in Libraries

Library lessons from the New York Times digital strategy report

Cross-posted from VCU Libraries’ intranet with minor edits.

Last week a New York Times employee leaked an internal digital strategy report that’s a stark case for change in the organization.

Here are some of the things that resonated with me about how this report dovetails with our digital strategies at VCU Libraries and in libraryland.


Automate → Innovate →  Transform

Clifford Lynch summarizes Lyman and West’s philosophy of tech transformation in a 2000 EDUCAUSE report on library automation (formatting mine):

[West and Lyman] suggested a three-phase procession of the effects of information technology on organizations:

  • modernization (doing what you are already doing, though more efficiently);
  • innovation (experimenting with new capabilities that the technology makes possible); and
  • transformation (fundamentally altering the nature of the organization through these capabilities).

The NYT report, like Lynch’s, is a clear call to stop simply innovating with technology and start transforming. Unlike libraries, the NYT needs to be profitable to stay alive. But like libraries, the Times and many traditional media organizations have been slow to move into the digital space effectively.

In short, technology can’t just be tacked on at the end anymore. It needs to be integrated from the beginning (“digital first”).

Do more than chase the galloping horse

NYT staff are burned out and stretched too thin – the report calls it “chasing the galloping horse”.  The report emphasizes the need to have the resources, staff, and technology to be able to look up every now and then and see the bigger picture, rather than just trying to keep everything held together.

I can’t help but think of VCU Libraries’ recent and future growth, including the new library fee, which holds the promise of giving us the resources to think big-picture about our growth.  It’s an exciting time and an opportunity we should embrace with smarts and humility.

Experiment right

The report urged NYT to find ways to get more comfortable with digital experimentation and failure. The NYT’s seven components for an experimentation-friendly organization, yanked from page 32 of the report:

  1. Build fast and iterate – start with a minimum viable product
  2. Set goals and assess progress
  3. Reward initiative, even if experiments don’t succeed
  4. Communicate the goals of the project and learn from both successes and failures
  5. Kill off mediocre efforts
  6. Plan for 2.0 – refine – the web is a living organism
  7. Make it easier to launch an experiment than to block one. Best line from the report: “…tradition alone shouldn’t be a reason for blocking experiments.”

Leave the floppy-disk save button behind

The NYT report mentions how reliance on affordances from the physical realm, i.e. organizing and designing the site like the physical newspaper, doesn’t always serve the content well and makes the reading experience awkward.

People in the web world call this skeumorphic design – digital design mimicking something in the real world, like the floppy disk icon that means “save”. And skeumorphic design is on its way out.

This is something we struggled/struggle with in building the new VCU Libraries website. A web information architecture that mirrored our organizational chart didn’t help our users navigate the site. In fact, it buried important things and kept conceptually similar things (i.e. information on special collections) siloed. We had to think about users’ needs and content first, then design a site around that. This turned out to be really hard to do.

Take the pressure off the homepage

The NYT report revealed that their homepage is slowly losing traffic as more visitors enter the site sideways through social media and search engines.

Rather than focus all efforts on perfecting the homepage, we should keep paying attention to search engine optimization, creating stable/linkable/shareable URLs for pages, improving content and design on popular secondary landing pages, and making sure it’s easy for people to find their way once they land four levels deep in our site. VCU Libraries embraced this concept with the new web design and it’s something we should keep working on moving forward.

Show off the archive

The NYT report suggested being smarter about surfacing “evergreen” content and repackaging it into new bundles with other stories. This idea has a clear application in libraries. UNC Libraries’ View to Hugh blog, for example, highlights nuggets from their collection based on current events or notable anniversaries.

Unearthing items from the archive on a timely basis shows off our cool stuff and reminds people that we are both a gateway to new information and a repository for rare and unique materials.

Meta that data

The Times has a rich archive of content going back to the 1800s and, according to the report, publishes about 300 new URLs of content every day. Search and metadata for that content is inadequate to say the least. Librarian Jacob Berg’s take on the NYT report talks a little more about those metadata problems.

Libraries do well at metadata, but we can always do more work to make our content easier for machines to understand and find.

Personalize the content

The report calls it something like “same dinner, different dessert” – mixing important universal need-to-have elements with personalized items. I think libraries have some room to grow in this area, too. People are no longer weirded out by personalized web content. Instead they have come to expect it.

Our connections to VCU’s single sign-on could offer us some ways to automagically customize web portals for users, offering quick shortcuts to databases, research guides, room reservations, checked-out materials, etc.

More reading

These are just a few things I got out of the report. As if this long post weren’t enough – the Nieman Lab has a really great writeup on the report with lots of juicy quotes. I think I will keep coming back to this report – lots of applications for library digital strategy here.

Full report below. Thanks for reading.

The Full New York Times Innovation Report