Is The New York Times on its way to becoming old news?

NY Times has survived thus far because of its brand name. It will continue to suffer great losses, however, if it doesn’t re-think its business and operating models to compete in the digital economy.

Ah, the good old days of print media – when being the best meant having broad appeal and making your advertisers happy. Traditional print media, though, was one of the first to be disrupted by the digital space and still has the most to lose. Many publications, especially in the newspaper industry, haven’t shifted their culture quickly enough to meet the changing demand and harness the power of digitization. The New York Times Company (NYT) is one of many giants that have suffered from shifting their business too slowly.

In the physical world, NYT could simply provide its customers with quality reporting and monetize this value with subscriptions and advertising. NYT replicated this model when it moved its newspaper online, depending on its brand name to attract customers and advertisers. As a result, it was slow to adopt digital industry best practices. In a leaked 2014 report, the NYT had several strategic and operational issues, including:

  • No clear strategy for content personalization on either web or mobile
  • Insufficient content tagging to structure data
  • Immature digital distribution strategy, including siloed social media teams
  • Traditional newsroom culture, leading to underutilization of people’s digital skills and limited cross-functional collaboration and innovation
  • Misalignment between content publishing and peak digital traffic hours
  • Lacking in quality control between web and mobile sites

staff-digital-firstNYT also focused a lot of its core staff on the homepage layout. Even when adding videos to its site, they adopted practices traditional to TV shows rather than online video. Standing in stark contrast were players like The Huffington Post and BuzzFeed, who were able to grow editorial competencies after employing strategies of “digital first”. The Huffington Post capitalized on the rise of social media to build loyal readers. It used appealing headlines and strong opinions to increase sharing on social media and garner traffic. In fact, The Huffington Post has regularly aggregated and repackaged Times content and outperformed NYT in website traffic on that content. This is especially difficult to digest when you consider that NYT had six times the number of digital customers of The Huffington Post simply because of its brand. BuzzFeed, on the other hand, focused its efforts on using data to build virality from its earliest days. By combining data and social media, BuzzFeed has focused on compelling content and personalized discovery to grow its consumers. In short, instead of focusing on their home pages, BuzzFeed and The Huffington Post focused on organizing data to acquire a user via social media and then enhance click-thrus to other content on their sites. Additionally, both BuzzFeed and The Huffington Post created video content as short-form news or social videos, and again leveraged social media to promote sharing.

To its credit, NYT did invest in some digital transformation initiatives, including:

  • Data visualization – as evidenced by development of the D3 Javascript library
  • Video content – adjusting videos to short story format, with increased video content in fashion and luxury
  • Long form series – a distinctive feature for visual and graphical storytelling
  • “Stela” – a predictive analytics platform
  • Staff restructuring – centralized news hub to prioritize news publication on digital platforms

NYT still holds a competitive edge as a news site with quality reporting, a position that can’t be understated in a field where consumers value authenticity and neutrality. NYT remains at risk, however, as neutrality becomes less important to readers. One way to address this risk is by experimenting in the newsroom. While journalistic integrity remains critical to readers, NYT needs to find better ways to organize editorial staff so that even writers are intelligently balancing their coverage with reader demands. Furthermore, they need to better employ digital practices and partnerships to engage users on their content. As revenues from advertising continue to fall, NYT should pursue new methods of monetization. One place to invest may be their aging stories. If NYT can better tag archived content and create unique digital presentations, they may see increased demand for accessing or experiencing historical records. A model for revenue-sharing may be on the horizon, as NYT recently announced a partnership with Facebook Live. NYT should find additional revenue-sharing opportunities with other large tech companies that receive the lion’s share of advertising dollars.

mobilead-displaysNYT’s investment in virtual reality is an intelligent step forward, as subscription growth might increase if they are a first mover in designing compelling news experiences for users. In the short term, though, they need to better leverage social media to distinguish themselves and enhance brand loyalty among millennials.

digitalnewsreport-facebookengagements

The New York Times has a long way to go to become a strong digital competitor. Thus far, it’s brand has helped it remain afloat but as competition grows and users continue to be inundated with content, the winners will be news sites that can generate new modes of user engagement and diversify their revenue sources.

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Grossman, Rhys. “The Industries that Are Being Disrupted Most by Digital”. March 21, 2016. https://hbr.org/2016/03/the-industries-that-are-being-disrupted-the-most-by-digital

Ember, Sydney. “New York Times Co. Reports an Advertising Drop, Though Digital Results Grew.” New York Times. November 2, 2016. http://www.nytimes.com/2016/11/03/business/media/new-york-times-co-reports-an-advertising-drop-though-digital-results-grew.html

Kalogeropoulos, Antonis, Federica Cherubini and Nic Newman. “The Future of Online News Video – Executive Summary.” Reuters Institute. 2016. http://digitalnewsreport.org/publications/2016/future-online-news-video/

Rigby, Darrell K. Digital-Physical Mashups. Harvard Business Review. September 2016.  https://hbr.org/2014/09/digital-physical-mashups

Burns, Ed. “How the New York Times Uses Predictive Analytics Algorithms.” TechTarget.  http://searchbusinessanalytics.techtarget.com/feature/How-The-New-York-Times-uses-predictive-analytics-algorithms

pBaquet, Dean. “Changes to News Hub Operations.” Pressrun, New York Times Company.  October 6, 2015. http://www.nytco.com/changes-to-news-hub-operation/

Pelberg, Steven. “Facebook Signs Deal with Media Companies, Celebrities for Facebook Live.” The Wall Street Journal. June 22, 2016.

http://www.wsj.com/articles/facebook-signs-deals-with-media-companies-celebrities-for-facebook-live-1466533472

Ember, Sydney. “New York Times Co. Reports Loss as Digital Subscriptions Grow.” The New York Times. May 3, 2016. http://www.nytimes.com/2016/05/04/business/media/new-york-times-co-q1-earnings.html

Lu, Kristine and Jesse Holcomb. “Digital News Revenue: Fact Sheet.” Pew Research Center. June 15, 2016.

http://www.journalism.org/2016/06/15/digital-news-revenue-fact-sheet/

Mitchell, Amy and Jesse Holcomb. “State of the News Media 2016.” Pew Research Center.  June 15, 2016. http://www.journalism.org/2016/06/15/state-of-the-news-media-2016/

The Modern News Consumer. http://www.journalism.org/2016/07/07/pathways-to-news/

By Amy Mitchell, Jeffrey Gottfried, Michael Barthel and Elisa Shearer

Holcomb, Jesse and Amy Mitchell. “The Revenue Picture for American Journalism and How it is Changing.” Pew Research Center. March 26, 2014. http://www.journalism.org/2014/03/26/the-revenue-picture-for-american-journalism-and-how-it-is-changing/

Benton, Joshua. “The Leaked New York Times Innovation Report is One of the Key Documents of this Media Age.” Nieman Lab. May 15, 2014. http://www.niemanlab.org/2014/05/the-leaked-new-york-times-innovation-report-is-one-of-the-key-documents-of-this-media-age/

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9 thoughts on “Is The New York Times on its way to becoming old news?

  1. I actually find these new digital practices incredibly dangerous for society. Click bates indeed sell better than high quality journalism. Similarly disturbing – Facebook Instant Articles (https://techcrunch.com/2015/05/12/facebook-instant-articles/) which are de facto giving preference to publishers that work with Facebook threaten the whole concept of freedom of the press.

  2. Thanks for the post. Fully agree that print industry has been incredibly hard hit by digital and has been too slow to adapt.

    I actually wrote my post on TIME, and it seems that NYT is suffering from many of the same issues as TIME and is attempting similar solutions. I just worry if it is enough. Clearly the NYT is a valuable brand, but I question whether consumers, particularly millennials and younger who grew up on social media, care enough about the brand.
    https://digital.hbs.edu/platform-rctom/submission/time-has-their-time-run-out/

  3. Thanks for a great article. I agree that the NY Times has not been the most proactive with respect to transforming its business model for the digital age. Your post mentions an investment in virtual reality. If they can reimagine how people consume the news via VR, I think they can be really successful in the future. I can’t even imagine how incredible it would be to be transported to a breaking news event around the world with a VR headset. This would be a serious way for the NY Times to differentiate itself from competitors.

    I think they should also have invested in new platforms like Periscope which allow people to live stream events around the world. It has unleashed crowd-sourced journalism. I think they should learn more about this model of journalism and see where they can fit into this new rapidly growing ecosystem. CNN has already entered this space via their CNN iReport module. Check out this article that talks more about crowd-sourced journalism: http://www.makeuseof.com/tag/7-citizen-journalism-websites-crowd-sourced-news/.

  4. Very interesting article, Sairah! I, however, view this problem as with difficult solution in the near future – NYT’s brand, as you mentioned, is based on neutrality and journalistic integrity, while, as “O” mentioned in her first comment, new media is using strategies that might challenge that. I believe that, in making less impactful more neutral headlines for their articles, NYT is taking a stand against all those people that just roll through headlines instead of clicking to read the article’s core.
    I view the future of journalism as more of a 360º experience: crowd-sourced journalism (user123123 dixit), live reporting, VR, co-collaboration with other countries’ media (as seen in the Panama papers, Wikileaks, etc.) to adapt to globalization, etc. However, an ad-based free model also challenges the neutrality of the paper, so partnerships with other media outlets to drive down costs, and big tech companies and distributors (Google, which benefits directly from their content) to drive top-line growth, are key for the future of the industry.

  5. Thanks for a great post! While I definitely agree with you that the NYT will need to become a more compelling news provider for the next generation of readers, particularly in the digital space, I’m not so sure that the firm should begin experimenting with non-neutral standpoints. Although companies like BuzzFeed are gaining traction with the younger generations, the mission of the two companies are completely different. For BuzzFeed, the goal of the company is to get readers to share articles, videos and links, while the mission of the NYT is to “provide the best journalism in the world and give people accurate, timely information” (https://medium.com/@simonowens/no-buzzfeed-isnt-beating-the-new-york-times-97e68fdf6fa6#.k0tdbyvez). Thus, the NYT should instead look into ways to increase interactions with its readers, in order to develop that relationship with each person. I find the shift towards virtual reality to be really interesting, and perhaps the NYT could couple this investment with reaching out to younger readers. If the NYT could provide a new, interactive channel for elementary/middle school children (such as how TIME has TIME for Kids), and are able to pique their interest at a young age (using virtual reality), the firm could better ensure a solid customer base as the younger generations get older and switch over to the NYT.

    1. Thanks for writing! Completely agree with Mary here. VR seems to be a very fertile ground for engaging customers and maintaining their journalistic integrity. I do think it’s a problem to ask or expect writers to balance coverage with reader demands; news reporting is not about giving the customer what they “want” (which should be neutral news about current event, but is often infotainment because we all need escape and leisure), but about bringing forth the truth in current events and increasing knowledge of the complexity of issues surrounding the world and us, its inhabitants. BuzzFeed is actually a really interesting contrast case because even though its (perhaps original) goal is to increase shares and they really snag customers with their quizzes and lists, they’ve done quite well with their long-form news reporting (and they actually announced a goal of breaking news domination last April). So, perhaps there’s an interesting link here between the entry point to the news source (quizzes/lists/”fun” things to read) and the actual meant (long-form content). Thus, VR integration seems like a good way to parallel the “fun hooks” that BuzzFeed has going for it, but I really would stray from even discussing reader demands with reporters. Lest we only have images of cute puppies all over the NYT.

      http://digiday.com/publishers/inside-buzzfeeds-mobile-plans-breaking-news-domination/

  6. Sairah – thanks so much for sharing your thoughts. As an avid New York Times reader, I’ve noticed and truly enjoyed their innovative ways of presenting their journalistic coverage, particularly the data visualization (done especially well by Vox) and long form series.

    Your piece taps right into how the news cycle and journalism have evolved with the advent of technology. How does a firm like the New York Times serve with integrity as the theoretical fourth branch of the U.S. government’s system of checks and balances while also operating a sustainable and profitable business by delivering what readers want? And what happens when what the NYT’s “customers” (aka readers) want is just reinforcement of their own beliefs? I see it already in myself and many others, as those with more liberal views tend towards the NYT and those with more conservative views tend towards the WSJ. Fortunately for us, I think the solutions you pose around finding new ways of engaging users will allow them to maintain journalistic integrity and neutrality without stooping to the likes of clickbait, Buzzfeed, and all of the “fake news” sites we saw proliferating our Facebook news feeds during the election. I think the management team at NYT has been proactive and should be able to pull it off – they seem to have been relatively successful in instituting the paywall many years ago.

  7. Great analysis, Sairah. One thing I’d like to get your take on is what the New York Times should do with their online paywall. Do you think they should try to increase the number of free articles a reader can access in a given period before they have to subscribe? Would doing that be a good way to continue to reach as many people as possible and thereby maintain relevancy in the years ahead? It’s also worth noting that a quick Google search for “NYT Paywall” uncovers a multitude of information about how to circumvent it and access double the, triple the, or even an unlimited number of articles per month. (Even something as simple as using two browsers allows a reader to read double the number of articles.) Has the number of subscribers decreased much in recent years as people have increasingly found ways around the paywall, or has it leveled off?

  8. Thank you for the interesting post! I also think the newspaper industry was one of the biggest victims of digitization and especially for a company that has been operating under the same practice for decades, it is hard to expect that it will be one of the agile companies to transition to the new market. As a strong fan of ‘physical newspaper’, I am worried that delayed shift of strategy can negatively harm such a company which plays a crucial role in today’s society. I cannot speak for the other customers to the firm, such as companies who advertise with NYT, but as a reader, I believe that at the end of the day, quality of reporting is what really matters. (I think a lot of other readers agree with me http://money.cnn.com/2016/11/17/media/nytimes-subscription-rise/). There had been so many “fake media” during the recent set of events that caused enough confusion to the general public. And companies like NYT has a responsibility to society to survive and continue delivering quality news.

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