The New York Times has made a bet: Whatever the much-hyped “business model” that sustains journalism in the future, quality will bring in the money.
“The future of The New York Times is going to be based on producing powerful journalism,” Times Executive Editor Dean Baquet told The Huffington Post. “At a moment when people are panicking and throwing up their hands and saying, ‘We don’t know what future holds,’ we’re saying that we, too, believe we have to be responsive to the future.”
It’s a bolder strategy than it may seem at first, and it sets the Times apart from similarly sized competitors that are slimming down their news-gathering operations in the face of declining ad revenue. The Los Angeles Times, for instance, has slashed its newsroom from 1,200 journalists to under 500 today, with another round of layoffs rumored to be in the works.
The Times, on the other hand, has fiercely guarded the size of its news-gathering operation: with about 1,300 people, it is the same size as it was 15 years ago.
Baquet hastened to point out that the number now includes many positions that didn’t exist before -- video producers, interactive editors and data journalists. “It’s built differently, but it’s one of the few [newsrooms] that’s as robust as it always was,” he said. “That’s consistent with the company's financial bet, which is that we have this group of very engaged readers who are willing to pay lots for the print and digital New York Times.”
This week, the Times announced it had reached a milestone of 1 million digital subscribers and 1.1 million print-digital subscribers -- the highest total subscriber base in its 164-year history. To celebrate the achievement, the Times has made 50 of its most noteworthy articles since 2011 -- the year the paper started offering digital subscriptions -- available for free online.
Baquet and Times CEO Mark Thompson announced on Wednesday an ambitious plan to double digital revenue to $800 million by 2020. The paper has not been immune to the pressures facing media operations in the digital age. In the second quarter of this year, the Times' print ad revenue declined by 13 percent. And most of the newspaper's online readers still enjoy Times content for free -- according to a company memo, 12 percent of the Times’ digital readership accounts for 90 percent of digital revenue. In other words, the Times still relies on its most loyal readers to keep the Grey Lady afloat.
The company sees cultivating more of these loyal readers as the key to its growth.
“If I have to oversimplify it, [our strategy] is growing a significantly larger, engaged audience, which is not the same game as other publications,” Baquet said. “We’re not in the game of having a ginormous audience. Our goal is to have an audience that is robust and deeply engaged.”
In a memo to staff, Baquet and Thompson said the Times would increasingly court young voters and expand its reach internationally to reach its goal.
“We’re really going after building a true international audience,” Baquet said. “We have a pretty significant international subscription audience. The main component is growth. We have the coverage to get it.”
But doubling digital revenue will also require changing the way the Times does business. The company, Baquet and Thompson wrote, must be even more reader-focused than it has been in the past. Indeed, for all the challenges the digital era poses for publishers, analytics have offered unprecedented insight into the behavior and interests of readers.
“We have to learn our audience better than before,” Baquet added. “In the print era, we believed in the reader but didn’t quite understand our audience as much.”
In another sign of how the digital age has changed the business, Baquet and Thompson also called for more collaboration between the business and editorial teams at the Times -- two branches of any news operation that barely talked to each other in the print era.
“While we are going to understand and maintain the separation between church and state where I run news and Meredith [Kopit Levien] runs advertising, we also understand that the way we are going to build The New York Times into the kind of business we had in the print era is everybody sitting down together,” Baquet said. “We’re going to work together in ways we never have before.”