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The secret ingredient: NYT Cooking on its record subscriptions and plans for 2021

With the legacy of The New York Times behind it and a rich archive of recipes and content to match, NYT Cooking hopes to rewrite the recipe book when it comes to the future of food media. But in an uncertain period, for the food and media industries alike, NYT Cooking’s general manager Amanda Rottier explains how the publication is turning up the heat in 2021.

2020 was doubtless one of the most challenging years for the media industry in recent history. In the US alone, roughly 37,000 media workers were laid off, furloughed or underwent pay reductions as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Ad spend similarly suffered, with The New York Times estimating a 55% ad revenue shortfall. Yet NYT Cooking has flourished. As many turned to their kitchens for comfort amid Covid-19 lockdown restrictions, NYT Cooking attracted some 113 million users to its various recipes, guides and collections – a 40% increase from 2019.

For almost as long as the paper has existed, The New York Times has played host to its Food section, which has steadily been increasing in popularity since the 1960s and 70s. Yet it wasn’t until 2014 that NYT Cooking was launched as a product in its own right, predicated on the idea that archiving the paper’s abundance of recipes and food-writing for the digital era would create a searchable, online store cupboard for the home cooks of the future.

“It was around 2013 when the company started thinking about generating subscription growth,” explains general manager and vice-president of NYT Cooking, Amanda Rottier, “as well as how to create a more collaborative partnership between the newsroom, the product and the other departments like engineering, design and product managers. Out of that came the move to digitise the recipes, and create a standalone product.”

The move was a success. NYT Cooking now boasts a newsletter that is the second largest in The Times family, after its daily news round up, The Morning. NYT Cooking’s YouTube channel boasts 300,000 subscribers, its Instagram 2.8 million followers, and the overall product a healthy 600,000 overall subscribers.

“We grew very quickly from a user perspective and just the sheer volume of people coming to the site. We quickly realised that we weren’t just relying on The New York Times to drive traffic to us,” says Rottier on the searchable nature of NYT Cooking’s archive – which includes some 20,000 recipes and counting.

“That’s the beauty of the food and recipe industry and the food media in general, is that it’s global, and so growth can happen very quickly. Especially if those recipes are great, and you use Google and social correctly,” says Rottier.

As a result of its success, Rottier emphasises that a key aim for NYT Cooking going forward is to improve the searchability of its recipe archive.

“It’s something that’s particularly hard in food. You might put in a bunch of inputs that say who you are and the system will spit recipes back out at you, but food is so contextual. It depends on the situation, what you’re in the mood for.

“Some days you have just three ingredients and want to make something fast, others you might be looking for a very specific cake recipe, and other days you might want to cook something new and interesting. So we’re really thinking about discovery and how we make it more personal.”

Great recipes are of course at the heart of NYT Cooking, as Rottier explains. People who “love to cook” have always been, and will continue to be, the target audience for the platform.

“These folks are a segment of the market that we call ’loves to cook.’ They really think of food as a hobby, even a passion. They love to try new ingredients and they love to cook for other people.”

“In that sense there’s a high overlap with readers from The New York Times, because its readers are curious people, and our readers are curious about food.”

Ensuring that the recipes and cooking-related content produced by NYT Cooking continue to encourage curious cooks into the kitchen has never been more important if the platform is to continue simmering in the success of last year.

Efforts to bolster Cooking’s offerings in the new year include the creation of a brand new test kitchen, the likes of which it hasn’t seen at Cooking for some years. The hope is that this will, in turn, improve its ability to produce video content and highlight the new faces it has brought in to rejuvenate it.

These new hires include Yewande Komolafe and Eric Kim as cooking writers, Nikita Richardson and Tanya Sichynsky as senior staff editors, Genevieve Ko as a senior editor and CC Allen as a senior video journalist.

Eyes will doubtless be on the publication in light of these new hires, which come at a time when conversations around diversity in food media are at the centre of the table.

Following the murder of George Floyd and the subsequent protests in the summer of 2020, employers the world over were called to address issues around diversity and inequality within their organizations. Food media was no exception. NYT Cooking’s cross-town contemporary, Conde Nast-owned publication Bon Appétit, saw its editor Adam Rappaport resign after pay disparities for non-white staff were revealed.

NYT Cooking also faced its own reckoning. In May, popular recipe developer and columnist Alison Roman took leave following comments she made in an interview that targeted two TV personalities with Asian heritage, Chrissy Teigen and Marie Kondo. Roman has since apologised and opted not to resume her column, but Rottier promises that “this year we’re going to have a considerably bigger staff.”

“We’ve been able to build on our video operation with just a few people… but we are expanding who we work with and are bringing new people on staff who are part of the investment that we’re making in video across the board.”

“We’re just looking for great cooks, however they may come to us.”

As for what else we can expect from NYT Cooking in the new year, Rottier emphasizes that alongside an elevation in video and photographed content, readers can expect a recipe operation “that will really stand the test of time.” She cites onboarded senior editor Genevieve Ko as a significant player in that plan.

“We have hopes, dreams, and aspirations that extend beyond this year. My ultimate dream is that we are the destination for any home cook.”

“We’re thinking about how the product can move beyond being a recipe database, and really be with you throughout your entire cooking journey, because we know we have a group of users who are really, really passionate about food – and we want to be the answer to that passion.”

These goals culminated in NYT Cooking’s latest campaign, created in collaboration with the creative agency Gretel, which aims to inspire home cooks to continue to try new recipes every day.

“At the moment we’re all still in quarantine and people are ready for something new, even if that means just trying something new in the kitchen. It’s about how we can shake up the every day.”

In a year of few pleasures, NYT Cooking provided an escape for the many stuck at home through its curious and comforting approach to cooking. And in a year of few success stories, it managed to not only preserve its status as a destination for the passionate home cook but brought its business aspirations to the boil.

While the future for the food and media industries may remain uncertain, NYT Cooking is well placed to lead the way – and when it comes to its subscription base, there’s no such thing as too many cooks in the kitchen.

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