The New York Times is a marvel of journalism. Not coincidentally, it’s also a rare journalism business success story. Instead of collapsing under the weight of digital competition, the paper transformed its business model, and now relies on money from its readers instead of advertisers. That strategy allowed it to thrive for the past decade while the rest of the news industry convulsed.
But while the Times has succeeded wildly at getting people to pay for its journalism, it has not succeeded at transforming the kind of people who pay for the Times. They remain older, richer, whiter, and more liberal than the rest of America.
This doesn’t seem to bother many of the people who work on the editorial side of the paper. But it’s very top of mind for the Times’s business team — who won’t say that publicly but discuss it often internally, sources tell me. Which is why the Times is trying to build and buy new products to augment its core newspaper subscribers. It doesn’t just want more subscribers. It also wants different kinds of subscribers.
So even while the Times is thriving, its managers — led by CEO Meredith Kopit Levien — are busy trying to create a new kind of Times, one that sells news and a lot of other stuff. It’s an inherently risky proposition.
There’s the money, for starters: The Times’s recent acquisition of the Athletic, the sports news startup that caters to a younger and more centrist subscriber than one who pays for the Times, will cost it more than $600 million — more than half of the cash hoard the Times has built up during its boom times. It is also pouring money into add-on services like games, a cooking section, and an audio arm.
The Times strategy also poses a risk to outsiders — like the people who work at local newspapers around the country, and the people who depend on those newspapers to tell them what’s happening in their communities. Those papers have spent the last few years competing with the Athletic for sports fans’ time and money. Now they are competing with the Times — whose editorial leadership has spent years bemoaning the fragile, shrinking state of local news.
“I think the biggest crisis in journalism in America is the crisis of local news,” Times executive editor Dean Baquet told me five years ago. “I think it’s huge.”
It hasn’t gotten better since. Even if you’re fortunate enough not to live in a news desert, you understand why local news isn’t just important for people who like news, but for people who value democracy.
I also don’t think there’s a better strategy available to the Times, which remains an American journalism unicorn — with enormous resources and a wealthy audience that will fund those resources and buffet it from the perils of an advertising market.
The Times has just two real national competitors, both of which have similar problems with an aging subscriber base, but which also have the luxury of different support structures: The Wall Street Journal depends on an affluent business audience and their employers to pay for subscriptions; the Washington Post depends on owner Jeff Bezos, one of the richest men in the world.
And beyond that there’s … not a lot. Digital startups that at one time seemed to threaten the Times’s dominance have vanished or at least dramatically reined in heady plans over the last few years. Last month, BuzzFeed, whose founder Jonah Peretti has insisted that his company’s ad-based model would allow it to provide free news to many more people than the Times’s subscribers base, announced another round of cuts to its news unit, which will soon have around 70 employees — down two-thirds from its peak.
And a new wave of digital publishers focused on subscribers either targets distinct and limited audiences, like the eight-year-old the Information, which relies on business subscribers, or Substack’s newsletter model, which isn’t built to support newsrooms at all. The fact that the mighty Times may already be bumping its head against the limits of its audience for paid news should give everyone else real shivers.
The Times, for the record, says it’s just fine with its current subscriber roll and its prospects for the future. Its current mantra is that it believes there are 135 million English speakers around the world who want to consume the kind of digital products it creates. Which means that, at 10 million subscribers, there are many years of runway ahead.
On the other hand, you don’t need to look hard to find evidence that the Times thinks it needs more stuff to sell. Exhibit A: Its purchase of the Athletic, which is fast-growing but money-incinerating. When Kopit Levien announced the deal in January, she went out of her way to argue that buying the Athletic meant her company would be reaching an entirely new set of customers — there’s only a “modest overlap” between the Athletic’s subscriber base and the Times, she told investors.
The Times hasn’t spent that kind of money to buy a new audience for a very long time. The last time it tried, in 1993, it was a disaster: The Times bought the Boston Globe for $1.1 billion, and ended up selling it in a fire sale two decades later, for $70 million. And the $550 million in cash the Times is spending on the Athletic understates the Times’s investment: Last year, the Athletic lost $55 million, and Kopit Levien says it will continue to run at a loss — now funded by the Times — for the next three years.
Importantly, the deal puts the Times directly in competition with local newspapers throughout the US, which are already struggling to survive. The Athletic was built specifically to compete with local dailies, by hiring their star sports writers to bring their audiences with them — “We will wait every local paper out and let them continuously bleed until we are the last ones standing,” co-founder Alex Mather famously told the New York Times in 2017. “We will suck them dry of their best talent at every moment.”
Mather sort of walked back his comment but not his strategy, which eventually let him expand in 47 markets around the world. Which means that from Buffalo to Sacramento to Tampa Bay, he has been chipping away at the remaining scaffolding holding up local journalism. A source at the Los Angeles Times, for instance, tells me sports is the third-biggest driver for that paper’s new subscribers (after local news and entertainment coverage). Imagine what it’s like for a paper not owned by a billionaire.
The Times doesn’t like this framing at all. Kopit Levien insists that the Times isn’t out to undermine your local daily, pointing out co-operative reporting projects the paper has done with outlets like the New Orleans Times-Picayune, and efforts the paper has undertaken to promote local papers to its readers. If you buy a subscription to the Athletic, she argues, you should also be subscribing to your hometown paper.
“If you are interested in being civically engaged in your local community, having a subscription to the Athletic is not going to answer to all that civic interest,” she told me. “We did not buy the Athletic to go head-to-head with local papers. That’s not the point.” But the Times’s intentions don’t matter — its actions do.
Beyond the Athletic, there is plenty of other evidence hiding in plain sight that the Times is searching for new readers and subscribers beyond its core demo: The paper has been increasing its investment in non-news products, like its cooking and games verticals (see the paper’s recent acquisition of Wordle, the viral puzzle sensation, for a price in the “low-seven figures”), both of which are sold as standalone products as well as bundled along with the conventional newspaper. Kopit Levien says she will do the same with the Athletic.
And the Times is explicitly trying to reach people who may not think of themselves as Times subscribers with a new marketing campaign, which is meant to expand the notion of who a Times subscriber can be. The ads feature testimonials from actual Times subscribers discussing Times stories they like — and while two of them do feature an older white guy and an older white woman, the other four are people of color. (One of them, Lianna, noted that she enjoyed reading a story about “Imagining Harry Potter without its creator” — a reference that created troll-y blowback from the usual suspects who accused the paper of threatening J.K. Rowling. Go figure.)
One thing the Times explicitly isn’t doing is telling its reporters and editors to reshape their coverage to reach new readers. It has done so in the past: In the wake of the paper’s Innovation Report — a document from 2014 that fretted that the Times was being overtaken by digital upstarts like Huffington Post and BuzzFeed — editors there worried that the paper’s readership was too male. They created a gender “vertical” with the hope of creating stories that might appeal to women. But there’s no “create a desk to appeal to young people who aren’t rich and liberal” directive at the moment.
On the one hand, that seems like a good thing: The Times has 10 million readers who are willing to pay for the stuff it already produces, and tinkering with the product could turn them off — so why not find features that could augment its offerings instead?
And for now, Kopit Levien’s strategy does seem to be working: In 2021, the paper brought in more subscribers overall than it did two years earlier, and even brought in more news subscribers than it did in 2019, despite its efforts to sell stuff beyond news.
Also promising: While she won’t disclose the average age of a Times subscriber, Kopit Levien says that average has remained steady, in part because new Times subscribers are twice as likely to be under the age of 40 as existing subs.
But she will need a lot of new young readers to actually move the needle, and we’ve seen what happens when older audiences fade away and don’t get replaced by younger generations.
Ask the guys who run cable TV networks. They spent years asserting that no one would ever replace TV with the internet and are now scrambling to replace their TV networks with internet services. In 2022, it’s impossible to see the Times losing its grip on customers who pay for news. Years from now, it may appear to have been inevitable.
Thank you for reading the first edition of my media column. I’d very much like this to be a two-way relationship: Please send tips, praise, criticism, story ideas, and anything else on your mind my way. We’ll start with Twitter for now — contrary to common sense, I do read my mentions — but watch this space for alternative communication strategies soon.