In a follow-up to the “Innovation Report” it released in 2014, the New York Times has published what it calls the 2020 Report, a look at the newspaper’s strategy for success in a digital age. The key to that success appears to be doubling down on its subscription business, and leaving the online pageview race and dependence on platforms to others.
One theme that ran through the 2014 report was the fear that digital-only publishers like BuzzFeed, Vox, and The Huffington Post were farther ahead and more nimble than the Times was—and that therefore they were getting more digital traffic and a larger audience than the paper thought was its due.
The Innovation Report said the Times was “falling behind in a critical area: the art and science of getting our journalism to readers. We have always cared about the reach and impact of our work, but we haven’t done enough to crack that code in the digital era.” The report went on to say that the paper needed to pursue “smart new strategies for growing our audience.”
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By contrast, one of the defining concerns of the 2020 Report is getting people to pay for the Times‘ journalism, rather than just competing for traffic with places like BuzzFeed and Vox. In part, that’s because executive editor Dean Baquet argues that the paper has won. “Today, the most robust of our competitors… are chasing our lead,” he said in a memo to Times staffers.
David Leonhardt, the creator of The Upshot—a data journalism-driven vertical within the Times—and leader of the team that produced the current report, said in a Twitter summary that one of the major points of the report is that the Times “isn’t trying to win a pageviews arms race and sell low-margin ads against the clicks.” This, the report implies, will be left to its digital-only competitors and to Facebook (FB).
Aron Pilhofer, former head of digital strategy at both the Times and The Guardian, said this difference between the two reports—the focus on subscriptions rather than audience—means the Times is being more clear-minded about its business, and that this is a good thing. But focusing on those who can pay a monthly fee also means that over time, the Times may be giving up some of its broader reach.
Serving a smaller group of paying subscribers clearly makes financial sense, but the ad-supported digital model has allowed high-quality journalism to reach a much larger number of people, something that arguably has a broader public or social value. And media outlets such as the Times like to hold themselves up as providing a public benefit through their journalism.
The 2020 Report doesn’t say the Times is going to give up on its “metered” or permeable pay-wall model, which allows people to read 10 articles a month for free. But if push comes to shove, it sounds like the paper will lean towards serving its paying subscribers rather than the free ones.
The main reason for the change in focus is the rapid decline of the online-advertising model, which has become primarily a lowest-common-denominator or commodity business that is dominated by programmatic advertising. That model caters to massive platforms such as Google and Facebook, which account for the lion’s share of the growth in digital ads.
But even a focus on paying readers won’t be enough to stop a wave of cost-cutting at the Times. While the growth of the paper’s subscription business has been strong—it says it currently has more than 1.5 million paying subscribers—the reality is that this still isn’t enough to make up for the ongoing rapid decline in print-advertising revenue.
Although the company says it brings in about $800 million from subscribers (both print and digital), that’s still 30% less than it made from advertising as recently as 2006. And while the Times made about $500 million in digital revenue last year, up from $400 million in 2014, its target for 2020 is to bring in $800 million, something that would take six years at its current rate. And the paper’s operating costs are still greater than $1 billion.
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One area where the Times says it plans to cut spending is the amount of editing it does, a process that it says was designed for many layers of redundancy in a print-centric enterprise. “Gone will be the old Times practice of shuffling stories from editor to editor, with each copy editor making relatively insignificant changes to each story.” Baquet warned of layoffs in his memo, although he didn’t say how many or where.
The Times also says it wants to do fewer stories, and ones that are better equipped to serve readers. Too many stories are “incremental news stories that are little different from what can be found in the freely available competition [or] features and columns with little urgency [and] stories written in a dense, institutional language that fails to clarify important subjects and feels alien to younger readers,” the report says.
But the bigger picture is that for better or worse, the Times appears to be conceding that others have won the audience-reach war, or at least are likely to do so. That should make the Washington Post happy because it has been bragging for some time that its online audience meets or exceeds that of its New York rival.
Although it has a paywall, the Post has also doubled down on its digital efforts by launching new features designed to jump on viral stories (including some that turn out not to be true). And it has embraced platform strategies like Facebook’s mobile-friendly Instant Articles format, in which articles are hosted on Facebook’s servers. The paper said recently that it was profitable in 2016, despite comments from owner and Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos (AMZN) that he expected the company to be in “investment mode” for several years.
The New York Times, meanwhile, lost money in the first nine months of last year—in part because of severance costs—and while its digital revenues are growing, its overall revenues fell. Last year, the company brought in about $800 million, down from more than $1.5 billion as recently as 2013. In 2005, the New York Times Co. (which at the time owned the Boston Globe and About.com) had revenues of more than $3 billion and a profit of almost $300 million.