CRF Blog

Keeping Up With the Times

by David De La Torre

In Keeping Up With the Times, Wired magazine reports on how the New York Times is responding to the digital age.

The main goal isn’t simply to maximize revenue from advertising — the strategy that keeps the lights on and the content free at upstarts like the Huffington Post, BuzzFeed, and Vox. It’s to transform the Times’ digital subscriptions into the main engine of a billion-dollar business, one that could pay to put reporters on the ground in 174 countries even if (OK, when) the printing presses stop forever. To hit that mark, the Times is embarking on an ambitious plan inspired by the strategies of Netflix, Spotify, and HBO: invest heavily in a core offering (which, for the Times, is journalism) while continuously adding new online services and features (from personalized fitness advice and interactive newsbots to virtual reality films) so that a subscription becomes indispensable to the lives of its existing subscribers and more attractive to future ones. “We think that there are many, many, many, many people — millions of people all around the world — who want what The New York Times offers,” says Dean Baquet, the Times’ executive editor. “And we believe that if we get those people, they will pay, and they will pay greatly.”

How they reach those people, and how they make them pay, is now the work of hundreds of journalists, designers, engineers, data scientists, and product managers. At stake isn’t just the future of a very old newspaper that has seen its advertising revenue cut in half in less than a decade — it’s the still unresolved question of whether high-impact, high-cost journalism can thrive in a radically changing landscape. Newspaper companies today employ 271,000 fewer people than they did in 1990 — around the population of Orlando — and with fewer journalists working with fewer resources, and more Americans getting their news on platforms where the news could very well be fake, the financial success of the Times isn’t an incidental concern for people who care about journalism. It’s existential, especially in the context of the new American president.

Just days after the election, Trump suggested that the Times — or, per his preferred Twitter epithet, “the failing @nytimes” — would be a frequent target of his administration, calling an article “dishonest” for citing something he had said on CNN (which was odd, since he did actually say it, in public, on video) and adding (also falsely) that the Times “is losing thousands of subscribers because of their very poor and highly inaccurate coverage.” In fact, it’s been the exact opposite: Four weeks after the election, Times chief executive Mark Thompson told an industry conference that subscriptions had surged at 10 times their usual rate. To Thompson, the likeliest explanation wasn’t that the Times did a bang-up job covering the final days of the election — like everyone else, they failed to anticipate Trump’s victory — or that readers were looking to hedge against fake news. He suggests a simpler reason: “I think the public anxiety to actually have professional, consistent, properly funded newsrooms holding politicians to account is probably bigger than all of the other factors put together.” In other words, the president’s hostility to the press and the very notion of facts themselves seems to have reminded people that nothing about The New York Times — or the kind of journalism it publishes — is inevitable. [more]