New York Times CEO Meredith Levien: ‘Journalism needs advertiser & consumer buy-in’
The publisher’s chief exec has just been named New Yorker of the Year by the Ad Club. She tells The Drum how her background in advertising helped her transform the business model of one of the most established media operations on Earth.
Meredith Levien's advertising expertise equipped her with the tools to succeed as CEO of The New York Times Company / Celeste Sloman
Meredith Levien is a media powerhouse.
Before taking the helm at The New York Times Company, she helped usher the legendary paper from a primarily advertising-funded print operation to a digital-first multimedia giant with a flourishing subscription-plus-advertising model. Prior to her tenure at The New York Times, Levien spent a decade in advertising, publishing and business growth roles at The Atlantic and Forbes.
This evening, at the 2023 Advertising People of the Year awards, hosted by the Ad Club of New York, Levien will be honored with the prestigious ‘New Yorker’ award.
In conversation with The Drum, Levien chronicles her journey from head of advertising to CEO at The New York Times, argues for combined subscription-advertising models in media and opines on the future of the media business.
Give us a highlight reel of your career thus far and spell out some of the professional accomplishments you’re most proud of.
The great privilege of my career has been getting to spend a decade so far in one place – and that one place is what I believe is the preeminent quality, independent journalism organization on Earth.
I have been a lifelong lover of serious journalism. When I got the call to come interview at the New York Times, to run the ad business, I was in a job that I loved, working with people I loved and I absolutely wasn’t looking for a job. But I thought, ‘It’s the New York Times. I’ll basically do any job they ask me to do.’
I can’t say enough how lucky I feel to work at an institution that I’ve loved and admired my whole literate life – and also to be somewhere for a decade and come up through the inside. I’ve done four jobs here and that feels like a really lucky thing. Particularly, [it’s special] to get to be the CEO of a company where I had three other very different jobs on the way to that role. I feel like I have a chance to have real impact.
And probably most importantly, I feel really privileged to work with a very special group of people [in which there’s been] some combination of [being] self-selected and [having] been very carefully chosen to lead alongside me – because they love the mission, and they love the place and they have really big ambitions for quality, independent journalism. It’s just a very special place.
Before the Times, I spent about half a dozen years at The Atlantic and Atlantic Media working for David Bradley, who was the owner of The Atlantic at the time… I learned most of what I know in business from him. So very early in my career, [Bradley] took an interest in me and played a really formative role in my journey. And that has meant a lot.
Then, I spent five and a half years at Forbes… and Forbes was, in its own way, a special place and a formative experience for me. And I worked for the Forbes family, who are incredible, and who gave me a lot of opportunities.
If there was a throughline to all of that, it’s that I love serious journalism, I love the media business and I love being a part of a team that really cares about one another and what they’re doing. And that’s probably why I stayed in three places for a really long time.
Talk a little bit more about how your background in advertising has translated into the various leadership positions you’ve held.
I started as the head of advertising in July of 2013 and it was a wonderful job. I came to The Times at a time when the journalism was absolutely incredible – The Times was thought of as the standard-bearer for quality journalism. But the business model needed work. We were a print-based, ad-dominant business and we needed to transform the company to be a majority digital subscription-dominant business.
It was a thorny problem. We had a really good print advertising business that was… a wildly profitable business with a lot of committed advertisers and a very wide range of advertisers. But it reached a relatively limited group of people and it was in secular decline. But [there were some] really talented people who were already here and I was [also] able to hire and build a team of really talented people. So the team and I got to figure out the puzzle of how we transform it and turn it into a business that had the potential for growth, even while recognizing print was going to keep coming down.
As an overall ad business, The Times’ value proposition is that we reach 50 million to 100 million people every week across digital and print – [though it’s] mostly digital. For advertisers, to be associated with really high-quality journalism, shopping advice, recipes, games and now sports journalism [with the acquisition of The Athletic] and to reach a group of people at that scale with really incredible, high-performing ad products is a great proposition. We have a product that really works for marketers that helps them launch big, important ideas into the world to a big, important audience. And our ads really work. And we’re incredibly proud of that.
Getting to come and sort of [lead the transformation] in the ad business – like really radically transform the business – was probably the formative thing I got to do in my career. I certainly wouldn’t be the CEO of The Times if I hadn’t gotten to do that – it was the thing that unlocked the other stuff.
About 20 months into my tenure as head of advertising, [former president and chief executive officer] Mark Thompson needed to find somebody to transform the subscription business and begin to scale the digital subscription business. It was before The Times was at real scale in digital subscriptions and he wanted somebody with digital experience to do the job. And I was just in the right place at the right time… he said, ‘Why don't you do it?,’ which was the great lucky break of my career. So I got to work on the subscription business.
Then, a couple of years later, the thorniest challenge in the enterprise was how to get the whole digital center of the company – across news and business – working together like a fast-scaling, direct-to-consumer digital product. And so I became COO of the company and got to work with the executives… to get the whole digital center of the company working together in a better way. And that was wonderful.
Three and a half years later, I became CEO. My favorite job at The New York Times has been being CEO. It has definitely been the hardest, but I love it, love it, love it. It’ll be three years in September [since I took the post].
Having seen the industry evolve through so much digital disruption – and having led the charge at The New York Times, what would you say spells success in media and news today?
Let me [broach this question] in the context of what really worked for The Times. Even 10 years ago, when the business didn’t look like it had a clear growth plan, you could see the opportunity was there, [thanks to a few guiding principles].
The first thing is, for years and years before I got to The New York Times, a commitment was made by the family that controls The Times – the Ochs-Sulzberger family – that the first dollar in place would always go to journalism. Even… when we first put up a pay model and said, ‘We’re going to charge for digital subscriptions,’ that meant we actually had a product that was worth paying for. So in the early part of the last decade, when premium publishing and news organizations were really under pressure, The Times said, ’we’re going to do everything we can to keep investing in the journalism.’ That has been the single biggest reason The Times is succeeding today over all else. The first dollar in the place goes to the quality of the product – first the journalism and then the digital product experience.
However the media landscape changes from here, I actually think that’s still going to be the case. The companies that invest in a product that can be valuable in a differential way to a very large group of people – that’s the key to success and having a great business, however the market changes.
The second thing I’ll say is, the digital transformation of The Times’ business… took real time. It took unwavering commitment through some pretty difficult, dark years. And it took a really clear strategy and a commitment to that strategy. And because of [our model as] a family-controlled public company… we’ve always been able to play the long game and call a strategy and then really stick to it.
So [for example], early on in my tenure, we made a handful of really big calls that were kind of counter-conventional that are still paying off now. We said we were a subscription business first and if we got that right, the ad business would follow. That has absolutely happened. We said we had to be a destination – a place that people built a direct relationship with, asked for by name and came to directly. Seven or eight years ago, when everybody was sort of programming the internet, we said, ‘Nope, first we have to be a destination.’ We said we had to nurture the digital business first, even though the print business was most of the company’s profit. And that has really paid off. And then, we [kept our commitment] to always have the first dollar in the place go to the journalism. Those things will still matter going forward.
[As far as] the current media landscape that we’re operating in… the business model for journalism is still under enormous pressure. Our model of having a wide free layer, but then also a very significant subscription model, feels right. We have found our way to what feels like a sustainable model, but the gains are fragile. The whole ecosystem has to be committed to there being really quality news and information sources for it to work. For there to continue to be quality journalism, we need an ad market that wants to put its dollars against it. And we need a broader public that wants high-quality, independently produced journalism and is willing to pay for it where they can.
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What advice would you offer to either young professionals trying to break into the media and advertising industry or to talent looking to reach the next level of success?
Go somewhere where you really believe in the quality of the product, because at the end of the day, that’s gonna win out every time. The most important thing in media is, ‘Is the product really good? And is it something people can’t get anywhere else and do enough people feel that way?’ I would choose [your path] based on that. Any company can work a system for a little while, but at the end of the day, those that succeed… really have a quality product that you can’t get anywhere else.
And what I say to anybody who wants to help run a company is, ‘Find the thorniest problem you can and play a really big role with the team in trying to solve that problem in a sustainable way.’ I got to do that in advertising.
I would also say, it has been my experience that being places for a long time gives you a chance to really know how to solve those problems, to have some pattern recognition to find the right answers. You know, I didn’t set out to be a CEO – I just wanted bigger and bigger jobs at The New York Times because I loved the challenge at The New York Times and I loved the product. If you go somewhere and you like it, stay for as long as you can, because you’re going to make great relationships and those relationships are going to propel you forward.
[Finally], pick the people you want to work with and then try and stay together as long as you can. My obsession right now is that we have an extraordinary team of executive leaders at The Times. And I want to keep them together and growing and developing as long as possible, because the longer they are here, the better we are as an organization.
Can you share one big prediction about the future of advertising?
I’m stealing this line from somebody else who gave it to me probably 15 years ago, but it’s still true: great scales. The marketers with really big ideas that touch a lot of people in a unique and original way are always going to win. As long as I’ve been in and around the ad industry, which is most of my career now, that lesson just keeps repeating itself.
It doesn’t matter the form – whether it’s a TV commercial or a banner or a podcast ad or some format that hasn’t been invented yet – it really comes back to, ‘Is the idea good and will it resonate with a really large number of people?’
What inspires you?
Watching the symphony of different people with different gifts and talents and skills coming together and collectively making something great happen.
There is nothing in journalism or the business of media that doesn’t require many, many different kinds of functional expertise. So the teamwork element of what we do has never mattered more. And seeing people come together and year-on-year-on-year get better in how they play as a team and push one another to be their best selves, just delights me. That gives me the most joy in my work. I’m inspired by great teams that really make one another better and achieve great things.
I’ll also say I am deeply inspired by the real hardcore work of independent journalism. [We have] a group of people who go out to pursue the truth wherever it will lead in the most open-minded way, sometimes coming back with answers that are very different… from what the journalists or the public might have thought from the outset. I think the world needs more and more of that.
What’s something – whether professional or personal – that might surprise people to learn about you?
I don’t know if it would surprise anyone, but I have a 12-year-old son who plays four sports and I am as relentlessly involved in his sports as a parent as I am with The New York Times. [Possibly] the best thing that has happened to my son is that his mom has something else to lap up her energy.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
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