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June 9, 2017, 11:30 a.m.
Business Models

Newsonomics: CEO Mark Thompson thinks The New York Times can “aspire to a different order of magnitude”

“For the first time in the history of the company, and arguably for one of the first times in the history of legacy media, we have the beginnings of a fundamentally integrated approach.”

What’s the life cycle of change for a modern news organization? How about 18 months?

“We are finding that about once every 18 months, there’s some new big strategy statement,” New York Times CEO Mark Thompson told me this week after the announcement of a digital reorganization that included the promotion of CRO Meredith Kopit Levien to EVP and COO, and the elimination of Kinsey Wilson’s EVP of product and technology position.

“I think this is probably my third digital reorganization, and I haven’t been here five years yet,” Thompson said. “We are constantly course-correcting, adjusting as we make progress. A new opportunity and a new shape becomes possible, and we move to the new one. This won’t be the end of it: Everything is moving, our audience is moving, technology is moving, and we are working hard to make sure the organization is moving too.”

Levien is the Times’ first chief operating officer since Janet Robinson held that position in 2004. In her time as CRO, she focused on transforming the Times’ ad business with high-profile ventures like the T Brand Studio.

Then she drilled further into the Times’ already successful digital business. She and Clay Fisher, the Times’ SVP of consumer marketing and revenue, are credited inside the building with professionalizing what had been a “paywall experiment.” The Times led a movement that normalized reader subscriptions for digital news.

Now Levien’s challenge is to expedite the Times’ new product engine, finding more paying customers for products that already exist (Cooking, Watching) and are in the pipeline (potential health products).

In the shuffle, Kinsey Wilson, a pivotal figure in legacy-to-digital transformations at USA Today and NPR before the Times — leaves his full-time position as the Times’ editor for innovation and strategy and EVP, product and technology; that role is being eliminated. For now, he’ll stay on in a less-defined role.

Wilson bridged a digital culture and skills gap that was still apparent when he joined the company in early 2015. A year before, the Times’ own newsroom report had identified lots of problems in how the newsroom was approaching the digital age.

Today, the Times has a lot of confidence. It has more than three million print and digital subscribers and has been adding new digital subscriptions at the rate of almost 100,000 a month for six months.

Thompson is placing most of the business side in Levien’s hands, though he retains direct responsibility for “data” and “technology.” The COO title positions Levien, 46, as a potential successor to Thompson, 59.

I talked to Thompson and Levien about succession, about the key reasons for this restructuring, and about how the company looks at Thompson’s 10-million-subscriber march.

Ken Doctor: Meredith’s rise at the Times has been meteoric. Mark, what’s impressed you?

Mark Thompson: I hired Meredith from Forbes probably getting along three or four years ago. My experience has been that when I’ve given Meredith a challenge, things happen and they happen quite quickly and they happen pretty much entirely in a positive direction. There’s a repeated cycle whereby I dare to challenge her.

Meredith and I both agreed in 2013 that advertising essentially had to be reinvented in the company. Everyone said that was true of print advertising, but it was even more true of our digital advertising. We just had to think about it in an entirely fresh way.

Doctor: And that resulted in T Brand Studio and new mobile ad formats.

Thompson: Yes. With digital subscriptions, it’s an entirely different story. I thought that the direct marketing effort of the New York Times, and Denise Warren [the Times’ head of advertising and digital in the early paywall days] in particular, had done heroic work in launching the pay model.

I also felt, though, that we had to move from the classic newspaper circulation department to a state-of-the-art digital marketing operation, and I thought Meredith was the perfect partner to work on that. We threw in the creation of brand marketing efforts and brought David Rubin in from Pinterest.

Doctor: The Times seems to be a profoundly different place, by all accounts, than it was two years ago. There’s been a major push to make the Times a subscriber-first company and rebuild both the organization and culture around that, with a faster product development and time to market.

Meredith Levien: We’ve tried to hire really great people who have deep domain expertise, and retain the great people we have who have deep domain expertise. We want to make sure those people have a bias to action and then create the conditions around which they can act.

We’re looking at where the consumer is going, what they are seeking from the experience, before we define our our structure, our product…[We want] the person on the other end of the journalism, who is making a habit of our products, to be at the center of every decision that we make. We want to make it easier and better for them to engage more and more with journalism.

Doctor: As you restructure both the Times’ core news product and NYT Beta, the new product creation team, you’ve got a couple of top open positions, right? You haven’t filled David Perpich’s product role since he took over the Wirecutter business

Thompson: One of our key openings is one we’re calling the head of products and design. We’ll be looking at people with a range of different experiences — design and user experience people, as well as people who’ve got the more “general manager” form of leadership. We want to bring those two together.

If you like the core experience of New York Times journalism, we want to make it more relevant to different kinds of audiences and other countries. We want to help the newsroom make it more multimedia. That’s one way of increasing the value we get from engaged readers and building the number of engaged readers.

There are also very interesting questions about adding features and enhancement, in the way that the crossword product and the Cooking app do.

We’re always deciding whether these should be separate, freestanding apps, standalone products — or whether they should be things that we bundle into different portfolios of value, driving different levels of subscription monetization. We have to have a richer product set when we think about how to monetize the user.

Doctor: Health is very important to Times readers. It’s been a continuing conundrum at the Times for a few years — how to serve health interests and make money.

You plan to launch Cooking as a paid product in a month or so. Is it possible that by the beginning of 2019 — 18 months from now — you might have three additional paid products? Is that in the ballpark?

Thompson: I think it’s possible. There are international rollouts, there is even more doubling down on smartphone first, and there are new audiences in the U.S. Sixty-six percent of The Daily’s listeners are under 40. Intelligent, witty, thoughtful audio for younger audiences is an incredible opportunity for the Times.

We’re also very interested in whether there are opportunities for us in over-the-top television. We love the idea of a suite of additional products. The combination of our crossword product with our core product, in terms of encouraging some subscribers to pay more for the Times, is extremely encouraging.

Doctor: If you could get, you know, 1.1 subscriptions per subscriber, that would huge. On the other hand, if you can bring in more individual subscribers, you hit that 10 million mark you mentioned last year. Was that 10 million subscribers or 10 million subscriptions? You never specified.

Thompson: God forgive me [laughing], I meant 10 million subscribers. What I’m really saying is: We should aspire to a different order of magnitude. There are hundreds of millions of people in the world who speak English and have a college degree. A large number of them are really interested in what’s happening in the world. We should aspire to penetrate that market. I mean, five percent of that would be more than 10 million.

Doctor: In your last reorg, you managed to create a dynamic balance between the newsroom and the Times’ commercial departments. That’s a balance that’s always been hard to strike. Kinsey Wilson’s role seemed to work well to spur collaboration, and now you’re eliminating that position. Are you concerned that in solving one problem, you may have unsolved another?

Thompson: I absolutely believe that great journalism from the newsroom and great opinion from the editorial department is the foundation of everything we do, of all our success. The Times has never had business-side people more aware of that. I’m a journalist and an editor myself by trade. Our newsroom remains a freestanding entity in terms of its own decision making, and rightly so.

For the first time in the history of the company, and arguably for one of the first times in the history of legacy media, we have the beginnings of a fundamentally integrated approach — where we don’t just have an audience strategy and a journalism strategy and a product strategy and an advertising strategy and a subscription strategy, but we have a strategy that has all of those elements.

Kinsey Wilson has done a fantastic job for us. His vision, his insight, his contacts, his instincts about what I sometimes call the ergonomics of digital, are vital. He’s still helping us with our digital vision, and I’m going to be working more closely with him over the next nine months than I’ve probably done in the past few years.

Doctor: Any concerns about maintaining that collaborative spirit?

Thompson: It’s a bit like in the movie 2001: We can actually dock the two spacecraft. We can dock the the digital-first, smartphone-first New York Times newsroom directly into the operations. We can draw the newsroom directly and deeply into the conversation about the future of product — the look and feel, the ergonomics of the experience — in a way we couldn’t have done two and a half years ago.

I hope that our newsroom will have close, direct relationships with Meredith and some of the key colleagues in operations. We don’t need an intermediary, a sort of marriage counselor, because of the progress we’ve made. It can be very direct and practical now.

Doctor: Succession is on the mind of any intelligent company. Meredith, you have these immediate priorities, but this promotion is clearly seen in part as a further grooming for a potential successor to Thompson. Any reason not to say that?

Levien: One job at a time.

Thompson: We think hard about succession. I wouldn’t be doing my job if I weren’t thinking about making sure that the board has good choices inside the building when that moment happens.

The New York Times is now 21 years into the digital story. It launched its website in 1996. Even if everything goes well, if you’re talking about transitioning over to a fully digital New York Times, I expect we’ll be printing The New York Times for at least another 10 years.

This is a long story. It’s the application of innovation, the courage to make significant changes, making sure you’ve got the right talent and the right studies in place, and excellent implementation over years, to make sure the Times is a successful, flourishing, digital company.

It’s a really long game, and we’re up for it.

Photo of The New York Times building by samchills used under a Creative Commons license.

POSTED     June 9, 2017, 11:30 a.m.
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