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May 1, 2017

What Are They Thinking: Kinsey Wilson's Meteoric Rise at NYT

In a move both opportunistic and commonsensical, The New York Times finally filled its top digital job Monday. Kinsey Wilson becomes the Times’ first executive vice president for product and technology, charged with the huge task of rethinking The New York Times—as a product.

Curiously, Wilson is both an outsider and an internal hire, having joined the Times less than two months ago as editor for strategy and innovation. With this fast promotion he will report jointly to C.E.O. Mark Thompson, who made his final decision on the job within the last two weeks, and to Executive Editor Dean Baquet, who first brought the 59-year-old into his newsroom and the company.

It’s as fast a rise as the Times has ever seen, and one that will be richly dissected. Every executive personnel change at the Times gets hyper-attention. This one includes all of the strategic, political and family angles that have become a familiar part of the landscape, and will undoubtedly result in a follow-on of job shuffles.

For Wilson, it’s still another opportunity to redefine news in the digital age, a process begun at USA Today, then streamlined at NPR and now taken to one of the world’s most watched news stages.

As he capsulizes his challenge, you can hear the years of experimentation come through. You also get a hint of how he will approach fresh opportunities such as the still-being-negotiatedNew York Times/Facebook distribution agreement, which won lots of conjecture last week (“Buzzfeed and The New York Times Play Facebook’s Ubiquity Game”).

“We no longer have a lock on people’s time, on how people get their news and information,” said Wilson, laying out for me, in an interview, the job ahead. “It comes at us from hundreds of different channels and in that kind of environment how people experience The New York Times is just as important as the news report. It becomes essential for news operations to be as much as involved in crafting that experience as every other part of the organization.”

 

First published at Capital New York

Follow Newsonomics on Twitter @kdoctor

 

Consider Thompson’s appointment a form of executive improv. It’s a move made both on available talent and the necessity of keeping the action ever moving forward. The final push towards the decision came with the resignation of Paul Smurl, the Times’ acting digital chief, and a prime architect of its highly successful paywall strategy. His departure, for a startup, was announced Monday as well.

The events leading to Kinsey Wilson’s elevation, though, began five months ago, when Mark Thompson announced his intention to broadly reshape the Times’ digital-leading business strategy. He bid adieu to Denise Warren, the Times veteran who had headed up digital and before that advertising, and announced dual searches. Thompson wanted a chief digital officer and a chief marketing officer. He had determined that the Times badly needed a second act, new inspiration and leadership to build on what’s been the most successful digital reader-revenue strategy of any general news source in the world. Paywalls 1.0 – the building up of more than 900,000 paid digital-only subs – had been a great start, but 2014’s Paywalls 2.0 had been a commercial failure. If paid NYT Now and Opinion apps weren’t the way forward, what was?

Thompson wanted world-class thinking brought to two problems that have bedeviled news companies for more than a decade: What kind of new digital news products can build large, and paying, news audiences? Where was the new scale in the digital ad business?

Thompson had his candidate. Erik Huggers had worked for him before at the BBC, and had the credentials that Thompson wanted. Huggers, though, surprised Thompson by rejecting the job offer in January (Capital: “Times digital chief search hits a bump”.) Spencer Stuart, the Times’ recruiter, then, failed to produce new candidates suitable to the Times.

Meanwhile, Dean Baquet, seeking to shore up the newsroom’s digital cred, had hired Kinsey Wilson, who had found himself the odd man out after NPR’s new C.E.O. Jarl Mohn took over (Capital: “What Are They Thinking: Jarl Mohn Puts the “R” Back in NPR”). Wilson had served both as head of news and digital there, a kind of executive tweener, skills that will come in handy in his new position.

Wilson made his expected (“Why the New York Times Hired Kinsey Wilson”) good impression in his weeks at the Times. As the clock ticked on the top digital job – and on the top marketing job, reportedly rejected by a couple of candidates, with a “final” candidate in the current mix – Thompson worked out the move that would finally get theTimes moving ahead again in a single direction.

The appointment, on paper, does the neat trick of connecting up the diverse pieces of theTimes, and its various fiefs, in a new and singular way. “Product,” “design” and “technology” – all those fancy terms that have great new meaning, and importance, in the hurly-burly of digital business development—are unified. “Digital” is jointly owned by the newsroom and the business side, hugely important as the Times newsroom exerts more influence on the wider digital business than any other like operation in the U.S.

While the newsroom–business alignment has improved over the past couple of years, there’s much room for progress, as the Times’ much-publicized Innovation Report pointed out last year. Further, others point to time-to-market bottlenecks in design, which the new structure may address.

Kinsey Wilson’s direct reports include a wide range of Times functions:

· Marc Frons, the Times S.V.P. and Chief Information Officer, runs one of the Times’largest, at 450 staffers, and most pivotal groups. Frons had been an internal candidate, and his staying – or leaving – is one to closely watch. The Times has incrementally and continuously improved its digital products. Now new cooperation could speed the wider application of next-gen personalization, which I believe is fundamental to its success over the next several years.

• David Perpich moves up, as showcased in the second part of Monday’s announcement. Perpich becomes S.V.P. Product, after six years of work with Times paid products. Perpich, who turns 38 today and is a member of the Sulzberger family, took over “new products” two years ago, when that role was split off from Smurl’s. In his new role, he’ll have a lot to prove, after helming the NYT Now, Opinion and Cooking products, none of which has delivered on their significant new reader-revenue goals.

• Rebecca Howard, general manager of video, a key priority and conundrum for theTimes and all print publishers.

• Ian Adelman, director of digital design.

• Both Arthur Gregg Sulzberger, the son of publisher Arthur Sulzberger, Jr., who heads newsroom strategy (Capital: “A.G. Sulzberger named ‘senior editor” for strategy at Times”) and Sam Dolnick, newsroom editor for mobile, continue to report to Wilson.

The family dynamic here is key to the decision-making. Perpich, A.G. Sulzberger and Dolnick all are widely considered smart, talented thirtysomethings, but each is under-experienced for the roles they’ve assumed. In context, we’ve got to understand that it’s only the tenacity of the Sulzberger clan to bull through the Great Recession and non-stop digital disruption that has kept the Times both independent and journalistically well-funded. It now stands tallest among a very small group of big family-directed newspapers. And, so, it must prepare the next generation of family leadership. That, too, though unwritten in Kinsey Wilson’s job description, is his mandate.

As Wilson formulates his new company-wide plan, think about it in three phases;

1) Re-organize and remove the bottlenecks. The Innovation Report managed to make eyes wider open on those pinch points to getting stuff done. Time to market is an issue, and that will be among the first addressed.

2) Redefine “product development” for the Times. As Wilson notes, the digital age – unlike the print one – “requires constant engagement.” That means the diverse talents of the Times, from its world-class newsroom to its tech and business teams, working together in real time. How can the Times produce products that both compete with Buzzfeed and win both new audiences and revenues?

3) Re-engineer the workflow. For a company that has made remarkable print-to-digital progress, it’s just as remarkable that its workflow still moves so much from a print-centric point of view, with mobile, for instance, still too much a later output of the process.TheTimes’ river must still be reversed, as content is created with the first audience in mind – which is becoming mobile as we speak – and with print the final one. The N.Y.T. print product remains quite important, and the opportunity to make it a next-gen newspaper of record is in front of the Times, but that that product, too, must be reimagined.

Kinsey Wilson has the chops to move all three forward.

While Monday’s announcements begin to answer the strategic imperative of the Timesquest for new teamwork, the revenue question is one that lingers in the air. Wilson is an editor by lineage, a tweener, who has the vision to help bridge editorial and digital worlds. He brings little experience, though, of bringing in big bucks from new ventures or products.

Undoubtedly, Mark Thompson hoped his next digital chief would both be able to right theTimes’ internal wobbles – and find significant new streams of revenue that the company requires to make up for that unending spiral of print loss. It turned out that singular person was nowhere to be found. That fabled Silicon Valley exec with a heart of editorial gold may be, indeed, just a fable. Rather than waiting any further for Superman, Mark Thompson cast a determined warrior for the battles ahead. 2015, then, may well go into the books as more a year of transition for the Times than one of growth; a year not wasted, but of time lost. 2016 is the Times’ new target for the next rev of The New York Times.

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