Jim Roberts, an assistant managing editor at the New York Times, recently spoke to TPM about his years at the Grey Lady, his social media strategy and the impact of the paper’s paywall.
What’s the most dramatic change you’ve seen in your 25 years at the Times?
I definitely think the transition to digital — it’s enormous, it’s ongoing. Change is hard. Dealing with disruptive technologies left and right requires a lot of energy, a lot of imagination. And every institution like ours deals with it. Just as we’ve mastered the Web, we then are faced with a completely new environment in which people are getting information on their phones. Tablets are now creating their own different types of use cases and consumption. Social media came out of nowhere. If you and I had this conversation four years ago, we wouldn’t be talking about Twitter. Maybe we’d be talking about smart phones, but we wouldn’t talking about tablets. The pace of change gets faster and faster. The disruptions come more quickly. So it’s tough, but it’s been also really gratifying to watch an institution that’s big and based in tradition. It’s been gratifying to be part of the adaptation process.
Social remains a challenge, in a lot of ways. I don’t even know how to describe social. It’s a way of life. It’s more than software. But it’s evolving everyday. People are getting information through it everyday. It’s incredibly flexible. It means we have to be incredibly flexible to keep up. That’s going to remain a challenge. Everything mobile remains a challenge for us. I see traffic patterns and how our audience, they’re not abandoning our website, but they’re spending more and more time on smartphones and tablets. And the other challenge for us is video. I want us to get better at video. We’ve got to master live coverage, and be able to do it in a more nimble fashion.
How did you get into Twitter? You’ve developed a large presence there.
I don’t precisely remember the time — it was, I would guess, four years ago. I don’t know if you know of Jacob Harris. Jake is a developer who’s been working at the Times on the digital side for quite a few years. I remember Jacob going to the SXSW conference at which Twitter really became known, the one where they made a presence for themselves. He clearly was impressed with it. I’ll give Jake credit for this — he really saw, even back then, the potential that it had as a means to distribute information. Not just to communicate between people, but really to communicate one to many. And he, I think, was responsible for setting up the first @nytimes account. But I do remember this presentation that Jake had made to a bunch of the editors and managers on the digital side of the Times, and it made an impact on me. I didn’t sign up immediately. I can’t say that I immediately saw the value that I certainly see now. It took me a month to see what it actually could do and how it could be an incredibly good and useful means of us communicating with our audience, broadening our audience, which I think is a really critical point. And listening to our audience. One of the things that I like — I often keep an open feed of @NYTimes mentions, just so that I can see what our readers are talking about. I think that’s a really, really valuable piece of real-time feedback. There are quite often things I see in there where people are either praising, or, you know, in some cases, criticizing our work that I think is very valuable for me to know as an editor.
Is it best in those large, fast moving news environments?
Not necessarily. I’m not the first person to point out the degree to which the Trayvon Martin story got traction through social media. That was one where, in fact, that lagÂ time was rather significant, weeks before the national news media finally really grabbed ahold of that story. But it was through social media that a lot of people became aware of it. So I don’t think it has to beÂ necessarily a big, breaking, cataclysmic type story. I thought Occupy Wall Street was a very interesting moment in the development of social media. That was another case, I remember this was back in September, I was at a conference one of the first weekends of the Occupy Wall Street protests. There were definitely people in my feed who were tweeting about it, when there were some people who were being arrested, and somebody got pepper sprayed, I think. And I remember re-tweeting someone, and then that person sending me massages or at-replies, saying, “Why is the Times not covering this?” And as it turned out, I think we had been covering it. But it was not prominent on our home page. And so through the course of the weekend, I was able to communicate with editors who were back in New York to give the story more prominence, or the prominence that it deserved. So that was a really interesting example. And this was really before Occupy became truly a national story.
What’s your involvement with the Times social media or its operations?
I’m an adviser and a cheerleader. I consult with them often. I try to point them to interesting opportunities. I encourage experimentation. I remember back after the killing of Qaddafi last year, I remember once that happened, I said to the social media team that we may want to think about potentially having a breaking news feed for these really big events. So subsequently we set up something called NYT Live, which was a dedicated feed. We first used it in a big way, I think, for Hurricane Irene. So basically I’m a cheerleader, sometimes a little bit of a prod to them, but basically just encouraging them to think aggressively and to experiment with the medium.
How do you think reporters hanging out on Twitter all day affects the craft of journalism?
I feel like my use of social media, it’s not completely consigned to Twitter, but I certainly use it more than any other social medium. But Twitter’s not the only way people are consuming information through social media, and I think that’s something worth reinforcing again and again. Reddit got a lot of attention for the Aurora shootings. I think social media is a good thing for journalists because I think it makes us all more aware, it’s just that simple. I think more information is better, and better than less, certainly. And I think it actually diversifies the streams of information. I think I am much more likely to learn about something through Twitter than I would through my conventional means of consumption. I’m going to be surprised, I am going to to read or be pointed to find out something I had not heard before.
You make a point to share from a range of sources on your feed, too.
I think it’s important. I don’t love the feeds that are really driven solely by people’s specific publication. If you’re really trafficking in news, which is what I tend to do, it would be foolish for me to think that one news organization, say, my own, truly has a lock on all the valuable information that there is. The other point is that, as part of my job at the Times, sort of worrying about or overseeing the digital operations, it’s important for me to know personally what other websites and publications are doing throughout the day. So I spend a lot of time looking at our competitors. We have a lot. And I look at a lot of them, and I admire a lot of their work, and when I see something I admire and think others would be interested in it, I send it around.
When the Times’ paywall was launched, what were your thoughts?
I was a skeptic. No, I was more than a skeptic — I was an opponent. I felt that the costs of the paywall to us, in terms of closing off part of our audience, worried me greatly. I really felt that the work that nytimes.com had done, even before I had gotten there, really did make this institution more accessible, dare I say hipper, to younger people. And it just worried me that a paywall would probably hurt us the most among those audiences, and by that I mean the global audience as well as the younger audience. We’ve been very pleasantly surprised that the user base has remained strong. There has been definitely some page view declines, but the size of the audience, the reach, still has really felt strong.
How focused are reporters and editors on web traffic?
I think one thing that does get watched a lot is the most-emailed list, which is a useful tool, it has its flaws. There’s a certain type of story that performs really well there. I don’t know that the majority of our reporters — I’m sure they’re aware of the most emailed list and when their pieces show up there. I don’t know that people areÂ fixated with traffic. I rarely will hear from a reporter asking how his or her story has done. We all want to perform well, and we all want to know that we’re doing things that people are paying attention to. I think people know that from the size of our homepage audience, that getting a story in prominent display there is going to ensure that plenty of people are looking at it.
Is there any emphasis on writers developing personal brands? Any focus on developing that in the company?
I think the answer broadly is, well, broadly it’s complicated. I think we all believe the brand is the most important thing, and by the brand I mean The New York Times or nytimes.com. That’s why we’re here and why the public reads us or views us or listens to us. But I also recognize that there is power in personal brands. It rubs off on us in a very good way. So I think that there are positive aspects to that, and we do encourage our writers to have a social media presence. We don’t force them to. We want them to be comfortable with the medium, and we try to give them room to experiment, and see what they can do with it. So it’s a little bit of a nuanced question.
This interview has been edited slightly for space and clarity.