October 1, 2014 Last Updated 12:48 pm

The NYT admits its app strategy has holes, pulls plug on one app, puts users of another on notice

Wall Street applauds layoff announcement, but the company is spinning its wheels on mobile and tablet platforms, while failing to develop new media brands

The New York Times sometimes appeared to be eager app developers, making sure that their branded apps appeared early when third party apps began being accepted for the iPhone, and then again when the iPad App Store launched in April of 2010.

NYT-iPad-JobsBut the NYT, at least based on their apps, has always seen the new digital devices as distribution channels, not new publishing platforms. Its apps are built off the content found on its website, reorganized, reformatted and repriced. Nothing new was published, no new brands developed.

While the NYT has not published a replica edition of its print newspaper as a Newsstand app, it has, nonetheless, embraced the replica edition philosophy – its apps are replicas of their website. This strategy has meant that the paper has fallen far behind its new competitors – not the Post or Daily News, but Facebook and others who were more inventive with their apps.

There is so much more the NYT could do with apps, from developing their own aggregations apps, ones capable of bringing in outside content, to building new brands for their columnists and news departments.

One might argue that the Times has attempted this when they created their own polling/politics app, but this again was merely a repackaging of their existing content. The Times, until recently, appeared to be a one trick only, completely incapable of thinking creatively about digital publishing beyond its one and only product, The New York Times.

Now, however, the paper says it wants to experiment. It is willing, it says, to start up new projects, while shuttering others.

“We shouldn’t be surprised that we’ve enjoyed different levels of success with different products,” publisher Arthur Sulzberger and CEO Mark Thompson wrote in a staff memo. “They are all experiments, which we are determined to treat as such: to learn, pivot and, where necessary, make prompt decisions about them. We believe that this process of exploration and experimentation is essential to future growth at The New York Times and we will continue to support and fund it.”

The memo followed an announcement that the paper would be laying off about 100 of its newsroom staff. The move should not cause major damage to the paper as the cutbacks amount to less than 10 percent of its massive newsroom staff. Wall Street, which always seems to love news of layoffs, rewarded NYT investors by sending the stock up nearly ten percent, while the market as a whole was having a horrible day.

The question is not, has never been, whether the Times would support new apps, it was whether they would allow thinking outside the NYT box of existing, current content. The Times, if it were truly experimenting with the platforms, would be releasing new apps and eBooks based on its rich archives, while developing new voices and products that have absolutely no ties to either the print or web products.

NYTCooking-icon-feature(The Times does publish eBooks, it has 93 titles inside the iBooks Store, for instance. All of the books are either derived from their Kindle Singles or are plain jane ePub versions of print titles actually published by outside book publishers.)

NYT Cooking feels like it might be a move in the right direction, but one won’t know for sure unless content starts to appear that is radically different than what the paper has been producing for its NYT brand. Will NYT Cooking be simply another NYT Opinion, only in a better consumer market? or will it begin to rethink what a cooking website and app and bring to home cooks? (Right now, it is a little bit of both things, and because it is in a popular category, it is seeing good early readership.)

Despite the enormous brand equity the Times enjoys, and its deep reservoir of publishing talent, the paper has actually been the best example of the cliché that newspaper publishers just don’t get digital. It is not true, it is just that for the Times, digital means the web, and any new digital platform that has emerged just another way to get their print and web content distributed. It isn’t working – neither driving enough new subscription revenue, nor advertising revenue, to avoid the need to make cost cuts – cost cuts that are necessary because the paper continues to lose print ad revenue.

The cure of what ails the Times is the same as other legacy brands: stop being one brand, one product, chopped into many different bits, and instead become publishers, the creators of many brands, many products. The mobile and tablet platforms, like the web itself, opens up endless possibilities for creating new, separate brands, brands that might one day feed back content to the main news product, but are not developed for that purpose at creation.

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