How The New York Times Recreated their Brand with Digital Transformation
The newspaper industry has been in a steady downward trend for decades now, but they faced their sharpest decline in 2020. It’s no surprise that print newspapers aren’t the household staple they used to be.
Where readers once turned the thin pages of the latest issue over their morning coffee, they now get their daily news digest the way they get most other information—digitally.
While many media companies have struggled to create a relevant, high-quality digital experience in the new business model, the New York Times continued to add paid subscribers to its online news product. They now have over 7.6 million digital subscribers.
In this article, I’ll walk you through how the New York Times has managed to cut through the noise and secure subscribers in a crowded media landscape.
Table of contents
Proof that listening to the customer—and experimenting to find out what they want—pays off
Transitioning a product to fit changing behaviors is challenging. Alongside the need for a shifting product, demands for top-tier standards also tend to increase. People still expect high-quality journalism; only, they want more of it.
To create an effective digital strategy, the New York Times listened to the people who canceled their physical newspaper subscription in favor of solely consuming digital news. They also realized early on it wouldn’t be as simple as pasting their high-quality journalism onto a digital medium.
Of the transition to digital, former New York Times CEO Mark Thompson said:
“The psychology inside the Times and other newspapers was that all you had to do was get a bigger audience and transfer the wonderful economics of print advertising to digital. I didn’t buy that. I think digital can be useful. I think it’s an important adjunct source of revenue. But I never thought it would save the Times. It had to be subscriptions.”
Understanding how to transfer paper-based readers over to digital subscribers would take a combination of listening to the customer, experimentation, and a willingness to iterate until they got it right.
Leverage customer data
The Times uses data to understand why a person might come to their pages, how engaged they are once they arrive, and finally, their demographic profile. Based on this data, they then decide what actions they can take to create a meaningful experience for that person that eventually drives them to pay for a full-access subscription.
I should also note that here, a subscription means paying to access different aspects of the New York Times content, whether that’s unlimited digital access to the times, digital access plus a print subscription, or add-ons such as the New York Times cooking app (more on that later).
Getting to know their customers was step one to creating a digital media platform that could evolve with, and for, its audience. One period that proved particularly helpful in enabling the Times to get to know their audience was the very traffic-heavy first quarter of 2017. This increase was a result of the 2016 presidential election and Trump’s inauguration.
Even since then, Thompson said the Times has become increasingly expert at understanding its subscribers at every stage of the marketing cycle, including retention and churn. He describes the entire organization as focused on the customer journey and the customers’ fundamental experience of Times journalism.
By understanding where people spend time and how they navigate the site, you can begin to understand what your customer values and what makes them tick, both critical for figuring out what might make them become paying subscribers. You can get a basic understanding of user behavior in Google Analytics and then go deeper based on your findings.
Top Tip: Customer loyalty is crucial to profitability and sustained growth. Here’s how to use customer intelligence to turn data into actionable insights 🐼
Experiment, analyze, iterate
Gaining digital subscribers was always going to look different from the tactics for gaining print subscribers. Fortunately, there are many more opportunities to grab the attention of many different types of people. The caveat to the wealth of access to people online is knowing how to even begin identifying who these people are and what they want from your brand or platform.
Increased experimentation with product development has been pivotal to the New York Times’ digital transformation success (and new subscriptions).
At the helm of new product development is Times’ internal team: Beta. Beta is responsible for now well-known features like the NYTimes Crossword, the Times’ real estate app, and NYT Cooking (more on that later).
It’s Beta’s job to take the Times’ already excellent journalism and turn it into a digital experience that solves a specific reader problem. From helping people figure out what to eat for dinner to how to exercise and where to live, Beta helps make the Times a daily, trusted destination for its readers.
It’s also Beta’s job to understand where to allocate resources. If something isn’t performing (for example, NYT Opinion which failed to attract a sizable paying audience), it’s shuttered. For every failed Times product, there’s a slam dunk. The Cooking newsletter has over 600,000 subscribers and its weekday edition has a 50% open rate.
Top Tip: In order to analyze and iterate, you’ll need data. Here’s our guide to digital analytics 🐼
Building and acquiring new products
One example is the Times’ cooking site and app. You’ve likely come into contact with it through one viral recipe or another. To access their comprehensive list of thousands of unique recipes, you’ll have to purchase a subscription: $5 per month or $40 annually. The product (including an app) has attracted over five million monthly users since 2014.
In addition to creating new products (other examples include podcasts like the highly popular The Daily and products like the crossword app), the Times has also acquired several external products—and their users. In 2016, the Times acquired Wirecutter, a product recommendation service, and it generates digital revenue through both affiliate links and a paid subscription version.
Most recently (and perhaps most notably), the Times acquired global puzzle sensation, Wordle.
Players get six chances per day to guess a five-letter word. It may sound simple, but the Times knew it would appeal to its digital audience.
While the player count sat at an unimpressive 90 in November of 2021, it is now estimated that 14% of US adults are logging in daily.
Addressing the acquisition in a recent statement, the Times noted it “remains focused on becoming the essential subscription for every English-speaking person seeking to understand and engage with the world”, supporting the company’s “quest to increase digital subscriptions to 10 million by 2025”.
According to Thompson, building and acquiring different products over the last several years was highly strategic. He said, “It was about trying to get a conveyor belt of improvements and ideas and things to develop and optimize that was constantly being added to—and that we were constantly exploiting.”
Not every new product involves creating or buying an entire app. The Times has also experimented with creating content in different formats, like interactive long-form articles and digital advertising efforts like sponsored articles. These efforts may not correlate directly to subscription revenue but add to the high-quality experience someone may come to expect from the Times, which could lead them to become a new subscriber.
Testing different channels
As mentioned, one of the new products the Times began testing in the past five or so years is podcasting. The end goal of any new channel is ultimately to increase digital subscriptions. But there are many different ways the Times can introduce itself to a potential subscriber.
For example, someone may come across The Daily by browsing top podcast recommendations. After listening, they may be more likely to turn to the Times for other news, putting them in the top of the Times’ marketing funnel. Additionally, podcasts feature ads, so this channel is also a means of increasing and diversifying advertising revenue.
Other channels the Times has tested include social media, like the Snapchat Discover feature and Facebook Instant articles, as well as 360 videos, virtual reality, and the popular messaging app, WeChat.
Empowering the team to make decisions
Not every team will be able to build and buy products at the scale or speed of the Times. A takeaway most teams can relate to is that it’s important to give autonomy to team members outside of the boardroom to move quickly.
Thompson said, “We moved to a matrix structure where the team leaders—often very young, late 20s, early 30s—have power over the product and tech road maps and can make decisions based on what they learn from the testing-and-learning platforms, without regard to senior leadership.”
By giving agency to up-and-coming decision-makers, the Times could test, gain insights, and pivot or scale rapidly.
The importance of digital-first leadership
To accelerate digital transformation, it’s important to have the whole team on board—starting with leadership. While Thompson was replaced as CEO in 2020 by Meredith Kopit Levien, he was brought on board as president and CEO of the New York Times Company in 2012 to figure out how the Times could succeed in a digital-first world.
Top Tip: The pressure is on for businesses to digitally transform. Here’s how to accelerate the process 🐼
Right away, Thompson and executive editor Dean Baquet saw an enormous opportunity in a digital-first newsroom, as well as experimenting until they got it right.
Getting the rest of the leadership and stakeholder team on board took time. Thompson describes six difficult months of debating, but eventually, the right people were in place, and stakeholders bought into the strategy.
The Times created a 14-person executive committee, one of whom (Roland Caputo) was tasked with keeping print on track. The other 13 (including EVP, Product and Technology, and Editor for Innovation and Strategy) have been assigned to think primarily about digital.
Another notable digital move came in 2015. “Project 2020” was a plan put in place to emphasize using innovative, high-quality digital content to attract and retain subscribers and double digital revenue to “at least $800 million” by the end of 2020 (a goal they surpassed in 2019).
Speaking on Project 2020’s digital goals, Baquet wrote, “Make no mistake, this is the only way to protect our journalistic ambitions. To do nothing, or to be timid in imagining the future, would mean being left behind.”
The Times’ focus on subscribers emerges from a universal challenge facing modern media: the weakness in the markets for print advertising and traditional forms of digital-display advertising.
By focusing on subscribers, The Times also maintains a stronger advertising business than competitors. Advertisers crave engagement—readers who linger on content and who return repeatedly.
Thanks to their interactive graphics, virtual reality and Snapchat Discovery features, and Emmy-winning videos that redefine storytelling, The Times attracts an audience that advertisers want to reach.
Top Tip: If Thompson’s early struggle resonates, we wrote a whole article about how to get boardroom buy-in for your digital maturity initiatives 🐼
Reduce silos and get buy-in from the entire team
Baquet, who was managing editor before becoming executive editor, brought an enormous cultural change to the Times. He empowered conversation and collaboration between the newsroom and business departments of the company, with the teams now working side-by-side.
While this was a huge change for previously siloed departments, Thompson describes how Baquet had trust and buy-in because of his traditional news background. A former investigative journalist and experienced editor, Baquet is a “newsman down to his fingertips and is trusted by everyone because of that,” according to Thompson.
Even with his traditional newsroom background, Baquet gave his blessing to radical digital change. But because of this very same traditional background, people trusted him not to compromise the integrity of the content or journalism in favor of digital growth.
The role Baquet played in the internal buy-in is an important lesson: having a change leader like Baquet, who is both a trusted industry expert and open to radical digital change, helped create a path forward for the entire Times team.
Transforming tools and aligning teams
Creating a cross-platform experience requires a lot of tools and often a complete rehaul of your tech stack. This isn’t a change that can happen overnight, and it’s important to plan for what you’ll need as well as rank in order of urgency.
Top Tip: Building a digital roadmap that shows objectives, a timeline, and resources needed to achieve each goal will help you get organized 🐼
The Times has allocated a third of its budget to restructuring its data architecture and aligning teams on the proposed changes. This investment has gone into modernizing and integrating its data systems to enable the data-driven decision-making discussed above, and also machine learning capabilities. In today’s media and technology landscape, people expect personalization. We log onto Netflix and see shows recommended just for us, and we expect the same when we read the news.
Similarly, the Times newsroom team decides which information should be displayed on their homepage or in push notifications using data architecture. The data team builds tools that help the newsroom understand a user’s behavior. Then, the newsroom can deliver the right messaging at the right time.
The Times can also use data to personalize a reader’s experience. Leveraging behavioral analytics, the team can deliver relevant, fresh content or target them with the right messaging for the best subscription package for that reader.
When it comes to teams, the Times has not only reduced silos but sought multidimensional hires who understand both great journalism and great technology. The Times boasted in 2017 that “no other newsroom in the world has more journalists who can code.” These are undoubtedly more difficult hires to make, but someone who can write a great piece and then code and publish it makes the entire operation significantly more agile.
Assess your current team to determine where people’s primary and secondary talents lie. Understanding where and how you can lean on team members—and where they want to boost their own skills—will be mutually beneficial and help expedite your digital maturation process.
When print subscriptions became all but obsolete, media companies faced an uphill battle—one which the New York Times is winning. By rigorously analyzing customer data, the team can make educated attempts to deliver content their readers will love. That framework allowed them to create momentum to keep them moving in the right direction.
This process has worked because of rapid experimentation and team members with agency and autonomy over their products.
Also critical to the Times’ success is a leadership team that fully believes in their digital-first strategy, and that content quality need not be compromised for profitability.
The Times put in the resources to get the right tools, technology, and team in place to create a superior digital experience for their audience. With such a strong foundation, they were able to build something that empowered their growth into digital maturity.
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