As it strives for 10m subscribers, The New York Times is expanding in the UK

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.

Photo by Stéphan Valentin on Unsplash

When The New York Times recently quizzed readers in the United Kingdom and Ireland on whether they refer to unruly youths as “stigs”, “chavs” or “gurriers” it was an indicator of the brand’s new ambitions in the British Isles.

After the United States, the UK is its biggest market, reflected in a monthly digital reach of 5 million readers (more than half of them under-35). In the past year it has grown UK ad revenues by 30% and its London-based commercial operation has grown rapidly to 25 people.

The online hit that the London editorial bureau enjoyed in February with “The British-Irish Dialect Quiz” was an important signal. “It just points to the opportunity we have here of having a lot of influence, similar to what we have in the US,” the NYT advertising chief Sebastian Tomich tells The Drum on a visit to London. “It shows you the opportunity for us to come in and provide a global perspective with a regional focus.”

The quiz was inspired by an NYT piece on American dialect that went viral four years ago and continues to rack up millions of page views. The UK and Ireland version, in which users get to identify “a small grey bug that curls up into a ball” by one of 18 terms including “chucky pig”, “billy baker” and “wood louse” uses graphics to give a geographical response to answers on 25 questions. It then makes a stab at pinpointing your hometown before asking you to give that information to refine its algorithm, a smart exercise in data capture.

The New York Times has big ambitions internationally. It announced in February that it has 4.3 million subscribers worldwide, with 3.3 million of those paying for its digital products. Online subscription revenues grew 18% in 2018 to $400m and digital ad revenues rose 8.6% to $259m. The chief executive of The New York Times Company, Mark Thompson, a former director-general of the BBC and head of Channel 4, has set a target of 10m subscriptions by 2025.

To hit that it will need to realise its potential outside of its home market. The London newsroom has tripled in size since 2013 and is only one of 31 international bureaux in an editorial operation that fields 200 journalists outside of the US.

The global push “has been a very deliberate focus of the business”, says Tomich of a three-year $50m investment programme that began in 2016 to attract overseas subs and ad revenue. “It’s really exciting, the opportunity in international as a whole – we have the product and the talent in the journalists and the commercial operation now in place to capitalise on that.”

Digital leads global growth, but print remains core

The brand’s digital innovation, embodied in products such as The Daily, which is the world’s most popular podcast with 8 million monthly listeners, has lifted the Times’s global profile and 30% of its digital audience is outside of the US. But this is potentially just a vanguard group, Tomich believes. “It’s shocking sometimes how little people in some of these markets know about what we do and the size of our audience and our journalism.”

He is celebrating the first year-on-year increase in The Times’s total ad revenue since 2006. There has been a “right-sizing the business”, he says, so that print revenues are declining more slowly than digital income is growing. “Digital business overall for the year grew north of 8% and the print business declined at about 6% – and both exceeded our expectations.”

While other publishers hurry to escape from print, the NYT still sees it as home to an older but highly-sought after audience. As does Netflix, which has been spending significantly with the paper. “Netflix has become a very big partner of ours. They are…focused on a very specific and influential audience [and] felt that a newspaper was the best way to deliver that,” he says. The types of people who are Academy Awards judges tend to be print subscribers of The New York Times, he suggests. “Any category where you are going after an elite or hyper-targeted audience I still see print being a very viable product.”

He is not suggesting print will enjoy a vinyl-style format revival, simply that the broadsheet product remains a habit for an important demographic. “We have a print audience that roughly declines at low single digits in audience every year and they pay upwards of $800 a year and are probably going to keep that product until they die.”

It’s the vast range of digital products that is driving the NYT’s growth. This begins with the humble newsletter, which Tomich still rates as a crucial means of engaging readers. “It’s something that I think gets ignored a lot in media but is really important – media being part of someone’s daily habit,” he says. “My own media experience the first thing I do every morning is not pick up the newspaper, I go to my email and pull up my five top newsletters.” The NYT produces a portfolio of 67 newsletters, some from individual columnists and others on subjects as diverse as running, parenting, race, climate change and Donald Trump’s great obsession: the Mexican border.

The 168-year-old news brand has been a pioneer in new formats of journalism, such as immersive 360-degree video. Tomich is in London to take part in a panel discussion on ‘The Impact of Voice and Sound’, hosted by the World Media Group at the offices of News UK. The NYT is exploring the potential – commercially and editorially – of Amazon’s Alexa platform, where it hosts a daily news briefing (a three-minute edit of the 20-minute The Daily podcast) and a weekly quiz.

“The opportunity with voice is huge, there is no question in my mind, that voice is going to become the front door to frankly everything that we will experience,” he says. “You are going to be able to have full-on conversations with these things, everything from TV to what we call ‘digital media’ right now, to your kitchen and lights in your house to your cars, everything will be interactive on voice.”

That time is not yet now. “We are way early,” Tomich says of voice-activated media, adding that “the functionality is limited”. The publisher did a broad survey of the US market and found that while there was widespread ownership of such devices, “nobody knows how to use them,” aside from for weather forecasts, music requests and basic news headlines, he suggests.

But while the NYT won’t be immediately “pivoting our business” to sound, it is making its “first foray” into the space commercially through its custom content unit T Brand Studio, which has developed an Alexa skill for Audi, myth-busting the jargon of electronic cars as a campaign for the car maker's e-tron model.

The NYT also launched a series of its own editorial Amazon Alexa skills to give readers of its travel, books and pop columns additional content in audio form, with links and prompts in the print and digital output. “The cool thing we can do – and it’s harder for others – is use the print/ digital product to drive people to them,” says Tomich. “The results are unproven, it’s limited scale [but] it’s absolutely a new format.”

Journalistic innovation feeds a new commercial model

In another innovation with sound, the publisher recently made an audio version – or ‘Audiozine’ – of its iconic supplement, The New York Times Magazine. The idea, says Tomich, was “to experience the magazine similar to how you would experience a museum, where you would put on a pair of headphones and get a guided tour”.

Magazine editor Jake Silverstein oversaw curation of a mix of stunning photography and rare sounds; the under-foot crunch of the Atacama desert, the wail of a Madagascan lemur, or the rush of volcanic lava. The package was performed publicly at a New York venue last September. “It was a packed house with lines out the door,” Tomich says.

The audiozine created a commercial opportunity with GE. T Brand Studio worked with GE’s agency Giant Spoon to take photographs and record the sounds of power plants from Chile to Uganda. The custom content replicated the format of the magazine and was even part of the live performance. “Jake didn’t perform the advertising but he introduced it. We absolutely gave GE airtime on stage, they were our partner and we wouldn’t have been able to do this without them.”

The NYT wants to bring a similar level of client relationship to its commercial dealings in the UK and Europe. In the US its new model is based on serving 23 key clients in “big integrated partnerships with the newsroom at the core”, creating campaigns that dovetail with the publisher’s journalism. This has been a “big shift” for the commercial department, away from servicing the “thousands of advertisers” it once worked with to focus on a couple of dozen with the budgets and scale to operate in this new space.

The list of 23 “skews very much towards technology; there’s some financial services, there’s some auto in there”, Tomich says. It’s not a private members club and he wishes to extend the client roster to other sectors but knows that he must increase his own resources to do that. Recent examples of the journalism-related strategy include a campaign with Google to use Google Cloud technology to digitise millions of photos from the NYT archive and make them available to readers; and a partnership with Verizon to create a lab to explore the journalistic possibilities of 5G technology.

In the UK, Tomich picks out a T Brand campaign with Bosch which highlighted healthy living by making films with influencers on the benefits of the Mediterranean and Japanese Kokoro diets. It’s a sign of the importance to the NYT of the UK market that it appointed senior New York executive Sarah Thorpe as European managing director at the head of the London commercial operation.

The NYT might believe it can attract 10 million subscribers from around the world but sheer scale is not the priority of its ad strategy, which is based on direct relationships with key clients. “My argument would be that [our] subscription base is more valuable (to advertisers) and impossible to get on other platforms,” Tomich says. “The sacrifice (of a subs model) is that you are going to lose the scale play which is about more ads on the page - but that’s a race to the bottom anyway.”

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

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