Why Fake News is Good News for The New York Times Brand

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You’re reading the Huffington Post. Like many people, it’s probably just one of the sources you turn to for news, and for interpretation of the news. Like most people, you make a conscious and well-considered choice about where and how you get your news. Your objective is to choose a source that you trust and that aligns with your values. You are doing what all consumers do when they assess brands. And, yes, news sources are brands. As such, they have to prove that they are different from their competitors. More so, they have to prove that this difference is relevant. That it matters to the people they want to attract. Even more so, as a brand in a fast-changing world, they have to continually shift ahead in order to stay relevant to the people they want to attract.

These days, if you’re a brand in the news business, in addition to the dizzying pace of change, you’re up against two other incredibly disruptive forces in your challenge to attract and keep consumers. These forces can be summed up in two words; “free,” and “fake.” In terms of free, the fact that people can get their daily updates without paying a dime has left many once august news brands in the dust. In terms of fake, well it’s a force to be reckoned with. And, while I thank the Huffington Post for giving me a platform from which to share my opinion, the news brand I’m about to profile relative to its reckoning with both “free” and “fake” is The New York Times.

I had the opportunity to talk to David Rubin, senior vice president and head of audience and brand at The Times, about the challenge of being a news brand today. With free news available from anyone with an iPhone, and fake news from anyone with a Twitter account, what’s the secret to competing as a news brand, let alone succeeding? “Go back to last November,” Rubin told me. “What pops up after the election is a real mass awareness of the fallacy that information is information. We got a real sense of the growing understanding that it does matter where you spend your time and get your information. While we had made the decision to go to a consumer-subscription business model a couple of years prior to this – that is, to focus on people who were willing to, wanted to pay for serious journalism – the election only emphasized the fact that people would pay for this platform. We had a very clear sense of our target and a very clear sense of what we stood for to them. As such, we put an even greater focus on our heavy users who were looking for brilliantly reported news. We doubled down on the quality of engagement. The Times is making an enormous investment in how facts are uncovered, the investigative reporting, on our global resources. Looking at our business through a consumer lens, thinking of ourselves as a brand, we continue to ask ourselves how do we unlock why we are different and worth paying for? We are leveraging the strength of our heritage as a legacy brand, but proving why we matter now.”

“Why we matter now,” is, as I said, the essential factor in how brands shift ahead in their quest to stay successful. While The New York Times has always considered itself a brand, the implications have been amplified in an environment in which news bombards us relentlessly. The Times is winning as a brand because it understands that people use brands as a shortcut to make purchase decisions. For instance, they don’t walk into a supermarket looking for a caramel colored carbonated beverage. They look for the familiar red and white Coca Cola can or bottle. They don’t ask their kids if they want to watch a puppet-populated educational television show about numbers and letters. They ask them if they want to watch Sesame Street. They don’t seek out a news platform that offers serious journalism based on professional reporting and critical analysis across a broad spectrum of channels. They seek out The New York Times.

The availability of free news will not abate. The barrage of fake news will only continue. These categorical challenges have only helped The New York Times strengthen its brand. The conditions have enabled it to sharpen its focus on its heaviest users, and to provide them with the things that really matter to them. In this era of accelerating change and increased competition, as a news brand – as any brand – you can’t afford to be moderately appealing to some people. You have to be significantly appealing to consumers who are passionate about what you have to offer. You have to understand who your audience is, and what it is they want. Then you have to deliver brilliantly. It’s a key rule of branding that has worked for The New York Times. As a proof of my point, the brand just posted a major increase in revenue year-over-year. Following the election of Donald Trump as president, the company reported a profit of $27.7 million in the second quarter of 2017, up from $9.1 million in the same period last year. This is not fake. You can look it up.