The New York Times: Leading by Example

— Bella Foxwell, Digital Writer 

If you’d questioned the brightness of The New York Times’ future a few years ago, the answer would have been comparatively grim compared with today.

We got used to hearing ‘print is dead’. In a Gawker article from 2010, Hamilton Nolan shared a survey that revealed fewer than half of American print news editors were confident their papers would exist for another ten years. With over 10,000 US newspaper jobs lost over the years 2008-2009, he concluded “the death of print is still coming…but at a marginally slower rate.”

People only had to look to their own habits to know that times were changing. When was the last time you bought a tangible book, magazine or book? Or, to rephrase the question, how often do you buy these things compared to their digital counterparts?

The outlook looked bleak. Much-loved British magazines shut up shop left, right and centre. Newspapers closed their print editions.   

In 2004, The New York Times was also in trouble – and it took until 2012, with the arrival of ex-BBC executive Mark Thompson as CEO, for the paper to finally begin to come out the other side. The Times experienced its own ‘fake news’ scandal in 2004, long before the phrase had become as ubiquitous as today, with numerous stories fabricated by junior reporter Jayson Blair. Not long afterwards, reporter Judith Miller got caught up in lies about weapons of mass destruction and was subsequently sacked.

After a rocky decade, Mark Thompson took the helm with the goal of increased video content and switching the main source of revenue from advertising to digital subscriptions. In order to do this, he had to look beyond news. Following the examples set by Netflix and Spotify, the Times invested heavily in its core offering – journalism – while adding new features and services (from interactive newsbots to real estate listings), turning the subscription into an indispensable asset to existing and future subscribers.

The newspaper’s reversal in fortune is due to its proactive approach. It’s by no means a clear road ahead – the paper is still $300 million short of its 2020 goal of $800 million digital-only revenue - but as it stands, its model has repositioned the Times on an upward trajectory. Early last year, it forged a deal with Facebook to produce dozens of livestreams a month for Facebook Live in exchange for $3 million a year. More than 300 journalists have livestreamed anything and everything, and though the public editor, Liz Spayd, criticised these efforts in her column headlined “Facebook Live: Too Much, Too Soon,” Dean Baquet, executive editor, argued: “I disagree it’s possible to have every single thing be up to the standard. Otherwise you can’t take any risks.”

This risk-taking is paying off. It has been up to Sam Dolnick, associate editor, to try to shake people out of the “Timesian” mind-set (an internalised, institutionally derived reluctance) and drum up enthusiasm internally to try new applications. One example of activity distinctly un-Timesian was during the Rio Olympics. Deputy sports editor Sam Manchester sent comical text messages to 20,000 readers who had signed up, sparking a viral meme of a lifeguard watching swimmers practise.

Every app, blog and vertical under development is managed by Beta Group, the Times’ digital initiative. Because it knows that subscribers won’t pay for news alone, Beta is responsible for developing a new suite of editorial products to keep them coming. The group is currently working on Well, a health and fitness blog that will soon offer personalised training and advice services and Watching, a vertical dedicated to TV and movie recommendations.

Embracing its digital mission, The New York Times has tempered the decline in print advertising. Across both print and digital, it has amassed more than 3 million paying subscribers and in 2016, circulation revenue rose 3 percent to $881 million.

How much longer print will survive isn’t certain. But what is clear is that The New York Times’ digital transformation has secured its future in the lives of the next generation. The message to communicators is clear: evolve or die.