The New York Times and content in the digital age

Simon Kahn / November 2018

A global news organization with over 150 years of history, The New York Times has successfully embraced technology to cultivate loyalty among their customers. I sat with Julia Clyne, executive director, advertising for APAC at The New York Times Company, for a chat about how technology has overhauled their way of thinking.

Simon: Technology has disrupted the print industry, but The New York Times has come out on top by adopting digital-first strategies. What role has technology played in your business?

Julia: Digital technology is in our DNA now, but it took a bit of time to get where we are now. We assumed that because we had a recognizable brand, people would find our content through our website in the same way that they came to us in print. What we realized was that, in a digital world, we really need to proactively reach out to readers in order to connect them with our content.

To do that, we incorporated audience development as a newsroom function. As a result, we amplify our stories by finding the right audiences for our content across different online channels. We reach over 150 million people online around the world each month and, over time, we have learned what engages readers that eventually brings them toward becoming paying subscribers.

Simon: How do you determine what type of content to invest in? What type of content have you seen resonate with an APAC audience?

Julia: It was only about six years ago that we shifted from an advertising-first business model to a subscriptions-first business model. The process of making this shift took some time, but once we saw that it was a viable model upon which to grow our business, we started to look for opportunities within our company. One of those opportunities has been our international business. What I think is good about our Asia expansion strategy is that we are doing it in a really thoughtful way. Some of our competitors, who have been in the region a lot longer than we have, launched local language products that recently had to close down. So, we are cognizant of the fact that we are competing here with some very established local players, and we are learning from what has worked and not worked for them.

We are constantly working on getting to know our readers in Asia better. Reporting local stories with an American perspective can be quite sensitive, so we try to familiarize ourselves with the nuances of specific markets. From a product perspective, we are trying to do a better job of adapting the experience based on where the reader is. A lot of people think we only cover U.S.-centric news, but we actually publish more than 300 articles from 190 different countries daily. Our product needs to surface the right content based on what is most relevant for a specific reader.

Simon: There has historically been a church-and-state separation between the newsroom and the business. How has the company’s digital transformation affected culture internally?

Julia: I’d say our culture hasn’t been as pro-change until recently. We have always described our business as a mission-based one. For our founders, The Times was about publishing content without fear or favor — content that was completely editorially independent even if it wasn’t always commercially beneficial.

Because of that, there is a desire to protect what we have always done. In the past decade, we have started to separate what we do just because of tradition versus traditions that are critical to our core mission. One big part of that was to build channels of communication between the newsroom and the business side of the company and to encourage cross-departmental collaboration. It took some very influential figures to do that. We have made a lot of changes beyond that to the product, the tech, and the marketing. Some of the changes have been painful, but the company is now aligned with the fact that we have to change in order to survive.

Simon: Another big change for The Times was the evolution from an advertising-first to a subscriptions-first model. How has that affected the ads business?

Julia: It has actually helped the ads business in two big ways. First, being subscription-focused means that we have an audience that pays for our content. We can offer our advertisers readers who are valuable and highly-engaged. And second, we are obsessed with the reader experience and pushing the boundaries on developing new and relevant storytelling formats. Our teams have become experts at using different types of media to tell more compelling stories, and we can ship this expertise to our advertisers.

The metrics we care about have also changed. When you are advertiser-driven, you are looking for reach because you want to be selling impressions, but when you’re subscriber-driven, you care about how long a reader stayed on an article: Did they scroll the whole way down? Did they click through to a different section? Did they come back the next day? Did they become a subscriber?

Simon: What does the future look like for your industry?

Julia: Many people have said that “print is dead” for a long time, but I would say it’s not dead — it’s evolving. We’ve seen a resurgence of print advertising in Europe recently because advertisers there have found that print can actually be superior in terms of brand building and effectiveness compared to some other channels, so I feel quite positive about the industry. However, for The New York Times, we do have to explore the possibility of a business model without print. We’re asking ourselves, “Are we able to produce the same quality of journalism if we are a digital-only media company?” and the answer to this today, happily, is yes based on the success of our new digital subscription-based business model.

How has your business been shaped by new technology as our world becomes increasingly digital-first? I would love to hear about it. Drop me a comment on LinkedIn.

Stay tuned for future editions of CMO Fireside Chat, where chief marketers and business leaders around the region give us an inside look at the strategies that move the market.

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