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The Digital Rebirth of the New York Times

September 27, 2018, 2:37 PM UTC

“You find the future in the past if you look hard enough,” Mark Thompson, the president and CEO of the New York Times Company, said at Fortune’s Brainstorm Reinvent conference in Chicago on Tuesday.

For the New York Times, reinvention has meant revisiting the places where a newspaper connects with the lives of its readers.

Those intersections used to be as tangible as job openings and apartment listings, along with recommendations that shaped what their readers listened to, watched, and cooked from week to week.

When print ad sales began to decline—want ads once brought in as much as $235 million with very little overhead costs, but that figure slid to just $6 or $7 million in revenue in recent years, according to Thompson—the company had to reconnect to those analog touch points and re-envision them as parts of readers’ modern lives, Thompson said of his task when he joined the Times from BBC six years ago.

“Could you recreate that in digital? And get the kind of engagement that goes with a really loyal audience? It’s all about the user experience and it’s all about engagement,” he said, and the theory seems to be bearing out for the legacy media company.

The Times now has 2.9 million digital-only subscribers and subscriptions drive two-thirds of the paper’s revenue, while advertising has been steadily declining.

Thompson acknowledged that the current administration’s pace of breaking news may also be a factor in increased engagement. “An intense news cycle has always sold newspapers and made TV news ratings shoot up,” he said, adding that a media environment in which credibility of information is often questioned lends an advantage to legacy news brands.

Not everyone is coming to the paper for news and opinions though: Last quarter almost half of the Times subscriptions came from cooking and crosswords, according to Thompson.

Thompson says these are examples of broader touch points. “The kind of person who is our kind of person,” he says, values accuracy and timeliness in everything they consume.

“Legacy print media was obsessing about the finer points of monetization,” he said, when they should have been focused on making sure “the experience people have with you can be really superlative.”

It was with this mindset and quality standard that the Times purchased The Wirecutter, a consumer testing website, in 2016.

“Why? Our newsroom wanted us to buy it,” Thompson said. “The quality stood up to the rather fearsome standards of that newsroom.”

He says the paper will continue to deliver products and content with “fanatical persnicketiness”—it’s been tested and it’s worked—whether that be the reliability of a weeknight recipe or the depth of reporting on the #MeToo movement, which he calls the most influential story in the Trump era.

Moving forward, he says the Times will continue to build relationships with readers, expanding its audience beyond the demographic and geographic heartland of the company. The company is also “exploring something about parenting,” Thompson said, calling it a “fertile area” covering topics from diet and health to electronic entertainment.