When ‘best’ is not good enough

Juan Antonio Giner says the New York Times has the best of everything, except business management. I could quibble with the argument that is has the best, but for the sake of this discussion, let’s accept that.

And then I’ll argue that being ‘best’ leads to many of their problems. First and most obvious, thinking you’re the best at everything is the definition of hubris: ‘Because we’re the best, everything we do must be the best.’ Why innovate and experiment if you’re already at the top, then? The second problem is tougher to tackle: Any institution that thinks it is the best thinks it has more to protect and so, I argue again, it is less likely to stretch and risk failure.

Mind you, I’m not arguing that the Times isn’t great or that it doesn’t innovate. I’m saying that others find it easier or less risky to innovate thanks to their less-lofty positions. The best illustration of this is Gannett, which does not run formidable cultural citadels, only lots of local papers, and so it is surprisingly unafraid to blow up its newsrooms and try 24-hour, omnimedia, community-collaborative news. The Washington Post, as our second-city paper (forget Chicago), has also been hungry to innovate and try new things online. I can’t get through a post like this without pointing to London, where there’s a constant war for the title of best and one way to win in that war is to innovate.

I remember years ago, at the dawn of online, the Times felt it had to start a separate product to handle such tackiness as local entertainment listings, so as not to sully the mother brand. Others are not so prissy. The Times is less likely to link out to the world because it takes the value of its links seriously. Others are more generous.

So all I’m suggesting, Juan, is that you may be doing the Times a disservice listing the ways that you say it is the best at everything. And, coming out the other end of this argument, I’ll say that there are ways in which it is not the best or certainly could be better. I think many — though, yes, not all — in the Times newsroom would agree with that.

And I don’t necessarily buy the logic that because the Times is the best at everything, it must be the business side’s fault that its business outlook is getting ever bleaker. I’m not defending their business leadership — which certainly can be criticized (start with the disaster in Boston) — but saying that responsibility for the business fate of the institution certainly also falls to editorial. The product could be better.

So the more interesting discussion to me is: What would you do with The New York Times Company? I’ll start that ball rolling:

I’d get out of Boston while the gettin’s good (or not as bad as it will inevitably be). I’d get out of the paper business. I’d get rid of the regional papers and TV stations while there are still buyers. I’d then use that equity to try to buy more About.com’s (too bad Primedia didn’t almost ruin more businesses like that) and other things that look very little like the Times: social businesses, commerce businesses, technology businesses. I’d look to create lots of new products unencumbered by the weight, hubris, expectations, and rules of the Times brand. I’d consider making the Times a purely national brand and do something radical locally, where it’s just not that big (for example, making metro a web product under a different brand, if need be, to make it more collaborative). I’d reconsider the Times’ role with the rest of news; it can and should be more of a guide to journalism closer to its source; someone will become a ringmaster of news and why shouldn’t that be the Times (that would require the greatest cultural shift but if any brand could have a headstart in that role, it should be the Times). I’d consider how the Herald-Tribune and Times can become a stronger international presence, but online only. Rather than establishing a lab of outsiders to try to influence the future of the institution, I’d mix in people from the inside and give them the mandate to blow up the place (see the Economist’s Project Red Stripe). I’d consider how The Times already serves a community — a wise crowd — and try to figure out how it could enable that crowd to do more, to share more information, to do more commerce. I’d stop thinking that the Times must always be the destination, the magnet, the be all and end all, and, yes, I would start asking: WWGD?

What would you do?

(Of course, I have myriad disclosures relating to this: I used to consult for the Times Company at About.com and the Times is an investor in Daylife, where I have a role. I have relationships of various sorts with most of the other media companies mentioned directly or indirectly above; it’s a small world, this.)