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Much of the traditional newspaper industry is in a sorry state as readers disappear and advertising plummets amid a tsunami of free online content.
The New York Times is bucking that trend by managing to grow its audience of paid subscribers around the world. At a Chamber roundtable event on 27 February, Stephen Dunbar-Johnson, President, International at The New York Times, shared with members how his organization is successfully adapting to the digital age.
“It is no secret that the past few decades have been pretty brutal for news organizations,” he said, revealing that the number of reporters working in the United States has declined by more than 50% since 2000.
“It’s hard not to see the beginnings of a desert emerging – under-resourced and undernourished.”
Dunbar-Johnson explained that he sees this “desertification” as being shaped by two pressures that, to some extent, feed off one another. The first is the gathering pace of autocratic rule around the world where the suppression of free media is on the rise. The second is the growth of the social media platforms that are taking advertising not only from legacy players but also from new digital media organizations.
He noted that freedom of the press is declining across the globe, including in the United States where President Donald Trump has fuelled attacks on the media.
This situation – combined with the downward economic pressure – “presents both a crisis for liberal democracy around the world and, paradoxically, an opportunity for The New York Times.”
Dunbar-Johnson explained that the early consensus in the media industry was that with so much free content available online, you could no longer expect people to pay for the news. “The genie had been let out of the bottle – that was the conventional thinking. If you put up a paywall, readers would simply click elsewhere.”
But The New York Times believed that their readers would be prepared to pay if the paper maintained its standards, and it introduced a paywall in 2011. One year later, subscription revenue had already overtaken advertising revenue. Today, it has 3.6 million print and digital subscribers, its biggest audience ever, and two thirds of the company’s revenue comes directly from its readers.
While cost pressures mean that most newspapers have stepped back from international reporting, The New York Times has continued to invest in its overseas bureaus. Today, 27% of its audience is outside the U.S. and its international audience is growing even more quickly than its domestic readership.
The company is building on this momentum with dedicated editions containing tailored content for different markets, which have enjoyed rapid growth in Australia and Canada in particular. It also offers a Spanish language website and has introduced a Chinese-language magazine.
Besides its news and business coverage, many readers are also attracted to the newspaper’s authoritative and in–depth lifestyle stories. A member’s question about The New York Times’ travel coverage led to the surprising revelation that the cooking section and the company’s cooking app are tremendously popular with readers.
The make–up of the company’s staff is also evolving to include videographers and IT experts to enable them to create the broad variety of content that digital audiences demand.
As subscriber numbers continue to grow, it seems that The New York Times has found a formula that will enable it to survive and even thrive amid the industry’s digital transformation.
“Good journalism is essential for a healthy society,” Dunbar–Johnson said, “but it is also good for business.”