Talking New Media

The New York Times declares 2018 the ‘Year of Audience’

The daily said it now has more than 3.5 million paid subscriptions and wants to add millions of subscribers more in the future, doubling down on its paid readership strategy

The New York Times today said it had created, and would recruit for, three new positions as part of its drive to make 2018 the ‘Year of Audience.’ The paper will be recruiting for a Newsroom Audience Director, an Off-Platform Editor, and an On-Platform Editor.

(The move comes a day after the NY Post reported that the NYT had laid off two-thirds of its ad sales directors.)

The NYT reported progress in its paid readership strategy, saying it now has more than 3.5 million paid subscriptions, and more than 130 million monthly readers. This claim had many journalists claiming victory for the NYT’s strategy.

While the NYT has outperformed many of its counterparts, and much of the credit for this lies in increasing its paid readership numbers, the fact remains that the paper is still operating with low margins, and at revenue levels far below where they were only a few years ago.

For example, while journalists claim the NYT has made great progress with paid readership, its actual circulation revenue through Q3 of 2017 in this area was $739.05 million, while up nearly 13 percent over the same time period in 2016, but was only 6 percent higher than where the company was in 2009.

Having said that, this is a bit of an apples to oranges comparison in that The New York Times Co. trimmed its holdings since that time, selling off most everything other than the NYT itself. Still, total revenue has declined by nearly half in the last decade.

But, and this is important, the company was operating in the red back then, and so has crawled out of a huge hole. Quite an achievement.

Still, looking at the financials, it has been the reduction in costs, the trimming of portfolio, that has done more to bring the NYT back to profitability.

All this sounds like I am a skeptic of the NYT’s strategy. Not quite. I simply believe that a skilled newspaper executive should be able to chew gun and walk at the same time. The goal of increasing paid readership by definition increases audience, and so should be attractive to advertisers. But the company looks to be pursuing a strategy that looks more like that familiar to magazine people — selling cheaper subscriptions to pump up the numbers, but then not looking to sell that audience to advertisers.

(In 2008, through three quarters, the NYTCo. brought in over 1.3 billion in ad revenue. In 2017, that number is just over 28 percent of the 2008 number. Again, a bit of an apples to oranges comparison, still that is money no longer coming in.)

Journalists love the NYT’s strategy. But they generally hate P&Ls. I see that the paper is making good progress in one area, but is on a narrow road to success. It best not have many weak quarters coming up or it may find its road has narrowed to the size of a pinhead.

Here is the NYT’s announcement for its Year of Audience:

NEW YORK, NY — December 7, 2017 — Year of Audience

The newsroom is redoubling its focus on audience and establishing three new leadership positions that will play central roles in developing our audience strategy and running our report. Read more in this note from Dean Baquet, executive editor, Joe Kahn, managing editor, James Bennet, editor, Editorial Page, and Cliff Levy, deputy managing editor:

Our journalism has never been stronger than in recent months — and our audience has responded. We now have more than 3.5 million paid subscriptions and more than 130 million monthly readers, more than double our audience just two years ago.

But we have more work to do if we’re going to realize our ambitions of reaching still more people with Times journalism and adding millions of subscribers in the years ahead.

That’s why we want to make 2018 the year of audience.

Our goal is to ensure that our audience is at the core of our work. That means developing an even clearer view of who we’re going after, how we can best compete for their time and attention and how we can demonstrate to those who don’t yet know us well that Times journalism is so valuable that it’s worth paying for.

To do so, we’re establishing three new leadership positions that will play central roles in the evolution and running of the newsroom and our report. Click the link in each job title to see a fuller description and learn how to apply.

The new newsroom leaders will work closely with existing newsroom teams like Digital Transition, which is responsible for working with desks to translate audience strategies into coverage approaches and best practices for reporters and editors, as well as Analytics, Research and Newsroom Strategy. These leaders will also partner closely with Rebecca Grossman-Cohen, who serves as the company’s vice president for Audience and Platforms. Rebecca and her team, who will spend significant time in the newsroom, are responsible for organizing the development of our audience approach across the company, and for taking the lead on engaging with platforms like Facebook, Google and Apple.

We’re already starting from a strong position. The Audience Development group that Alex MacCallum led from 2014 to 2016 raised our game considerably by introducing digital audience  expertise, data and best practices into the newsroom for the first time. The Social Media and Search teams that remain part of the News Desk are among the best in the business. Our home screen teams program the most urgent and sophisticated report on the Internet — one soon to rise to greater heights as we develop our new home screen. The new Reader Center is helping us surface and respond to readers’ feedback far more quickly and smartly than ever before.

Now, we’re planning to build on these efforts. We’re eager to see who raises their hand to help us do it. And you can expect to hear much more from us about audience in the year ahead.

Dean, Joe, James and Cliff