How the New York Times Survived the Digital Revolution

How the New York Times Survived the Digital Revolution 

By Justine Merriman

Two weeks ago, I had the pleasure of hearing Meredith Kopit Levien, EVP and COO of the New York Times, speak about the future of media, more specifically print. To give a little background, in 2013 she was brought on to lead the digital transformation of the Times at a period when everyone was proclaiming that print was dying. 

In case you forgot, headlines like these were seen everywhere in the preceding few years:

And cartoons:

So how did the New York Times manage not only to survive, but many would argue thrive while their competitors, like the Washington Post were cutting prices? The answer is oddly simple in that the Times has always been and remains a family controlled public company. This means that the stock price is not what drives internal decisions, but rather logical people coming together to decide on a corporate strategy. The tenants then and now are to keep the doors open as long as they can put out something that is distinct, continue to cultivate relationships, and offers the best place to experience the news. 

These 3 key strategies have led the Times to a place where print is still the largest chunk of revenue at $6+ million with digital trailing behind at around $4 million. This number is even more impressive when you realize that the average newspaper household is spending a thousand per year to read the physical articles rather than go online. However, that success has not hindered the digital business’ plans for growth. Meredith said that the next goal for digital is to hit 10 million subscribers by 2025. That said, the Times is one of the many publishers who has not agreed to be part of Apple News+ bundle service. When asked to address their lack of participation, Meredith said it was mainly due to their 3rdstrategic point- to maintain the best place to experience news as a destination via their own digital site or physical paper. That means no third party at the moment, but she did leave the door open to suggest should a platform partnership arise that helps the times achieve their corporate goals while remaining true to their strategy then they could be interested. 

In the meantime, the times will continue to build their brand and digital presence via social media ecosystems they can control like google, fakebook, and twitter. On these platforms they feel they can best build and learn from audience development to drive subscriptions and when appropriate advertise. Google has been the most beneficial form of advertising as it is easiest to capture the user. Alternatively, platforms like Snapchat are no longer providing the eyeballs as the discover pages algorithms continue to evolve in ways that are less controllable. 

Finally, in her parting words Meredith shared her key tenants to survive in news: “News is a relationship business, you must prove that you are worth the consumers time and remain reliable.” She also reiterated the Times move toward digital audio with the continued production and success of the “The Daily” podcast leading to a television show that will come out in June called “The Weekly” on FX and Hulu.

11 comments

  1. jlrose03 · ·

    Love this piece! It is so relevant and a testament to what a successful publishing company does in the face of new transformations into the digital world. It is important to call out that it is still and will remain a family company that is not adhering to its investors. I remember when newspapers and magazines were freaking out about this transition and fearful of how much revenue would be lost because their print lines of business were in jeopardy. No matter what every publishing firm will have to figure out the best way to navigate this transformation and transition to digital while still not loosing its edge.

  2. This was a really interesting read. Like Jesse mentioned, I remember when digital was becoming more and more prevalent and caused widespread panic in the space. While the panic was completely understandable at the time, it’s interesting to take a look at how companies approached this and made the transition work. It seems that the New York Times took the change in stride and the fact that they are a family controlled public company made a big difference in how they were able to do this. One thing that really jumped out at me from your post is the fact that print still makes up such a significant chunk of revenue and surpasses their digital. It will be interesting to see how they continue to do moving forward and if they are able to hit that 10 million digital subscribers.

  3. Great post in light of the Twitter discussions last week about Apple News+. I definitely think the NY Times made the right call in saying no to Apple. Why? Well, data analytics of course. By maintaining their own website, marketing campaigns, social media presence, the NY Times is able to collect probably 10x the data and information about how their users interact with them digitally, rather than if they bought in to Apple News +. As the NY times continues to develop their digital strategy and learn how to survive in an increasingly digital world, I think this data they gather is the key to their continued growth and success. Finally, a business that stands up to Monopolies.

  4. Sounds like you had a fantastic conversation with many insights into New York Times’ strategies. I saw an article recently saying that NYT had a 47% rise in online subscriptions in 2016. While that was two years ago, they have definitely fared better than most news outlets. I think the fact they do not have to answer to shareholders or to the public in general is very lucky and a fantastic advantage over competitors. I think their decision to avoid the bundle is interesting and hopefully help them maintain and increase revenue as well as insight from analytics.

  5. dilillomelissa · ·

    Great post, Justine! I truly appreciate when a company can stay true to their values, even if they receive an offer that seems enticing (such as Apple). The consumer will notice the difference when a company deviates from their usual operations, and I appreciate that they are sticking to what’s most important, but not completely closing off the idea if the right opportunity comes along. Because the NYT is so reputable, I wouldn’t be surprised if they continued this success for quite some time. In one of my other classes, we are discussing ethics and trust as far as companies and the “Tech Titans” are concerned. The NYT is a company most people trust for news, whereas most people would say is very different when you think of Facebook, for example. More companies should look to the idea of trust and actually practicing what they preach in order to find success, as the NYT has.

  6. Nice post. The Atlantic is another traditional publisher that has managed to thrive in a digital world.

  7. Great post! I’ve read the NYT for years, partly because I grew up in a house where my dad read the print version every day. As I’ve gotten older and started relying more on platforms like Twitter to get my news, I’ve noticed how different publications are utilizing the platform. The NYT has done a really great job of utilizing Twitter, especially in ensuring that each beat has a different Twitter account – a reader in Utah doesn’t necessarily care about what the NYT Metro desk is writing about. It’s a great way to manage their articles, and increase touch points with different readers. I”m excited to see where they take this going forward!

  8. csaitta4 · ·

    Great post! I think it’s a really strong move on the part of NYT to not be a part of Apple News, and one that they can only make because of the strength and history of their brand. I did a project on the New York Times in another class earlier this year and, as you mentioned, the entire aim of their strategy is to make a NYT subscription an indispensable part of consumers’ lives. Partnering with Apple makes a subscription unnecessary. This “indispensability” is aided by their journalistic excellence and the strides they’ve made towards diversifying their content throughout their history which is being furthered even more by the expansion of digital content that you mentioned. While the world might have been nervous about the future of the NYT a few years ago, today I am definitely excited to see what they will accomplish next.

  9. adurney1 · ·

    Great post! My parents still get the NYT physically delivered everyday. Yet, you can see the decline in the demand for papers every morning as less and less get delivered. Its great to see how NYT has adapted. I can attest to the use of podcasts, The Daily. Its awesome to get the news very quickly and in a digital sense. With this type of innovation, it will be great to see how legendary companies such as NYT adapt as tech attempts to disrupt them.

  10. Nice read! I’m a huge fan of the NYT, and they continue to put out engaging content. I get their daily briefing sent to my inbox every morning, and it’s a great summary of current events and a great way to keep readers engaged. As they move into digital, however, I wonder if they will have problems similar to Netflix with readers using someone else’s account and log-in info. In fact, my parents both read the NYT regularly and both use my account. Another question I had is whether digital subscriptions to NYT crosswords drives revenue at all. Personally, I pay for the digital subscription primarily so that I can have access to their crosswords. Not sure if I would be a NYT subscriber without access to crosswords. Anyhow, great post!

  11. Really enjoyed reading about this! It’s great that one of the best media organizations in the world was able to survive and figure out how to thrive in today’s digital world. That being said, I am not surprised that top organizations like this were able to weather the storm as they draw top talent and always find ways to come up with new ideas. I think one of the reasons they saw such great success was the new york times cooking app which kept consumers involved in the organizations while being on their iPad. From there, they were able to create sticking power and keep people subscribe to the paper.

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