The New York Times wants younger, more diverse subscribers

The New York Times wants younger, more diverse subscribers

The New York Times is a marvel of journalism. It’s no coincidence, it’s also a rare story of business success in journalism. Instead of collapsing under the burden of digital competition, the paper has transformed its business model, and he now relies on the money of his readers instead of advertisers. That strategy has allowed it to thrive over the past decade, while the rest of the news industry has struggled.

But while the Times has wildly managed to get people to pay for its journalism, it has failed to transform the kind 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 on the editorial side of the paper. But that is very important for the Times’ business team – which will not say so publicly, but will often discuss it internally, sources tell me. That’s why the Times is trying to build and buy new products to increase its core newspaper subscribers. He doesn’t just want more subscribers. He also wants different types of subscribers.

So even as the Times progresses, its managers – led by CEO Meredith Kopit Levien – are busy trying to create a new kind of Times, one that sells news and many other things. It is an inherently risky proposition.

There’s money, for starters: The recent Times acquisition of Athletic, a sports news startup that cares for a younger and more oriented subscriber than one who pays for the Times, will cost him more than $ 600 million – more than half the cash the Times collected during its heyday. It also invests money in additional services such as games, a cooking section and an audio arm.

The Times’ strategy also poses a risk to outsiders – such as people working for local newspapers across the country and people who depend on those newspapers to tell them what’s going on in their communities. These papers have spent the last few years competing with Athletic for the time and money of sports fans. He is now competing with the Times – whose editorial board has spent years lamenting the fragile, deteriorating state of local news.

“I think the biggest crisis in journalism in America is the local news crisis,” Times Executive Editor Dean Baquet told me five years ago. “I think it’s huge.”

New York Times Executive Editor Dean Baquet on The Late show with Stephen Colbert in 2018
Scott Kowalchyk / CBS via Getty Images

It hasn’t gotten any better since then. Even if you are lucky enough not to live in news desertyou understand why local news is important not only for people who love news, but also for people who value democracy.

I also don’t think there’s a better strategy available to the Times, which remains an American journalistic unicorn – with huge resources and a rich audience that will fund those resources and turn them away from the dangers of the advertising market.

The Times has only two real national competitors, both of which have similar ones problems in an older subscriber base, but which also have the luxury of different support structures: The Wall Street Journal depends on a rich business audience and their employers to pay a subscription; The Washington Post depends on owner Jeff Bezos, one of the richest people in the world.

And besides … there’s not much. Digital startups that at one point seemed to threaten Times dominance have disappeared or at least dramatically curbed intoxicating plans in recent years. Last month, BuzzFeed, whose founder Jonah Peretti insisted it was his company advertising-based model it would allow him to provide free news to a much larger number of people than the Times subscriber base, he announced another round of cuts in his news unit, which will soon have about 70 employees – two-thirds less than the peak.

And a new wave of digital publishers focused on subscribers or targeting a diverse and limited audience, such as eight-year-olds information, which relies on business subscribers, or Substack’s newsletter model, which is not designed to support newsrooms at all. The fact that the mighty Times may already be banging its head on the limits of its paid news audience should make everyone else cringe.

The Times, for the record, says it is perfectly fine with its current number of subscribers and prospects for the future. His current mantra is that he believes there are 135 million English speakers worldwide who want to consume the digital products he creates. Which means that, with 10 million subscribers, we have many years of runways ahead of us.

On the other hand, you don’t have to search much to find evidence that the Times thinks it needs more things to sell. Proof A: Buying Athletic, which is growing fast but burning money. When Kopit Levien announced the contract in January, she did her best to claim that buying Athletic means that her company will reach a whole new number of customers – there is only a “modest overlap” between Athletic’s subscriber base and the Times. she told investors.

The Times hasn’t spent that much money in a long time to buy a new audience. The last time he tried it, in 1993, it was a disaster: The Times bought the Boston Globe for $ 1.1 billion, and eventually sold it in a fire sale two decades later, for $ 70 million. And the $ 550 million in cash the Times spends on Athletic underestimates the Times’ investment: Last year, Athletic lost $ 55 million, and Hoof Levien says it will continue to operate at a loss – now funded by the Times – for the next three years.

Importantly, the agreement puts the Times in direct competition with local newspapers across the United States, which are already struggling to survive. Athletic is made specifically to compete with local dailies by hiring their sports writer stars to bring their audience with them – “We’ll wait for all the local newspapers and let them bleed constantly until we’re last,” co-founder Alex Mather famously told the 2017 New York Times. “We will suck in their best talent at any moment.”

Mather somehow withdrew to his comment, but not to his strategy, which eventually allowed him to expand into 47 markets around the world. Which means that from Buffalo through Sacramento to Tampa Bay, he smashed the remaining scaffolding that held back local journalism. A Los Angeles Times source, for example, tells me that sport is the third biggest driver of the paper’s new subscribers (after local news and entertainment coverage). Imagine what a paper that is not owned by a billionaire looks like.

The Times doesn’t like this framing at all. Hoof Levien insists the Times has no intention of undermining your local daily, he said cooperative reporting projects the newspaper has done with media outlets such as the New Orleans Times-Picayune, and the efforts the paper has made to promotes local newspapers to its readers. If you subscribe to Athletic, she argues, you should also subscribe to newspapers from your hometown.

“If you are interested in being civically engaged in your local community, subscribing to Athletic will not suit all of those civic interests,” she told me. “We didn’t buy Athletic to clash with local newspapers. That’s not the point. ” But the Times’ intentions don’t matter – his actions are important.

The New York Times wants younger, more diverse subscribers

New York Times President and CEO Meredith Kopit Levien was seen earlier this year at a Pivot event in Miami.
Alexander Tamargo / Getty Images for Vox Media

Apart from Athletic, there is much other evidence to hide that the Times is looking for new readers and subscribers beyond its core demonstration: newspapers have increased their investments in non-newspaper products, such as cooking and games (see the recent acquisition of Wordle, viral sensations puzzles, at a price inlow seven digits”), Both of which are sold as stand-alone products, as well as in a package with a conventional newspaper. Hoof Levien says he will do the same with Athletic.

And the Times is explicitly trying to reach out to people who may not consider themselves Times subscribers new marketing campaign, which aims to expand the notion of who can be a Times subscriber. The ads feature testimonials from actual Times subscribers discussing Times stories they like – and while two of them show an older white man and an older white woman, the other four are colored people. (One of them, Lianna, mentioned that she enjoyed reading the story of “Imagining Harry Potter Without Its Creator” – a reference that created a troll-y blowback from usual suspects who accused the paper of threatening JK Rowling. Go understand.)

One thing the Times doesn’t explicitly do is tell its reporters and editors to reshape their reporting to reach new readers. He has done this in the past: after the newspaper Innovation Report – a document from 2014 that worries that the Times is taking over digital newspapers such as the Huffington Post and BuzzFeed – the editors there were worried that the readership of the paper was too male. They created a genus ”vertically”Hoping to create stories that could appeal to women. But at the moment there is no directive “make a table for young people who are not rich and liberal”.

On the one hand, it seems like a good thing: The Times has 10 million readers willing to pay for things it already produces, and messing with a product could turn them off – so why not find features that could increase its offerings instead?

And for now, Hoof Levien’s strategy seems to work: in 2021, the newspaper brought in more subscribers than two years earlier, and even brought in more news subscribers than in 2019, despite its efforts to sell things beyond the news.

Also promising: Although it will not reveal the average age of Times subscribers, Hoof Leven says the average has remained stable, in part because new Times subscribers are twice as likely to be under 40 as existing subscribers.

But it will take a lot of new young readers to actually start the needle, and we’ve seen what happens when older audiences disappear and aren’t replaced by younger generations.

Ask the guys who run cable TV networks. They have spent years claiming that no one will ever replace TV with the Internet, and now they are struggling to replace their TV networks with Internet services. In 2022, it is impossible to see the Times losing control of news-paying customers. For years from now, it might seem that this was inevitable.


Thank you for reading the first issue of my media column. I would very much like this to be a two-way relationship: please send advice, praise, criticism, story ideas and anything else that comes to mind. We’ll start with Twitter for now – contrary to common sense, I am reading my mentions – but see this space soon for alternative communication strategies.



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