Time to change - Marc Frons discusses the New York Times' digital plans

By Cameron Clarke |

June 22, 2012 | 6 min read

The ability to adapt to the digital age is the biggest challenge facing traditional media. The Drum caught up with the chief information officer at the New York Times, Marc Frons, to discuss the paper’s digital plans.

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As chief information officer at the New York Times, it is Marc Frons’ responsibility to ensure that a newspaper with 163 years’ history is fit for purpose in the digital age.So far he and his team appear to be making a pretty good fist of it. According to analysts Enders, the New York Times has generated $243 million from its digital services in the four quarters since the introduction of its metered paywall in 2011. Although it has been beaten into second place as the world’s most popular news website by Mail Online, nytimes.com is a behemoth boasting in the region of 34m unique users a month. When The Drum meets Frons at the Open Mobile Summit in London, it seems only natural to start by asking how much traffic the New York Times now receives from mobile devices. Frons straight bats the question, declining to give specifics, but he is unequivocal about mobile’s growing importance to the paper. “Mobile is one of our top priorities, if not the top priority for the future,” he insists.“Mobile traffic is growing. I can’t tell you the exact percentages but it’s been growing steadily year after year. We don’t expect it to stop growing; we expect it to keep on growing.”Though Frons is bullish about the Times’ investment in mobile, he admits that seeing a return on that investment remains a challenge. Making money from mobile advertising is a conundrum facing everyone from newspaper publishers to Facebook and Google.“I think where mobile advertising is right now is where digital advertising was several years ago,” Frons says. “No one has yet seen a very clear path to profitability and the kind of revenue model that we’ve certainly seen in print. It’s quite true that whereas the tablet has terrific advertising revenue, that has not materialised on the smartphone versus the number of users we have on the smartphone.“And it is an issue. But I think that’s going to be a problem that we and other publishers will solve – mostly because we don’t have a choice.” For now, Frons is tackling some other big dilemmas. Native apps or mobile web? “I really think that’s an open question. Our strategy is to give the best experience for our users and right now that’s going to be a combination of native app, mobile web, HTML5 on the web and when it comes to tablets itself IoS and Android. I don’t think we can really distinguish. “We’re definitely working harder on HTML5, both as a standalone product and using the technology for a better customer experience and user experience within existing products. We’re also working on making our apps and site truly great user experiences, because now we’re a dual revenue stream model – we have advertising and subscriptions – those just feed into each other more and more.” “I eventually see the mobile web and the web itself merging and that has a lot of implications for us in terms of the kind of development we do, how we build our products, how we look at the continuum of user experience between traditional web, tablet and smartphone all rolling into one. It’s a really important part of our future.” Mobile isn’t bringing about any major demographic differences for the paper, though, according to Frons. “I don’t think [mobile] has brought about major demographic differences now. It might skew a little younger, and maybe a little more international than our overall readership, but the differences aren’t vast, mostly because mobile is so ubiquitous and becoming more and more of a factor in how everyone accesses our content.”Whatever the platform, Frons says the one constant is delivering a quality user experience. “The more people who subscribe the higher advertising rates we can get and the more people who visit our products and stay longer the more they will subscribe and the more we can command in advertising dollars. So for us the user experience has become more critical and more and more a part of what we do. Using personalisation in an intelligent way is going to be a big thrust of our efforts in the next 12 months.” Old-school journalists would no doubt baulk at using terms such as ‘product’ to describe news, but Frons can be forgiven thanks to his own impressive journalism pedigree. He was a reporter and editor at Newsweek in the early ‘80s and a senior editor at Businessweek before launching SmartMoney.com in 1995.He has been at the New York Times in a digital capacity since 2006, and has no doubt seen much change even in such a short space of time. At one of the most traditional of traditional newspaper brands how does this new era of innovation at the sit with the journalists working there? “The Times is a really collaborative environment,” he says. “Technologists and product managers and editors are really peers in the development process.Some things take longer, but ultimately we end up with better products as a result of it.” And the journalists themselves are becoming increasingly informed about digital. “It’s really moved from not really paying too much attention to metrics to a much more informed view of how readers are accessing our content on a realtime basis, and we’re using tools to help [the editorial team] understand where traffic is coming from – whether it’s Facebook, Google search, Twitter or direct navigation off the homepage – and which stories are moving up and down that list. “I would not say those tools are used to make journalistic decisions so much as they are to inform a better understanding of what our readers are interested in.”

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