The New York Times is a journalism marvel. Not coincidentally, it is also a rare business success story in journalism. Rather than succumbing to the weight of digital competition, the newspaper transformed its business model and now relies on money from its readers rather than advertisers. That strategy allowed it to thrive for the past decade while the rest of the news industry went into convulsions.
But while the Times has been hugely successful in getting 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 doesn’t seem to bother many of the people who work on the editorial side of the newspaper. But it’s very important to the Times’ business team — who won’t 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. It doesn’t just want more subscribers. It also wants different types of subscribers.
So even as the Times is thriving, the executives — led by CEO Meredith Kopit Levien — are creating a new kind of Times, one that sells news and a whole lot of other stuff. It is an inherently risky proposition.
For starters, there’s the money: The Times’ recent acquisition of Athletic, the sports news startup targeting a younger and more centrist subscriber than someone who pays for the Times, costs more than $600 million — more than the half the money the Times has accumulated during its boom. It also puts money into add-on services like games, a cooking area, and an audio arm.
The Times strategy also poses a risk to outsiders, such as the people who work at local newspapers across the country, and the people who depend on those newspapers to tell them what’s happening in their communities. Those newspapers have been battling the Athletic for sports fans’ time and money in recent years. Now they’re competing with the Times — whose editorial staff has for years lamented the fragile, shrinking 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.”
It hasn’t gotten any better since then. Even if you’re lucky not in a news desertDo you 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 for the Times, which remains a unicorn of American journalism – with huge resources and a wealthy audience that will fund those resources and protect it from the perils of an advertising market.
The Times has only two real national competitors, both of which are comparable issues Right away aging subscriber base, but also have the luxury of various support structures: The Wall Street Journal depends on a wealthy corporate audience and their employers to pay for subscriptions; the Washington Post relies on owner Jeff Bezos, one of the richest men in the world.
And beyond that there is… not much. Digital start-ups that once seemed to threaten the Times’ dominance have disappeared or at least been drastically hampered in dashing plans in recent years. Last month, BuzzFeed, whose founder Jonah Peretti insisted that his company’s ad-based model would allow it to provide free news to many more people than the Times subscriber base, announced another round of cuts to its news unit, which soon about 70 employees – two thirds less than the peak.
And a new wave of subscriber-oriented digital publishers is either targeting a specific and limited audience, such as the eight-year-old the information, which relies on business subscribers, or Substack’s newsletter model, which isn’t built to support newsrooms at all. The fact that the mighty Times may already be banging its head against the limits of its audience for paid news should send everyone else real shivers.
The Times, for the record, says it’s fine with its current subscriber base and its outlook for the future. The current mantra is that it believes there are 135 million English speakers around the world who want to consume the kind of digital products it makes. Which means that with 10 million subscribers, there are many years of runway ahead of us.
On the other hand, you don’t have to search hard to find evidence that the Times thinks it needs more stuff to sell. Exhibit A: The purchase of the Athletic, which grows rapidly but costs money. When Kopit Levien announced the deal in January, she went out of her way to claim that buying the Athletic meant her business would reach an entirely new set of customers — there’s only a “modest overlap” between the Athletic’s subscriber base and the Times, she told investors†
The Times hasn’t spent that much money buying a new audience in a long time. The last time it tried, in 1993, it was a disaster: The Times bought the Boston Globe for $1.1 billion, eventually selling it two decades later in a sale for $70 million. And the $550 million in cash the Times is spending on the Athletic underestimates the Times’ investment: Last year the Athletic lost $55 million, and Kopit Levien says it will continue to run at a loss for the next three years — now funded by the Times – year.
Importantly, the deal puts the Times in direct competition with local newspapers across the US, which are already struggling for survival. The Athletic was built specifically to compete with local dailies, hiring their top sports writers to take their audiences – “We’ll wait every local paper and continuously bleed them until we’re the last ones left,” co-founder Alex Mather famously told the New York Times in 2017† “We will suck them off their best talent at any time.”
Mather more or less bounced back on his comment, but not on his strategy, which eventually allowed him to expand into 47 markets around the world. That means, from Buffalo to Sacramento to Tampa Bay, he’s torn down the remaining scaffolding that holds up local journalism. For example, a source at the Los Angeles Times tells me that sports are the third biggest motivator for that newspaper’s new subscribers (after local news and entertainment). Imagine what it’s like for a newspaper not owned by a billionaire.
The Times doesn’t like this framing at all. Kopit Levien emphasizes that the Times is not out to undermine your local newspaper, pointing out: cooperative reporting projects the newspaper has done with outlets such as the New Orleans Times-Picayune, and the efforts the newspaper has made to promote local newspapers to its readers† If you buy a subscription to the Athletic, she argues, you should also subscribe to the newspaper of your hometown.
“If you’re interested in getting involved in your local community, a subscription to the Athletic won’t address all those civic interests,” she told me. “We didn’t buy the Athletic to compete against local newspapers. That’s not the point.” But the Times’ intentions don’t matter — his actions do.
In addition to the Athletic, there is plenty of other evidence that clearly shows that the Times is looking for new readers and subscribers beyond its core demo: The paper has increased its investment in non-news products, such as its cooking and gaming verticals (see the recent newspaper acquisition of Wordle, the viral puzzle sensation, for an award in the “low seven digits”), both of which are sold as standalone products and bundled together with the conventional newspaper. Kopit Levien says he will do the same with the Athletic.
And the Times is explicitly trying to reach people who may not consider themselves Times subscribers with a new Marketing campaign, which aims to expand the idea of who a Times subscriber can be. The ads feature testimonials from real Times subscribers discussing Times stories they like — and while two of them featured an older white man and an older white woman, four are people of color† (One of them, Lianna, commented that she enjoyed reading a story about “Imagining Harry Potter Without Its Creator”—a reference that caused a troll-y backlash from the normal suspects who accused the newspaper of threatening JK Rowling. Go figure.)
One thing the Times explicitly doesn’t do is tell its reporters and editors to reshape their reporting to reach new readers. It has done this in the past: In the wake of the newspaper Innovation report — a 2014 paper worrying the Times was being overtaken by digital newcomers like Huffington Post and BuzzFeed — editors there feared the newspaper’s readership was too male. They created a genus”vertical” with the hope of creating stories that might appeal to women† But there is currently no directive “create an agency to appeal to young people who are not rich and liberal”.
On the one hand, that seems like a good thing: The Times has 10 million readers willing to pay for the stuff it already produces, and tinkering with the product could knock them out — so why not find features that could increase instead of?
And for now, Kopit Levien’s strategy seems to be working: In 2021, the newspaper brought in more subscribers in total than two years earlier, and even more news subscribers than in 2019, despite its efforts to keep things off the news.
Also promising: While she doesn’t disclose the average age of a Times subscriber, Kopit Levien says the average has held steady, in part because new Times subscribers are twice as likely to be under 40 as existing subscribers.
But she’s going to need a lot of new young readers to actually move the needle, and we’ve seen what happens when an older audience disappears and isn’t replaced by younger generations.
Ask the guys who run cable TV networks. They have argued for years that no one would ever replace TV with the Internet and now they are struggling to replace their TV networks with Internet services. In 2022, it’s impossible to see the Times lose its grip on customers who pay for news. In years it seems inevitable.
Thank you for reading the first edition of my media column. I’d love for this to be a reciprocal relationship: Please send tips, praise, criticism, story ideas, and anything else you have in mind my way. We’ll start with Twitter for now – contrary to common sense I’m reading my mentions – but keep an eye on this space for alternative communication strategies coming soon.