In a little-noticed speech on Friday, the NYT's Martin Nisenholtz, senior vice president for digital operations, laid out a bold and disturbing new plan for the company's future -- one that involves the NYT leveraging every bit of information about its readers it can get its hands on.
Nisenholtz's remarks -- delivered at the Wharton School of Business at the University of Pennsylvania, and transcribed by Paid Content -- made clear that as the NYT moves toward a paid website model, it also plans to use personal data about its readers to transform the user experience.
Nisenholtz declared that the future of the NYT lays in "the emotional connection that our users have with us" -- a relationship he described as "the essential moat around which our defenses are based."
In other words, it's the information that the NYT has about you, the users of its website -- gathered as part of a registration process it began when it launched nytimes.com in 1996, with more personal data to come when we all start paying -- that will enable the paper to transform a reader's use of the site into an interactive experience.
Armed with personal data about you, the website will one day perhaps answer your questions, offer you games, connect you to other readers, or send advertising your way -- just as Facebook has so successfully begun to do.
Nisenholtz revealed that Sheryl Sandberg, the number-two executive at Facebook -- and who he described as "the Queen of user engagement" -- visited the NYT heaquarters a few weeks ago for meetings to discuss Facebook's success in connecting with its 400 million worldwide users.
It's clear that Nisenholtz has become obsessed with Facebook's success at establishing the power of identity. To Nisenholtz, the Facebook phenomenon represents a fundamental shift from the anonymity that has dominated the Internet for much of its early history.
"Identity is, in my view, a fundamental building block for engagement," Nisenholtz said. "I think Facebook has now proven it to be true."
Nisenholtz's speech suggests a future in which the NYT readers become, more than ever before, a basic part of the paper's portfolio -- meaning the eventual impossibility of privacy for anyone who logs onto the NYT website.
Naturally, Nisenholtz paints a rosy picture of an "interactive" future modeled on Facebook -- but his words carry an ominous tone that suggests that NYT readers may one day be bombarded with advertising and emails aimed directly at them. That "interactive" aspect will be based on their usage of the site, with no mention of privacy protections.
"I’ve always thought that among our most leverageable assets is our audience," Niesenholtz said. "I’m referring to our audience as knowledgeable participants in the life of our web site. This creates the essential emotional bond that will lead to real engagement in an interactive setting.... We couldn’t scale it, but Facebook has."
Nisenholtz seems infatuated with all aspects of Facebook, which he described as "an exercise of one's ego online."
"As I’m sure you all know, the usage statistics on Facebook are off the charts," the NYT's digital chief nearly drooled to the Wharton audience, "in part, because of real identity, the exercise of oneself in the digital realm."
And in case there's any confusion, Nisenholtz doesn't just mean the value of Facebook knowing your name and email address. He means the fact that Facebook knows "a lot" about you -- where you live, who your friends are, where you went to school, where you work, and to which groups you belong.
"At the heart of this kind of knowledge sharing is identity," Nisenholtz explained. "I don’t just mean real names, although that helps. I mean a track record based on a lot of input." (Emphasis ours.)
Nisenholtz noted that the NYT's acquisition in 1999 of Abuzz -- a Massachusetts-based software maker that was supposed to help the paper connect information to readers -- didn't quite accomplish its mission.
"We couldn't scale" the emotional connection between readers and the NYT with Abuzz, Nisenholtz said. "But Facebook has."
The core message of Nisenholtz's remarks seemed to be that the financially-strapped NYT needs an interactive network with its readers to survive.
"A site like nytimes.com must fully transform from a broadcast news experience, to an interactive network," he declared. "It must transition from being on the web, to being of the web."
Of course, Nisenholtz couched his plans in the context of information sharing, and the idea that readers will benefit from sharing knowledge with the NYT that serves their interests.
But the senior NYT executive's fascination with "fun" social-media sites like FourSquare -- built around the idea of knowing exactly who its members are, where they are, and what they're consuming -- suggest a more troubling dimension to all this interactivity, and what it means for user privacy.
In other words, do you like the idea of the NYT knowing where you're having dinner?
That isn't Nisenholtz's plan, of course. He envisions a user-friendly relationship that services the NYT reader, by providing content in bold new ways.
But it's hard to misread these concluding words from Nisenholtz's speech on Friday:
"We have an opportunity to redefine the essential relationship that we have with our users—and change the contract we have with them—from one that is loose, free and casual, to one of real emotional commitment."
Is the NYT reader ready for an emotional commitment to the NYT? One that involves giving up the "loose, free and casual" nature of its relationship to date?
Nisenholtz apparently thinks so. We're not so sure.