The New York Times wants its subscribers to be younger and more diverse.

The New York Times is a marvel of journalism. It is no coincidence that this is also a rare success story of the journalistic business. Instead of collapsing under the weight of digital competition, the newspaper has changed its business model and now relies on the money of its readers, not advertisers. This strategy has allowed it to flourish over the past decade while the rest of the news industry has been convulsing.

But while The Times has been tremendously successful in getting people to pay for their journalism, it has not succeeded in changing the type of people who pay for The Times. They remain older, richer, whiter and more liberal than the rest of America.

This does not seem to bother many people who work in the newspaper’s editorial department. But it’s very important to the Times business team – they don’t talk about it publicly, but often discuss it internally, sources tell me. That’s why the Times is trying to create and buy new products to increase its core newspaper subscribers. He doesn’t just want more followers. It also needs different types of subscribers.

So while the Times is thriving, its managers, led by CEO Meredith Kopit Levien, are busy building a new type of Times that will sell news and more. This is a risky proposition from the start.

There’s money to start with: The Times’ recent acquisition of a sports news startup that caters to a younger and more centrist subscriber than who pays for the Times would cost it more than $600 million — more than half the cash. stock accumulated by the Times during its boom. He also invests in additional services such as games, a cooking section, and an audio arm.

The Times strategy also poses a danger to outsiders, such as the people who work for local newspapers across the country and the people who depend on those newspapers to tell them what’s going on in their communities. These newspapers have spent the last few years competing with the Athletic for sports fans’ time and money. Now they’re competing with The Times, whose editorial leadership has lamented for years the fragile, dwindling state of local news.

“I think the biggest crisis in journalism in America is the local news crisis.” Times Executive Editor Dean Backe told me five years ago:. “I think it’s huge.”

This was stated by the executive editor of The New York Times Dean Bake. The Late Show with Stephen Colbert in 2018.
Scott Kowalczyk/CBS via Getty Images

Since then, it hasn’t gotten any better. Even if you happen to live in a desert newsyou 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 is a better strategy available for the Times, which remains the unicorn of American journalism – with vast resources and a rich audience that will fund those resources and shield it from the dangers of the advertising market.

The Times has only two real national competitors, both with the same Problems from aging subscriber base, but who also have the luxury of various support structures: The Wall Street Journal depends on wealthy business audiences and their employers who pay for subscriptions; The Washington Post depends on owner Jeff Bezos, one of the richest men in the world.

And besides that, there is… a little bit. The digital startups that once seemed to threaten the dominance of the Times have disappeared over the past few years, or at the very least curbed ill-advised plans sharply. Last month, BuzzFeed, whose founder Jonah Peretti insisted his company’s ad-driven model would allow it to provide free news to far more people than the Times subscriber base, announced another downsizing of its news department, which would soon be 70 employees — two-thirds less than it was at its peak.

And the new wave of subscriber-focused digital publishers is targeting either a select and limited audience, like an eight-year-old information, which relies on business subscribers, or the Substack newsletter model, which is not designed to support newsrooms at all. The fact that the mighty Times may already be facing its pay-news audience limits should give everyone else a real chill.

The Times, for the record, says it’s doing well with its current subscriber count and future prospects. His current mantra is that he believes the 135 million English speakers want to consume the digital products he creates. This means that at 10 million subscribers, there are still many years of runway ahead.

On the other hand, you don’t have to go to great lengths to find evidence that the Times thinks it needs more stuff to sell. Evidence A: Buying Athletic, which is growing fast but burning money. When Kopit Levin announced the deal in January, she went out of her way to argue that the purchase of Athletic meant her company would get a whole new set of customers — there was only a “minor overlap” between the Athletic and Times subscriber base. she told investors.

The Times hasn’t spent that kind of money buying new audiences in a long time. The last attempt in 1993 ended in disaster: The Times bought the Boston Globe for $1.1 billion, only to sell it in a yard sale two decades later for $70 million. And the $550 million in cash the Times is spending on Athletic understates the Times investment: The Athletic lost $55 million last year, and Kopit Levin says it will continue to operate at a loss – now funded by the Times – for the next three years. years.

Crucially, the deal puts the Times in direct competition with local papers across the US that are already struggling to survive. The Athletic was created specifically to compete with local dailies by hiring their celebrity sports writers to bring their audience with them: “We’ll wait for every local paper to come out and let them bleed incessantly until we’re the last ones left.” will survive,” co-founder. Alex Mather famously told the New York Times in 2017. “We will suck all their best talent out of them at any moment.”

Mather sort of retracted his commentary, but not his strategy, which eventually got him into 47 markets around the world. Which means that from Buffalo to Sacramento to Tampa Bay, he’s tearing down the remaining forests that support local journalism. A source at the Los Angeles Times, for example, told me that sports are the third most important factor in attracting new subscribers to this paper (after local news and entertainment). Imagine what it’s like for a non-billionaire-owned newspaper.

The Times doesn’t like this design at all. Kopit Levien insists The Times is not going to undermine your local daily by pointing to joint reporting projects the paper did away with publications such as the New Orleans Times-Picayune and the efforts the paper made to promote local newspapers to their readers. If you buy a subscription to Athletic, she says, you should also subscribe to your hometown newspaper.

“If you are interested in civic engagement in your local community, an Athletic subscription will not meet all of these civic interests,” she told me. “We bought Athletic not to compete with local papers. That’s not the point.” But the Times’ intentions don’t matter; what matters is its actions.

New York Times President and CEO Meredith Kopit Levien at the Pivot event in Miami earlier this year.
Alexander Tamargo/Getty Images for Vox Media

Aside from the Athletic, there is plenty of other clear evidence that the Times is looking for new readers and subscribers beyond its core demo: the newspaper is increasing its investment in non-news products such as cooking and games (see the newspaper’s recent acquisition of Wordle, a sensational viral puzzle game, priced atseven digit”), both of which are sold as standalone products and also bundled with regular newspaper. Kopit Levien says he will do the same with Athletic.

And The Times is clearly trying to reach out to people who don’t consider themselves subscribers to The Times with a new marketing campaign, which aims to broaden the idea of ​​who a Times subscriber can be. The ad features testimonials from real Times subscribers discussing Times stories they like, and while two of them do feature an older white guy and an older white woman, the other four are people of color. (One of them, Lyanna, remarked that she enjoyed reading the story of “Harry Potter’s Imagination Without Its Creator” – a reference that provoked a troll rebuff from usual suspects who accused the newspaper of threatening JK Rowling. Go figure it out.)

One thing the Times clearly doesn’t do is tell its reporters and editors to restructure their coverage to reach new readers. So it was in the past: after the newspaper Innovation Report — a 2014 paper that worried that the Times was losing ground to digital upstarts like the Huffington Post and BuzzFeed — the editors worried that the paper’s readership was too masculine. They created the floor”vertical” in the hope of creating stories that could appeal to women. But there is no directive to “create a table to appeal to poor and illiberal youth” at the moment.

On the one hand, it looks good: The Times has 10 million readers who are willing to pay for what it already produces, and changing the product could turn them off – so why not find features that could expand its offerings. instead of?

And for now, Kopit Levien’s strategy seems to be working, with the newspaper attracting more subscribers overall in 2021 than it did two years earlier, and even attracting more news subscribers than it did in 2019, despite its efforts to sell material outside of the news.

Also promising: While she doesn’t reveal the average age of a Times subscriber, Kopit Levien says the average age has remained stable, in part because new Times subscribers are twice as likely to be under 40 as existing subscribers.

But she’ll need a lot of new young readers to really move the needle, and we’ve seen what happens when an older audience disappears and isn’t replaced by a younger generation.

Ask the guys who run the cable TV networks. They have spent years claiming that no one will ever replace TV with the Internet, and now they are struggling to replace their TV networks with Internet services. In 2022, it is unimaginable that the Times will lose control of the customers who pay for the news. In a few years, this may seem inevitable.

Thank you for reading the first issue of my media column. I would very much like this to be a two-way relationship: please send me advice, praise, criticism, story ideas, and whatever else you have in mind. We’ll start with Twitter at the moment – contrary to common sense, I’m reading my mentions – but keep an eye on this space for alternative communication strategies soon.

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