Feature Story

Reinventing the News, from Ink to iPhones

The New York Times' CTO Nick Rockwell

Once nicknamed the Gray Lady, The New York Times shows how even traditional companies can become bold, digital innovators.

Change is hard,” said Nick Rockwell, chief technology officer of The New York Times, “and learning to be a different kind of company, or to value a different perspective or set of skills, takes time.”

As one of the first industries in the crosshairs of digital disruption, print media struggled for years with falling circulation and plummeting ad revenues. The Times was no exception.

But despite its own share of challenges, the paper has weathered those upheavals as well as any newspaper. And it offers lessons for any company driving digital transformation in a fast-changing industry (that is, all industries).

The New York Times' CTO Nick Rockwell The New York Times' CTO Nick Rockwell

“Last year we celebrated the 20th anniversary of The New York Times’ website,” said Rockwell, “so we’re deep into the digital era.”

The Times — once nicknamed the Gray Lady for its traditional ways — was not always known for embracing change.

But today, the paper boasts more than 2.5 million digital-only subscriptions, bringing its award-winning journalism to a wider, more global audience than ever before. And with 38 percent of total advertising revenue, its digital ads are beginning to offset the ongoing drop-off on the print side.

“One of the things that I’m proud of,” Rockwell added, “is the persistence that The Times has shown. Through the various setbacks and blind alleys and general industry upheavals, we’ve kept at it.”

That meant evolving with the demands of mobile, tech-savvy customers and driving the kinds of operational efficiencies that only digital can bring.

All while rethinking the very definition of a 21st-century newspaper. Which called for big culture changes in a company with 19th-century roots and a tradition of excellence — in print journalism — that won more Pulitzers than any other publication.

“There’s a spectrum of media that people consume,” said Rockwell, “across audio, video, the written word, as well as emerging forms like VR and AR and so on. We have to be a media company, and not just a publisher.”

It also meant investing — and reinvesting — in a consolidated network, able to accommodate a global, mobile workforce in an ever-changing 24/7 news environment.

“The newsroom is all about collaboration and mobility,” Rockwell said. “And more than ever, we really need to cover the entire world. A single heroic reporter can’t do that alone.”

To that end, The Times’ executive leadership team understood the importance of the network, even when budgets were tight. “It’s been relatively easy for us to gain support for investing in the infrastructure,” Rockwell said.

Fail Fast — but Get the News Out!

For decades, Times delivery trucks rolled out of its printing plants through blizzards, hurricanes, and terror attacks on the city. Today, network disruptions are not an option.

Though Rockwell encourages an innovative culture that’s willing to take risks, keeping the lights on is critical.

“I say to my team,” he asserted, “ ‘Okay. Experiment, fail, but we’re not going down’. Election night, whatever it is, we’re not going down.”Despite roots in ink and lead type, the print operation is automated and digitized, with robotic presses, IoT and network technologies.For those kinds of big stories, network traffic can spike 40 fold during peak hours. “It does long-term harm to our brand and business if we can’t get the news to people,” Rockwell added.

That includes the print edition. As digitized as The Times has become, it remains an enormous manufacturing and distribution operation, with dozens of printing plants around the country serving around 600,000 readers daily and more than a million on Sundays.

But despite its roots in ink and lead type, the print operation is itself automated and digitized, with robotic presses, Internet of Things and network technologies.

“The printing plant is a highly instrumented environment,” Rockwell said. “There’s a control room that’s orchestrating the whole thing. Getting those papers on the trucks, getting them out to people’s doorsteps, is an inviolable commitment that we’ve made. So I actually think it’s great from a digital perspective.”

From any perspective, cybersecurity is a huge part of that rock-solid reliability. The Times is a high-profile target, and hackers of all kinds probe for weaknesses.

A modernized network infrastructure, Rockwell stressed, is essential to The Times’ security strategy. Especially considering the unique challenges created by its far-flung correspondents.

“We have offices all over the world,” he said, “including in technologically challenged places, or not entirely friendly environments such as China or Moscow. Perimeter security, network security, endpoint security are all absolutely critical. And we’re seeing whole new categories and levels of threats all the time, so that’s probably the thing that keeps me up at night.”

The Times is also part of a complex ecosystem of partners, any of which could be a weak link in the security chain.

“You have to be careful who your suppliers are,” Rockwell stressed. “You have to treat them as potentially hostile actors in the network. We need to think about every workstation and server and what the end-point security looks like. And we need to think about our detection and response processes, because a lot of serious incidents can be mitigated if you catch them early.”

From Lead Type to a Digital Future

When not suffering from security-induced insomnia, Rockwell keeps his eye on the future. Beyond keeping the network up and running, The Times’s IT organization is on the front lines of innovation.

“I think we’ve done particularly well with things like VR and now AR,” he stated. “We’ve been very good at spotting new things and finding a way to integrate them into our report in a way that really does bring value to our users and isn’t just sort of a novelty or a bolt-on.”

One key is knowing those readers as never before."Any gap that shows between what we as technologists think we should be doing and what the business is committed to doing is just going to end badly."“We’ve really invested in our data infrastructure,” Rockwell explained. “We have a very good view into how people are using our products.”

That process, he continued, increasingly depends on artificial intelligence. “It’s well beyond human capability to sift through this volume of data,” he continued.

Data or not, The Times newsroom remains a “unique creature,” Rockwell said. And its editors are free to do whatever is best for the report. Yet technology has to bridge all sides of the organization.

“I see one of my principal responsibilities,” he emphasized, “as making sure that we’re completely aligned, in our case, both to the goals of the newsroom and the goals of the business. Any gap that shows between what we as technologists think we should be doing and what the business is committed to doing is just going to end badly.”

More and more, that alignment is paying off for The Times.

“It’s no longer a long obstacle course ahead of us,” Rockwell concluded, “it’s a runway. There’s a lot of value we can add for our users along the way, and I’m super excited about it.”