How to reinvent a meeting to make it useful

Work meetings have a reputation for being boring and unproductive – but what if we took a step back to rework these workplace gatherings into something more meaningful? In The Art of Gathering, Priya Parker tells the story of how The New York Times did just that.

A row of chairs at a table in an office

When Dean Baquet took over as the executive editor of The New York Times in May 2014, he inherited an almost seventy year-old gathering that no longer fit the needs of the newsroom or of readers. The “Page One” meeting at the Times was one of the most consequential meetings on earth. First conceived in 1946, it had evolved into the gathering where editors decided which articles would make the next day’s front page. These choices helped to set the news agenda for the world.

In the meeting’s heyday, its purpose was clear, and its format and structure logically derived from that purpose. The meeting was actually in two parts: a 10 a.m. session and a 4 p.m. session, after which the leadership would reveal “the lineup” of articles for the next day. For years, it took place at the Times building in a third-floor conference room around a massive wooden King Arthur–style table, with twenty-five or thirty editors packed into the room. Editors pitched their lead articles, called “offers,” making their cases for pieces they thought belonged on A1.

“The desks would come with their best stories and offer them to the Olympic gods, and then would be grilled, and battle it out to see what would make it,” one editor recalled to me. 

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As the meeting was repeated decade after decade, it gained the quality of a ritual. It was a badge of honour to participate in it. It became a rite of passage for young editors.

When new reporters joined the Times, they would often be invited to sit in the meeting as part of their orientation. “The 4 p.m. meeting became the stuff of lore,” Kyle Massey, a Times editor, has written.

By the time Baquet arrived, however, it no longer necessarily made sense to organise the most important meeting at the Times around the print front page. The majority of readers accessed articles online rather than through the physical edition. The home page and the print front page were entirely different animals; the former might feature dozens of different stories throughout the day. And according to an internal 2014 report on innovation at the paper, the home page’s “impact is waning” as “only a third of our readers ever visit it.” More and more readers were accessing online articles through social networks, drastically reducing the curatorial power of the editors. Besides, by the time the front page of the physical newspaper reached subscribers’ doorsteps, the article would have spent hours or even days online.

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And so Baquet changed the structure of the meeting to match a new purpose.

He changed the venue and physical environment of the meeting. The storied King Arthur–style table was removed, and plans were made to construct a new Page One meeting room with glass walls and red couches—a more relaxed environment to facilitate a broader discussion about the news. The day I attended a meeting, in the fall of 2017, it was still in transition. The new room was still under construction, and the meeting was held in a temporary conference room on the second floor with a large square table in the centre and a dozen green swivel chairs around it. The top editors all sat in a row on one side, with editors from the various desks seated on the other three sides. The Washington bureau chief had dialled in on speakerphone. There was a second row of chairs lining the walls for other staff and their guests. A flat-screen TV was fixed to the wall opposite the leadership and set to the Times home page, which would refresh to show the changing interface every few minutes.

Baquet also shifted the timing of the meetings. In an ever more rapid news world, 10 a.m. had become too late for a morning meeting, so he moved the meeting time to 9:30 a.m. He split the afternoon meeting into two meetings: a 3:30 p.m. meeting with a much smaller group to decide what goes on the front page of the print paper and then a 4 p.m. meeting to look at the next day’s coverage.

As he transformed the hallowed meeting, he communicated his reasons for doing so to the entire newsroom. He understood he was changing things that people had grown accustomed to. In an email to his staff on May 5, 2015, he wrote, “The idea is for us to mobilise faster in the morning so we can get an earlier start on setting news and enterprise priorities, and to move the discussion of print Page One out of the afternoon meeting in order to focus on coverage regardless of where it appears, as well as to plan our digital report for the following morning.”

The New York Times newspaper front page

But changing the timing and setting would not have been enough to uproot the values inculcated by the old gathering format. The meeting would also have to be run differently. Whereas the meeting used to begin with pitches, on the morning I was there it began with an audience report on the number of views certain stories had attracted the night before and other audience statistics. To start with a focus on what readers rather than editors thought signalled a major change in New York Times culture. Editors of various desks were asked to share what they were working on. As they did, those on the masthead and a smattering of others would ask specific questions about a piece and what the focus would be.

These questions began to reveal a new New York Times in the making. A piece on a new tax proposal drew this question: “One of the things I think a lot of readers want to know is: What does this mean for the rich?” At one point, there was a debate about whether a certain article about a new health study merited a mobile news alert, which signals breaking news and goes out to all Times subscribers. Behind the specific query was one of those larger philosophical questions: What merits the “breaking news” label? At one point, the editor in charge of digital asked why a certain piece, if it was ready, couldn’t be published now rather than waiting for 3 p.m., when it was scheduled. In asking that question, he was pushing his editors to think differently about when a piece goes live.

“We want to get people focusing on what the experience of The New York Times is right now, or in the next two hours, on their phone,” Clifford Levy, the deputy managing editor who oversees all digital platforms, told me. “I think there’s still a bit of people planning things out, which is great, but the here and now is just so super-important, and changing that metabolism in the newsroom has been our long- term project.” While that metabolism doesn’t change overnight, daily gatherings are a powerful tool for adjusting it.

The meeting is still very much a work in progress, however. After all, people still informally call it the Page One meeting.

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Perhaps you, too, have new needs and realities that don’t fit into the templates of gathering that you know.

Perhaps you go with the flow of the old templates, hoping things will work themselves out. There is nothing terrible about going with that flow, about organising a monthly staff meeting whose purpose is to go through the same motions as every monthly staff meeting before it. But when you do, you are borrowing from gatherings and formats that others came up with to help solve their problems. To come up with the formats they did, they must have reflected on their needs and purposes. If you don’t do the same and think of yourself as a laboratory, the way the Red Hook Community Justice Center and The New York Times have done, your gathering has less chance of being the most it can be.


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