How the New York Times' mobile-first strategy has turned millennials into its biggest audience

Covering the most powerful media companies to the smartest startups, former Independent media editor Ian Burrell examines the fraught problem of how news is funded today. Follow Ian @iburrell.

Millennials now account for the largest demographic segment of the audience of the New York Times, the paper has told The Drum, as it positions itself as a bastion of truth in the Donald Trump era.

Nearly 40% of traffic to The New York Times - 165 years old and sometimes referred to as 'The Grey Lady' - is coming from users aged 18-34 as the paper pursues a mobile-first strategy which accounts for 75% of its traffic. The Times delivered 151 million readers across all platforms in January, despite operating a metered paywall. More significantly, it has amassed 3 million paying subscribers for its output and is making an unrivalled $500m a year in digital revenues.

The news organisation has been singled out for criticism by the president, who has repeatedly referred to the title in his tweets as “the failing New York Times” and accused it of “fake news”. But the paper told The Drum that it believes Trump both reads the paper as a “morning ritual” and has a “grudging respect” for its journalism.

In its first television brand campaign in a decade, the New York Times last month defined its mission using the slogan 'The Truth is Hard to Find'. Launched to coincide with the Academy Awards, it was a stand against the incoming president’s assault on the news media, and wider concerns over deliberately fabricated stories during the election campaign. The creative’s black and white typography drew on the Times’s great traditions as America’s paper of record and concluded with the message: 'The truth is more important now than ever.'

The New York Times now has a dual opportunity to be a global standard bearer for the quality news media. Firstly, in relation to attempts to subvert public interest journalism (the Times claims its ad campaign was more than a defence of just its own output). And secondly, as a beacon for building a successful business model for news in the 21st century.

The accession to the White House of the New York property magnate and former reality television presenter provides the paper with the perfect foil to state its purpose and grow its audience.

“The rise of Trump and the rise of other game-changing political figures around the world is a giant story right now, and people are interested in it and it’s important and it fits our mission,” says Matt Purdy, deputy managing editor of The New York Times. “We are at this moment when our mission seems perfectly in sync with our business, and that’s a happy place to be.”

Young people, in particular, are responding to the message. “Our reach to millennials has grown very substantially,” says Meredith Kopit Levien, the New York Times's chief revenue officer. “Millennials are now the single largest demographic segment of audience on the New York Times (all traffic), and that is incredible.”

This youthful interest – which accounts for “between 35-40% of the total audience” – has been “particularly striking” around the election of the new president, she says. The challenge now for the Times is to convert more of these young readers into paying customers.

'All the News That’s Fit to Print' is the Times’s famous catchline, a quality stamp published each day alongside the masthead and a reminder of its long history in ink on paper. But this is an organisation which has long taken an open-minded approach to new and alternative platforms, as publisher Arthur Ochs Sulzberger Jr made clear, way back in 1994. “If they want it on CD-ROM, I’ll try to meet that need. The internet? That’s fine with me,” he said. “Hell, if someone would be kind enough to invent the technology, I’ll be pleased to beam it directly into your cortex.”

Such thinking helps to explain why the New York Times has more than doubled digital subscriptions in three years, from 760,000 at the end of 2013 to 1.6 million at the end of last year. The Times’ management has a target of $800m digital revenues (overwhelmingly from advertising) by 2020, meaning it could fund its global newsroom without needing any income from print. And, incidentally, print subscriptions have also increased during the recent political tumult.

Kopit Levien says that the Times’s embrace of diverse platforms – from its popular podcast the Daily to its experimentation with 360-degree video and virtual reality (exemplified by Ben C. Solomon’s frontline report The Fight for Falluja) – have attracted new and younger audiences.

“Millennials are just as interested in original independent journalism done in a very high quality way,” she says. “We are doing very well in varying our formats and varying our use of voice, exposing people to the content in different types of ways and I think that has helped us attract younger people.”

Moving with the times

Most of these new young readers will no doubt be aware of the New York Times’s great history and its place at the heart of American cultural life. Set up as a rival to the publishing empires of Joseph Pulitzer and William Randolph Hearst, it early on built its reputation on fairness, accuracy and impartiality. During the last century the paper came to be regarded as the pinnacle of American journalism and, as it moved to a national model, required reading for, not just New Yorkers, but a layer of society across the United States. Today it rightly sees itself as a global news brand.

But, and some millennial readers might not realise this, even comparatively recently the future of this institution was anything but secure.

In his 2004 book, Hard News, media writer Seth Mnookin explored the origins and implications of an earlier “fake news” scandal at the paper. This “journalistic suicide bomb”, as Mnookin called it, came in the form of three dozen stories fabricated or plagiarised by Jayson Blair, an over-promoted junior New York Times reporter. In May 2003, following an internal investigation, the Times published an excoriating four-page mea culpa (an exercise in media self-examination not dissimilar to BBC Panorama’s 2012 investigation into the BBC’s journalistic failure to expose its presenter Jimmy Savile as a serial child abuser).

At the time, the Blair fiasco was talked of as something close to an existential crisis for the Times. “You know the old slogan of the New York Times, ‘All the News That’s Fit to Print’?”, the famous talk show host David Letterman asked his audience one evening. “They’ve changed it. The new slogan is, ‘We make it up.’” In a quote published on the jacket of Mnookin’s book, Hunter S. Thompson asked: “How could something like this happen at the New York Times, a paper the country desperately needs to survive?”

Soon afterwards, the paper suffered a further credibility crisis when its reporter Judith Miller was found to have been duped in articles that suggested that Saddam Hussein’s regime possessed weapons of mass destruction, coverage that helped pave the way for the 2003 invasion of Iraq.

These were difficult days, when the Times might well have reflected on how 'The Truth is Hard to Find', as its ad campaign puts it. But Mnookin’s book was also an attempt to question the wisdom of the paper’s publisher and whether his radical vision for a global and multi-platform future amounted to reckless “tinkering with what the Times does best”.

A little over a decade later, Sulzberger Jr seems to have been vindicated. The New York Times now operates what Kopit Levien refers to as “the largest and most successful pay model for journalism in the digital world so far”. But the journey has been far from smooth.

It was in 2012, that Mark Thompson, after eight years running the BBC, arrived at the New York Times Company as chief executive officer. Between 2005 and 2010 the paper had lost $600m in print advertising, and took out a $250m loan from Mexican billionaire Carlos Slim (he has a 17% stake in the company and the loan has been repaid). It also sold, then leased back, its headquarters building near Times Square.

Thompson faced difficult early decisions, including selling the Boston Globe for a fraction of what the New York Times Company had paid for it. Whilst the Times’s recent success has been a collective effort, based primarily on the efforts of a news operation that still employs 1300 journalists, Thompson’s recognition of the importance of mobile platforms has been pivotal.

The former television executive encouraged the paper to increase its production of video content and focused on driving paid digital subscriptions, a model the Times introduced in 2011.

“He led us to really be mobile-first in everything we are doing and I think that is a thing the Times has done very well and has been pretty far ahead on,” she says Kopit Levien. “I credit Mark’s leadership and relentless focusing on us doing everything in a mobile-first way.”

The NYT in the age of Trump

Where does the New York Times go from here?

Purdy does not accept that president Trump, for all his apparent antipathy to the Times, is the paper’s natural born enemy. “We don’t see him as our nemesis, we see him as a president of the United States who we need to aggressively report on; good, bad and whatever,” he says. “To the extent that he attacks us, I’m not sure that is a good thing or not, [but] the controversies around the administration and the interest in him domestically and globally has helped our circulation [and] has helped our traffic.”

He says that Trump’s reactions to Times content have shown “for decades” that the native New Yorker is an avid reader. “We are one of his morning rituals,” says Purdy. “I think that as a result of that he probably has some grudging respect for us.”

Asked whether, given the failure of the New York Times to foresee the election outcome, the president has good reason to question its judgment, Purdy argues that even Trump himself was caught out by the result. “I think that the media and political establishment, including the Trump campaign, was surprised by the outcome. That was clearly not the prediction [of the polls].”

He does concede that the Times over-estimated the impact on voters of certain setbacks for Trump during the campaign, notably the “Access Hollywood” recording in which the former star of The Apprentice bragged about groping women. “We actually went to moderate Republican areas to talk to people about it and came away thinking this was a pretty serious blow to [Trump]. We somehow didn’t pick up on the fact that... for many people it wasn’t a switch that was thrown against him and that despite [the tape] they were still able to vote for him.”

Purdy, who says that Trump’s comments on the paper are not inhibiting its reporters in working in strongly Republican areas, points out that the current administration is not the first to make life hard for journalists. “We faced a lot of difficulties in the Obama administration because of the persistence of leak investigations, which were serious on a day-to-day basis and very serious for some of our reporters whose sources and stories were caught up in them. We haven’t faced that yet with the Trump investigation.”

But for all the upbeat talk about the paper’s digital revenues and the exciting challenges for a newsroom which Purdy says is “incredibly energised” by the world it reports on, it is telling that – such is the impact of the collapse in print advertising – there will be no increase in staff numbers. “Even as our subscriptions rise, which is fabulous news, the advertising landscape is not that favourable,” he says. “There are still budget restraints and we have talked about the need to do some trimming.”

The paper will shuffle its pack, looking to add to its ranks of investigative reporters and visual journalists. The Trump story has led to a 20% expansion of staffing in the Washington bureau, which now has a team of six covering the White House (previously it was four) and its own investigative unit.

Part of the message in the 'The Truth is Hard' ad campaign was that serious journalism is often expensive to produce and should be valued accordingly. The creative work, by the Droga5 agency, was intended to convey “how hard it is know the truth and that journalism plays an important role in people’s journey to find the truth”, says Kopit Levien. Additionally, it emphasised “that facts matter and that high-functioning society requires that we have some shared fact base and journalism plays a very important role in that.”

In addition to the television exposure, the ad has been viewed more than 15m times on YouTube but Kopit Levien says she realised it had “touched culture” when parodies were produced both by talk show host Stephen Colbert, and the ultra-conservative National Rifle Association of America. The former was sympathetic but the NRA version claimed that the Times was only speaking out now because of the shift in political power and had failed in its reporting duties. “America has stopped looking to the New York Times for truth, now more than ever,” it mocked, echoing the president’s words.

Times readers were impressed enough by the campaign to come down to the paper’s building and wave placards in support. Others took print versions of the ad from the paper itself and hung them up in restaurants.

But more than this will be needed to fund the paper’s future.

Kopit Levien is looking beyond the transaction of a newspaper purchase or a digital subscription to a deeper and more lucrative relationship with Times “customers”. The paper, through its Beta Group, is developing new digital products and services – specialising in property, health, cooking and crosswords – which can give the news brand an even greater role in the lives of its users.

“We have got a strategy in place which we talk about a lot internally, which is taking what is already a world class news brand and adding it to the power of... also becoming a world class consumer brand,” she says. “We are making world class journalism… and we continue to lead the world in that, but we also want to lead the world in user experience and service as well and I think we have a lot more distance to travel there, particularly on the service side.”

The Times, which has a content marketing operation called T Brand Studio, offers an attractive environment to advertisers because of the strength of its subscriber base, she argues. “If you focus on making high-quality things that are worth paying for and that readers deeply engage with you can have a good ad business,” she says. “We believe it is going to keep working for us and it’s hard to imagine that isn’t also part of the formula for other news organisations to succeed.”

Despite the president’s tweets, this American institution is not failing at all. In such perilous times for journalism, it would be nice if its model could indeed be emulated by other serious news organisations. But then who else has the reach and reputation of the New York Times?

Ian Burrell's column, The News Business, is published on The Drum each Thursday. Follow Ian on Twitter @iburrell

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