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Oct. 7, 2015, 3:57 p.m.
Business Models
Mobile & Apps

4 takeaways from The New York Times’ new digital strategy memo

With a renewed focus on subscriptions, the Times believes it can double its digital revenue to $800 million in 2020.

The New York Times on Wednesday unveiled a plan to reach $800 million in digital revenue by 2020 — double the $400 million in digital revenue it generated in 2014.

nytimes-logoIn order to meet the ambitious goal, which was outlined in a lengthy memo signed by New York Times CEO Mark Thompson, executive editor Dean Baquet, and other executives, the Times plans to redouble its focus on reader engagement and subscriptions. The Times introduced its paywall in 2011, and in July it said that it had reached 1 million digital subscribers — a feat that the paper has been celebrating all week with laudatory stories.

The Times must focus on reaching readers on various social platforms and mobile devices while also converting them into paying subscribers, the memo said. The release of this memo follows the leak of last year’s Innovation Report, which made striking recommendations for how the paper could improve its digital reach and audience engagement.

“Our first two million subscribers — including our more than one million newspaper subscribers — grew up with The New York Times spread out over their kitchen tables,” the Times executives said in the memo. “The next million must be fought for and won over with The Times on their phones.”

Here is a full version of the memo, and here are four of our takeaways.

Simplify subscriptions to reach younger users

Younger readers are key to the Times’ continued growth, and moving forward the paper will be ever more focused on attracting younger subscribers. According to the memo, 40 percent of the Times’ mobile audience is under 35. And 12 percent of the Times’ audience now accounts for 90 percent of its subscription revenue, according to Ravi Somaiya’s report on the memo in the Times.

There is clearly a large audience there, but the challenge is converting them to paying subscribers.

The Times’ first attempt at a lower-priced mobile product, NYT Now, failed to attract a substantial paying audience, and last year the Times made the app free and advertising-supported. Now the Times is looking at other ways it can streamline its paid offerings. For example, since 2011, readers have been asked to pick between several device-centric subscription packages: web plus smartphone, web plus tablet, and web plus smartphone plus tablet.


“As our subscription model approaches its fifth anniversary, we know it must be updated with simplified pricing options that reflect our readers’ multiplatform lives,” the memo says. “We are actively testing to find the right price and approach. Even though it may come with short‐term costs, we believe making our subscription offerings more intuitive will increase subscriber growth and retention, and ultimately revenue, in the long term.”

The Times also says it needs to make it easier to subscribe. It’ll begin offering free subscription trials and offer more perks to current subscribers.

Improve advertising and sponsorships

Though the Times acknowledged that digital subscribers are key to its future, advertising remains another significant part of its business model. And with the entire industry fretting of late over the rise of ad blockers, the Times said it needs to improve the quality of its ads while also offering new and different advertising and sponsorship opportunities.

The memo highlighted the Times’ work with Google to pair Google Maps with its 36 Hours travel series along with a “remarkable virtual-reality package” that’s forthcoming as ways that “add value to user experiences without confusing readers or compromising the independence of our journalism.” Last month, the Times created a new job for Trish Hall, formerly the deputy editorial page editor, to work with both the editorial and business sides of the paper to identify editorial projects that might be ripe for special sponsorships.

The Times also last month released a new mobile ad format, called Mobile Moments, that surfaces ads that are more suited for mobile consumption and that are customized to the time in the day that they’re being accessed. While the memo lauds this effort, it said the paper must continue to work to improve its mobile and video advertising offerings.

Optimize for different mediums

Over the past year, the Times has made a serious effort to focus less of its attention on print as its primary medium. Earlier this year, the Times changed the structure of its daily news meeting to de-emphasize discussion of what would be on A1 of the next day’s newspaper and instead focus on how the Times is continually covering stories across all its platforms. And just yesterday, Baquet said the Times was creating a centralized editorial team to focus exclusively on print production.

“We are moving most print production responsibilities away from individual desks and placing them in the hands of a centralized group of editors,” Baquet wrote in a memo. “This new centralized print group will be part of a news hub — an expansion of the current news desk — that oversees the placement and presentation of coverage on all platforms.”

In the memo released today, the Times emphasized that it was prioritizing the reader experience on all types of platforms and devices, from smartwatches to email newsletters, as it emphasizes the reality that revenue generated from readers is critical to the organization’s longevity, and, as a result, the Times will need to focus its energy to making the reader experience something worth paying for.

“We are trying new features and making improvements monthly — from mobile alerts connected to readers’ interests to articles that rewrite and contextualize data based on your hometown — and we are assembling teams to take on the more ambitious work of designing fully personalized, responsive experiences, starting with mobile,” the memo said.

Last year, the Times released its NYT Cooking site and app, which is a compendium of all the recipes from the Times’ food coverage. (The app is free, but some have speculated that the Times will make it a paid product.) NYT Cooking now has about 5 million monthly users, according to the memo, and the Times plans to expand the approach to real estate, health, and film and television.

“Together these efforts aim to reimagine our features sections for the mobile era with the same vigor and creativity that we put into launching them in the 1970s,” the memo said.

The memo also said the Times will extend its work to changing the structure and practice of the organization to reach these goals. This month, for the first time ever, all reporters will have access to a suite of analytics tools to see how readers are consuming and engaging with their stories.

It also emphasized increased cross-department collaboration to build new products that will attract and retain users.

“Over the next few years, the battle is going to be won or lost on smartphones,” the memo said. “This continues to be our biggest area of focus in every part of the organization. But longer term, we have to build a flexible organization that can respond quickly to future changes in technology and user behavior.”

Extend international reach

The Times said it already has paying subscribers in 193 countries, but it’s also looking to reach new audiences outside the United States in order to grow its paying subscriber base.

This year, the Times began translating a handful of stories each day into Spanish for a new América section on its website and corresponding social media accounts. The paper also often translates one-off features or columns into other languages when they relevant. In September, the Times also began targeting readers in Asia through the popular messaging app WeChat with posts in English and Chinese.

In today’s memo, The Times said it’ll continue “to tailor our journalism and products to make them more relevant for specific new audiences, rather than viewing the rest of the world as just one big audience.”

International editor Joseph Kahn and Stephen Dunbar-Johnson, the Times’ international president, are working together “to ensure we are aggressively executing a unified approach to international content, audience development, and monetization efforts across the company,” the memo said.

While the Times said distributed platforms such as Snapchat and Facebook’s Instant articles are key ways to expose global to the Times’ journalism, its emphasis will still be to bring readers back to the Times’ own websites and apps even as it undertakes additional experimentation in those areas.

“But our clear focus remains on driving interested readers back to our platforms where we can expose them to the full breadth of our work and help them build a lifetime relationship with The New York Times.”

Photo by Scott Beale used under a Creative Commons license.

POSTED     Oct. 7, 2015, 3:57 p.m.
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