I see Gawker Media occupying a space on the online media spectrum between a stolid Vox Media and a more anarchic Ratter; close to the edge, but not over it.” Did Gawker’s retreat come soon enough to survive the lawsuits and advertiser disaffection?

Industrial age news media was learning to compete in the digital age while the digital native news media were learning that being native to the digital world didn’t mean that you couldn’t be wounded, killed, and eaten.




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