The New York Times is a marvel of journalism. This is no coincidence, it is also a rare business achievement in journalism. Instead of collapsing under the weight of digital competition, the newspaper has changed its business model and now relies on its readers’ money instead of advertisers’ money. This strategy has allowed it to flourish over the past decade while the rest of the news industry has been convulsing.
But while the Times has succeeded in getting people to pay for their journalism, it has not been able to change the type of people who pay for the Times. They remain older, richer, whiter and more liberal than the rest of America.
This does not seem to bother many people who work in the newspaper’s editorial department. But it’s very important to the Times business team, who don’t talk about it publicly but often discuss it internally, sources tell me. That’s why the Times is trying to create and buy new products in order to increase the number of subscribers to its newspaper. He doesn’t just want more followers. It also needs different types of subscribers.
So while the Times is thriving, its leaders — led by CEO Meredith Kopit Levien — are busy building a new type of Times that will sell news and more. This is a risky proposition from the start.
There’s money to start: The Times’ recent acquisition of Athletic, a sports news startup that caters to younger and more centrist subscribers than those paying for The Times, will cost it more than $600 million — more than half of treasury money. The Times did well during its boom. He also invests in extras such as games, a kitchen section and an audio system.
The Times strategy also poses a danger to outsiders—for example, people who work for local newspapers across the country and people who rely on those newspapers to tell them what’s going on in their communities. These newspapers have spent the last few years competing with the Athletic for sports fans’ time and money. Now they are competing with The Times, whose editorial staff has been lamenting for years the fragile and deteriorating state of local news.
“I think the biggest crisis in journalism in America is the local news crisis,” Times editor Dean Bucket told me five years ago. “I think it’s huge. »
Since then, he hasn’t improved. Even if you’re lucky enough not to live in a news wasteland, you understand why local news is important not only to people who love news, but to people who love democracy.
I also don’t think there is a better strategy available for the Times, which remains the unicorn of American journalism – with huge resources and a rich audience that will fund those resources and protect it from the harm of the advertising market.
The Times has only two true national competitors, both of which have similar problems with an aging subscriber base but also have the luxury of different support structures: The Wall Street Journal depends on wealthy business audiences and their employers to pay for subscriptions; The Washington Post is owned by owner Jeff Bezos, one of the richest men in the world.
And besides that, there is… a little bit. The digital startups that once seemed to threaten The Times’ dominance have disappeared or at least drastically scaled back their exciting plans over the past few years. Last month, BuzzFeed, whose founder Jonah Peretti insisted his company’s ad-driven model would allow it to provide free information to far more people than The Times’ subscriber base, announced a further downsizing of its news department, which would soon reach 70 employees. – two-thirds less than its peak.
And the new wave of subscriber-focused digital publishers are either targeting a select and limited audience, like eight-year-old news that relies on professional subscribers, or the Substack newsletter model, which isn’t designed to support newsrooms at all. The fact that the mighty Times may already be facing its pay-news audience limits should give everyone else a real chill.
The Times, for the record, says the current subscriber list and future prospects are fine. His current mantra is that he believes that the 135 million English speakers around the world want to consume the digital products he creates. This means that with 10 million subscribers, we have many years ahead of us.
On the other hand, you don’t have to look far to find evidence that the Times thinks it needs more stuff to sell. Evidence A: Purchase of fast-growing but money-burning Athletic. When Kopit Levin announced the deal in January, she went out of her way to say that the purchase of Athletic meant her business would attract an entirely new group of customers — there was only a “modest overlap” between The Athletic and The Times subscriber base, she told investors. .
The Times hasn’t spent that much money buying new audiences in a very long time. The last time he tried it was in 1993, it was a disaster: The Times bought the Boston Globe for $1.1 billion and ended up selling it in a yard sale two decades later for $70 million. And the $550 million in cash the Times is spending on Athletic understates the Times investment: The Athletic lost $55 million last year, and Kopit Levien says it will continue to operate at a loss – now funded by The Times – for the next three years. years.
Crucially, the deal puts The Times in direct competition with local newspapers in the United States, which are already struggling to survive. The Athletic was created specifically to compete with local dailies by hiring their celebrity sportswriters to bring their audience with them: “We’ll wait for every local paper and let them bleed continuously until we’re the last ones left,” co-founder Alex. Mather told The New York Times in 2017, “We’re going to gobble up their best talent every minute. »
Mather sort of retracted his commentary, but not his strategy, which eventually got him into 47 markets around the world. And that means from Buffalo to Sacramento to Tampa Bay, he’s tearing down the remaining forests that hold back local journalism. A source at the Los Angeles Times, for example, told me that sports are the third most important factor in attracting new subscribers to this paper (after local news and entertainment). Imagine what it’s like for a newspaper that isn’t owned by a billionaire.
The Times doesn’t like this design at all. Kopit Levien insists that the Times has no intention of undermining your local daily paper, pointing to the joint reporting projects the paper has done with publications such as the New Orleans Times-Picayune and the efforts the paper has made to promote local newspapers to its readers. . If you buy a subscription to Athletic, she says, you should also subscribe to your hometown newspaper.
“If you are interested in civic engagement in your local community, having an Athletic membership will not satisfy all of your civic interests,” she told me. “We bought Athletic not to compete with local papers. Not in this case. But the Times’ intentions don’t matter; what matters is its actions.
Aside from Athletic, there is plenty of other clear evidence that the Times is looking for new readers and subscribers beyond its core demo: the newspaper has increased its investment in non-news products such as the cooking and gaming sectors (see the recent acquisition of the acclaimed viral Wordle puzzle at a “seven-figure price” ), both of which are sold as stand-alone products and also bundled with regular newspaper. Kopit Levien says he will do the same with Athletic.
And the Times is clearly trying to reach people who might not consider themselves Times subscribers with a new marketing campaign that aims to broaden the idea of who might be a Times subscriber. The ad features testimonials from real Times subscribers discussing the Times stories they love, and while two of them feature an older white man and an older white woman, the other four are people of color. (One of them, Lyanna, commented that she enjoyed reading the story of “Introducing Harry Potter without its maker” – a link that created a troll flashback from usual suspects who accused the newspaper of threatening JK Rowling. Go figure it out.)
One thing the Times clearly doesn’t do is tell its reporters and editors to change the shape of their coverage to reach new readers. This has been the case in the past: after the 2014 Innovation Report, newspapers feared that The Times would be overtaken by digital upstarts like the Huffington Post and BuzzFeed — editors feared that the newspaper’s readership was too male. They created a “vertical” of the genre in the hope of creating stories that would appeal to women. But the directive “to create a cabinet to attract poor and liberal youth” is not yet available.
On the one hand, it looks good: The Times has 10 million readers willing to pay for what it already puts out, and changing the product could put them off; so why not look for features that could increase its offering? in place?
And so far, Kopit Levien’s strategy seems to be working: the newspaper attracted more subscribers overall in 2021 than it did two years earlier, and even attracted more subscribers to information in 2019 alone, despite its attempts to sell something else. News.
Also promising: While she doesn’t reveal the average age of a Times subscriber, Kopit Levien says the average age has remained stable, in part because new Times subscribers are only half as likely to be 40 years old as existing subscribers.
But it will take a lot of new young readers to move forward, and we’ve seen what happens when an older audience dies out and isn’t replaced by a younger generation.
Ask the guys who run the cable TV networks. They have spent years claiming that no one will ever replace Internet TV, and now they are struggling to replace their TV networks with Internet services. In 2022, it is unimaginable that the Times will lose control of the customers who pay for the news. Years later, this may seem inevitable.
Thank you for reading the first issue of my media column. I would like it to be a two-way relationship: please send me advice, praise, criticism, story ideas and anything that comes to mind. We’ll start with Twitter for now – contrary to common sense, I read my mentions – but look for alternative communication strategies in this place soon.