The New York Times’ Digital Journey
How can The New York Times continue to fulfill its mission and customer promise when there are so many competing and free online news sources?
The New York Times’ Digital Journey
The New York Times’ core purpose is “to enhance society by creating, collecting and distributing high-quality news and information” (according to their company website) . With this goal in mind, the explosion of the digital world has made the reach/distribution of their report easier to distribute on a global scale.
The Times’ Flagship News Products
However, the new digital world has been difficult too — changing customer expectations, new competitors, and issues with monetizing a non-physical product. Furthermore, what does the future of the company look like? How can it continue to lead in journalism and generate sizable profits when there are so many free news sources available online?
Original Customer Promise meets New Expectations
While the Times can reach more people at the touch of a button and have a wider-spanning reach, the element of immediacy puts pressure on the newsroom to produce news around the clock. Without the bottleneck of the printing press and getting physical papers to readers’ doorsteps, the customer expectation is to learn about news as soon as it happens.
This means the newsroom needs to be reporting, analyzing, writing, copy editing, curating and fact checking at all hours of the day to stay competitive. It also means that one of the Times’ biggest value props – being reputable – at times works against its ability to release news more quickly than its competitors.
The Competition – Old and New
Historically, other news publications such as the Wall Street Journal and The Washington Post would be considered the competition. However, now competing in the digital space, The Times now has the increased competition for readers’ time and attention — digitally-native news sources such as The Huffington Post, news aggregators like Flipboard, social media such as Facebook and Twitter, and any other mobile apps that might be consuming a readers’ time during their commute or other downtime. These apps have also contributed to new reading behaviors by making it easier to consume many different sources at one time.
These behaviors discourage brand loyalty and make monetizing more difficult. The paywall (a digital subscription required to access more than a certain number of free articles per month) depends on the Times’ readers desiring to consume more than the allotted amount of free articles per month — 10 free articles/month since its institution .
A few new competitors (Yahoo News, Google Newsstand, BuzzFeed)
Compared to its traditional competitors, The New York Times has done quite well in digitizing quickly and innovating. For a paper known for its long history, strong culture and long-tenured employees, it’s easy to imagine why change would be difficult for the organization. However, the Times put together an innovation team to focus on this issue and their report was leaked in 2014 .
The Front Cover of the leaked Innovation Report
The report was honest about the Times’ biggest challenges and areas of growth, discussing the need for the paper to focus on building out its digital business despite the lion share of its revenue still coming from its declining paper business.
The institution of the paywall in 2011  was successful in revenue generation. However, there was and continues to be a large subset of US news readers who are satisfied with free news sources.
Another challenge is that while the paid subscriptions of the Times have increased, revenue has still fallen . This is somewhat attributed to declining advertising revenue. Another contributing factor may be that the Times is unable to offer its digital subscriptions at similar prices to its home delivery ones .
The Times needs to find a way to monetize the readers who are not paid subscribers, and who aren’t producing enough revenue by advertising impressions alone. While their readership is high, they need to find a way to build brand loyalty, and that is going to take some innovating since quality journalism alone is not proving to produce a strong enough revenue stream.
They’ve already made progress by innovating rapidly. The Times has come out with a variety of new products focused on repackaged verticals of their report such as NYT Now, a streamlined version of the news, and NYT Cooking, 15,000+ digitized Times recipes packaged into a website and app. They also have started to produce Virtual Reality apps , aligning themselves with new technology, and by doing so, hopefully address a new audience.
The Times still has 165 years of news, information, photos, analysis which are an advantage, but also, they need to continue to invest in producing new high quality products that match the quality of their journalism. By doing so, they will build out their base and once their tech-based products are more mature and their user base is large, monetization of new products will come more easily.
(Word count: 800)
 The New York Times Company website, http://www.nytco.com/who-we-are/culture/standards-and-ethics/
 The New York Times Company website, http://www.nytco.com/who-we-are/culture/our-history/
 NiemanLab, “The leaked New York Times innovation report is one of the key documents of this media age,” http://www.niemanlab.org/2014/05/the-leaked-new-york-times-innovation-report-is-one-of-the-key-documents-of-this-media-age/
 NYTimes.com Subscription website, https://www.nytimes.com/subscriptions/Multiproduct/
 The New York Times website, “New York Times Co. Reports Loss as Digital Subscriptions Grow,” http://www.nytimes.com/2016/05/04/business/media/new-york-times-co-q1-earnings.html
 NYT VR http://www.nytimes.com/marketing/nytvr/
Student comments on The New York Times’ Digital Journey
Laura, amazing article and really happy to see someone who is expert to talk about what is happening to this industry. To be honest, a couple of years ago I was pretty sure institutions like NYT would have difficulty to justify their presence in a couple of years. After the recent election though, I am pretty sure they have their spot in the market.
As a ton of news populates our newsfeed in Facebook everyday, we would need some to provide us with a reliable source of news. Internet is full hoaxes and fake news while the world is full of people willing to believe without filtering what they read online and re-post them. We need some institutions to guarantee broadcasting confirmed, real news. NYT need, in my eyes, to find ways to meet that need and not just become another portal.
Great post on an industry that has been extremely challenged by the rise of technology – thanks for sharing your experience. I agree with your view that “The Times needs to find a way to monetize the readers who are not paid subscribers”. Your perspective is that “quality journalism alone is not proving to produce a strong enough revenue stream.” However, I wonder the extent to which expanding their product offering may come in direct conflict with their mission “to enhance society by creating, collecting and distributing high-quality news and information”. For example, NYT Cooking recipes may require new staff to create and package these into the website/app which may divert resources away from “quality journalism”. You mention that “the customer expectation is to learn about news as soon as it happens”, but the Times is investing in initiatives like NYT Cooking which are more timeless. My guess would be that there is even more competition when it comes to recipes that are readily available online. If customers struggle to pay for news in a world of free data what makes you confident their willingness to pay will increase as they introduce timeless products beyond the news? My concern is that the Times could fall into a death spiral of adding more service, at a higher cost without this necessarily translating into brand loyalty and higher profitability.
I’m thrilled that you brought up journalism and were able to leverage your first-hand knowledge of the Times’ digitization strategies. I know this issue has gotten a lot of attention over the past 10-15 years, but as you’ve noted we still haven’t reached any kind of equilibrium. And given our current troubles with fake news, the challenge of generating sufficient revenue to sustain high-quality journalism in the digital age seems as important as ever.
I don’t think I can add much to your analysis of the New York Times, but I think that the sacrifices that smaller newspapers have had to make are worth noting. While staff cutbacks and print suspensions have garnered plenty of attention, the outsourcing of journalism through outlets like LocalLabs (formerly Journatic). A few years ago, an episode of This American Life revealed that Journatic writers–most of whom were based in the Philippines–were using fake bylines. That well-known newspapers like the Chicago Tribune were publishing these stories suggests the pressure to cut costs while maximizing content generation has resulted in a worrisome loss of editorial control.
While it’s difficult to imagine stalwarts like the WSJ, NYT, and WaPo resorting to such measures, it’s important to note that these papers are facing similar pressures. I doubt there’s a silver bullet solution, but it’s encouraging to see that NYT subscriptions are up since the election, suggesting our frustration with fake news might finally be high enough to motivate us to pay for the real thing.
Great post. From reading your interesting article and also your comments in class, I have a new appreciation for the amount of time, investment, and effort the NY Times has put into building out its digital platforms.
Your post made me think about the purchase of the Washington Post by Amazon’s Jeff Bezos in the last few years that has led to tremendous growth in readership and development of its digital offerings (http://www.businessinsider.com/how-the-washington-post-changed-after-jeff-bezos-acquisition-2016-5). The purchase by Bezos was an opportunity for the Washington Post to modernize, restructure, and innovate and take advantage of access to the technology resources/contacts associated with Amazon and Bezos. After reading your post, I wondered whether a similar acquisition by another technology company would be advantageous for the NY Times going forward.
I agree that one of the most significant value propositions of the NY Times is its identity as a reputable news source. I wonder whether recent conversations following the Presidential election about the proliferation of “fake news” on the internet would lead to bolstered support going forward for news sources like the NY Times (http://www.nytimes.com/2016/11/20/opinion/sunday/facebook-and-the-digital-virus-called-fake-news.html).
Great to see that NY Times is offering a wide range of digital products to stay relevant for consumers who demand immediacy. I do think that newspaper businesses will continue to find the rise of substitute social media news avenues a challenge. As unreliable as these sources of information maybe, time and again it has been seen that there is a large fraction of the population who is also very vocal that values sensational journalism over credible journalistic endeavors. While it is NY Times responsibility to stay true to its promise of authentic reliable news reporting, I wonder whether they can leverage digital as an opportunity to change consumers reliance on social media. One possibility could be to build a platform or an app that immediately confirms whether news is authentic or fake and can direct consumers to reliable NY times sources of information. Digital value added services and then monetizing them in my opinion are key for newspaper business to stay afloat.
Hi Laura, thanks for sharing a great piece and bringing up such an interesting topic for discussion. NY Times has done an amazing job in battling the digitization trend, which has proven to be devastating for the traditional printed media. I remember a few years back people were predicting that no one can ever charge for news anymore. I agree with the sentiments you shared in the post and couple of the comments. NY Times needs to differentiate itself by offering real news that adds value to its readers. The question you raised about monetization, declining revenue and appealing to broader audience is a tough question. Unfortunately I don’t have a good answer and I do not think the initiatives such as VR apps are the right one. There just seems to be some mismatch in targeted audience. Maybe they ought to have strategic partnership with some social medium platform?
Thanks for a fantastic read Laura. It particularly interesting to hear your view given your experience. Very happy to hear that such a wide range of digital offerings are available, and that post election subscriptions are up. I too believe that there will always be a place for quality journalism and analysis. Are you worried that by focussing on building out their userbase there is a risk that NYT will risk running out of cash before sufficient monetisation is possible? Additionally what is the Times’ plan for attracting a broader audience in the future given the aversion of millennials to paying for content?
I believe one reason the New York Times was successful in its transition to digital (besides due to Laura working there), and will continue to be successful is its brand. Laura mentioned its status as a reputable news source. Its repute includes reporting accurately on the news. But it also includes a reputation for quality and thoughtfulness.
I believe that highlighting the Times’ quality will be crucial in getting people past the paywall. You are right to point out that people don’t pay for the Times to get the fastest news. But they do pay for it to get very high-quality and well-written news. Free news sources abound. But if you are going to spend your time reading the news, you might as well read high-quality news. Or this is how the New York Times should pitch its product, in my view, anyways!