The New York Times wants younger, more diverse subscribers

The New York Times is a marvel of journalism. Not coincidentally, it is also a rare success story in the business of journalism. Instead of collapsing under the weight of digital competition, the paper has transformed its business model and now relies on its readers’ money instead of advertisers. That strategy has allowed it to prosper over the past decade while the rest of the news industry was in upheaval.

But while the Times has been very successful in getting people to pay for its journalism, it hasn’t been successful in transforming the kinds of people who pay for the Times. They are still older, richer, whiter, and more liberal than the rest of America.

This doesn’t seem to bother many of the people who work on the editorial side of the paper. But it’s a priority for the Times’ business team, which won’t say it publicly but will often discuss it internally, sources tell me. That is why the Times is trying to build and buy new products to increase the number of newspaper subscribers. You don’t just want more subscribers. You also want different types of subscribers.

So even as the Times thrives, its managers, led by CEO Meredith Kopit Levien, are busy trying to create a new kind of Times, one that sells news and much else. It is an inherently risky proposition.

There’s the money, for starters: The Times’ recent acquisition of Athletic, the sports news startup catering to a younger, more centrist subscriber than one paying for the Times, will set you back more than $600 million, more than half of the cash. treasure the Times has amassed during its heyday. It’s also pouring money into ancillary services like games, a kitchen section, and an audio arm.

The Times’ strategy also poses a risk to outsiders, such as the people who work at local newspapers across the country and the people who rely on those newspapers to keep them informed about what’s happening in their communities. Those papers have spent the last few years competing with Athletic for sports fans’ time and money. Now they are in competition with the Times, whose editorial leadership has spent years lamenting the shrinking and fragile state of local news.

“I think the biggest crisis in journalism in America is the crisis in local news,” Times executive editor Dean Baquet told me five years ago. “I think it’s huge.”

The executive editor of the New York Times, Dean Baquet, in the Late Show with Stephen Colbert in 2018.
Scott Kowalchyk/CBS via Getty Images

It hasn’t improved since then. Even if you’re lucky enough not to live in a news desert, you understand why local news is important not only to people who like the news, but also to people who value democracy.

Nor do I think there is a better strategy available to the Times, which remains an American journalistic unicorn, with enormous resources and a wealthy audience that will fund those resources and free them from the perils of an advertising market.

The Times has only two real national competitors, both of which have similar problems with an aging subscriber base, but also have the luxury of different support structures: The Wall Street Journal relies on a wealthy business audience and its employers to pay subscriptions; the Washington Post is owned by Jeff Bezos, one of the richest men in the world.

And beyond that there is… not much. Digital startups that once seemed to threaten the dominance of the Times have faded or at least drastically curbed heady plans in recent years. Last month, BuzzFeed, whose founder, Jonah Peretti, has insisted that his company’s ad-based model would allow him to provide free news to many more people than the Times’s subscriber base, announced another round of cuts in its news unit. news, it will soon have about 70 employees, two-thirds short of its peak.

And a new wave of subscriber-focused digital publishers are targeting distinct and limited audiences, like Eight-year-old Information, which relies on commercial subscribers, or Substack’s newsletter model, which isn’t designed to support newsrooms at all. . The fact that the mighty Times is already banging its head against the limits of its paid news audience should give everyone else real goosebumps.

The Times, for the record, says it’s fine with its current subscriber roll and its prospects for the future. His current mantra is that he believes there are 135 million English speakers around the world who want to consume the kind of digital products he creates. Which means that, with 10 million subscribers, there are many catwalk years ahead.

On the other hand, you don’t need to look far to find evidence that the Times thinks it needs more material to sell. Exhibit A: His purchase of Athletic, which is growing rapidly but burning through money. When Kopit Levien announced the deal in January, he took pains to argue that buying the Athletic meant his company would reach an entirely new set of customers: There is only a “modest overlap” between the Athletic’s and the Times’ subscriber base. she told investors.

The Times hasn’t spent that kind of money to buy a new audience in a long time. The last time he tried, in 1993, it was a disaster: The Times bought the Boston Globe for $1.1 billion and ended up selling it in a fire sale two decades later for $70 million. And the $550 million in cash the Times is spending on the Athletic understates the Times’ investment: Last year, the Athletic lost $55 million, and Kopit Levien says it will continue to run at a loss, now funded by the Times, for the next three years. years.

Importantly, the deal puts the Times in direct competition with local US newspapers, which are already struggling to survive. Athletic was created specifically to compete with the local dailies, by hiring its star sports writers to draw their audiences with them: “We’ll wait for all the local papers to come out and let them bleed continuously until we’re the last ones standing.” , co-founder Alex. Mather told the New York Times in 2017, “We’re going to bring out their best talent at all times.”

Mather retracted his comment, but not his strategy, which eventually allowed him to expand into 47 markets around the world. Which means, from Buffalo to Sacramento to Tampa Bay, he has been undermining the remaining scaffolding that supports local journalism. A source at the Los Angeles Times, for example, tells me that sports is the third biggest driver for new subscribers to that paper (after local news and entertainment coverage). Imagine what it is like for a newspaper that is not owned by a billionaire.

The Times doesn’t like this frame at all. Kopit Levien insists that the Times is not out to undermine his local paper, pointing to the cooperative reporting projects the paper has done with outlets like the New Orleans Times-Picayune, and the efforts the paper has made to promote local papers to its members. readers. . If you buy a subscription to Athletic, he argues, you should also subscribe to your hometown newspaper.

“If you’re interested in civic engagement in your local community, having an Athletic subscription isn’t going to answer all that civic interest,” he told me. “We did not buy Athletic to face the local newspapers. That’s not the point.” But the Times’ intentions don’t matter, its actions do.

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

Beyond Athletic, there is plenty of other evidence hidden in plain sight that the Times is looking for new readers and subscribers beyond its main show: The newspaper has been increasing its investment in non-news products, such as its cooking verticals and games (see the newspaper’s recent acquisition of Wordle, the viral puzzle sensation, for a “low seven figure” price), which are sold as stand-alone products and also in bundles with the conventional newspaper. Kopit Levien says that he will do the same with Athletic.

And the Times is explicitly trying to reach people who don’t consider themselves Times subscribers with a new marketing campaign, which aims to broaden the notion of who can be a Times subscriber. The ads feature testimonials from real Times subscribers discussing the Times stories they love, and while two of them feature an older white man and an older white woman, the other four are people of color. (One of them, Lianna, noted that she enjoyed reading a story about “Imagining Harry Potter without his creator,” a reference that created a troll-y throwback from the usual suspects who accused the newspaper of threatening JK Rowling. Go figure.)

One thing the Times is explicitly not doing is telling its reporters and editors to reshape their coverage to reach new readers. It has in the past: In the wake of the Newspaper Innovation Report, a 2014 document that worried that the Times was being overtaken by digital upstarts like the Huffington Post and BuzzFeed, editors worried that the newspaper’s audience would be too masculine. They created a gender “vertical” in hopes of creating stories that could appeal to women. But there is no directive to “create a desk to attract young people who are not rich and liberal” at this time.

On the one hand, that seems like a good thing: The Times has 10 million readers who are willing to pay for what it already produces, and messing with the product might put them off, so why not find features that could boost your offerings? instead of?

And for now, Kopit Levien’s strategy appears to be working: In 2021, the paper drew more subscribers overall than it did two years earlier, and it drew even more news subscribers than it did in 2019, despite its efforts to sell things beyond news. .

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

But it’s going to take a lot of new young readers to move the needle, and we’ve seen what happens when older audiences fade and aren’t replaced by younger generations.

Ask the guys who run the cable TV networks. They spent years claiming that no one would replace Internet TV and now they are striving to replace their television networks with Internet services. In 2022, there is no way the Times will lose control over paying customers for news. Years from now, it may feel like it’s been inevitable.


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

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