It is nice to see some positive change in the fortune of legacy news publishers.

Last month, Ken Doctor published a post in Politico (“Revenge of the ‘legacy’ sector”) that lauds the recent digital surge of The New York Times and The Washington Post. According to comScore, both of these legacy newspaper publishers are drawing a larger online audience than two of the largest “new” media companies — BuzzFeed and the Huffington Post.

Since July 2015, these media companies have added online traffic at a healthy rate. The New York Times increased its traffic from 61 million to 81 million unique visitors over the course of 12 months while The Washington Post was up from 53 million to 92 million. Over the same period, both BuzzFeed and Huffington Post were down.

Everyone is talking about digital media companies, but legacy companies still play a relevant role.
Everyone is talking about digital media companies, but legacy companies still play a relevant role.

Sound the trumpets, say the legacy publishers.

What is driving the growth? There are a few things worth noting.

1. The rising tide of paid content.

It may be counterintuitive to think that asking customers to pay for content will increase digital traffic, yet that appears to be the case. Both media companies have a pay-meter model for their online content and both are growing audience.

In addition to increasing its overall digital traffic, The New York Times continues to grow its paid digital subscribership at the rate of about 50,000 per quarter (most recently adding 51,000 net paid digital-only subscriptions in Q2).

The Washington Post also publishes a mix of free and paid content. Even on Facebook, The Washington Post provides a mix of free stories (typically indicated though the Instant Articles symbol) and fully paid content, which asks the user to subscribe once the story is clicked.

This mix of paid/free is clearly working well for both companies.

2. Consistent strategic investment.

Both The New York Times and The Washington Post have made large and consistent investments into their respective digital initiatives.

At INMA’s Big Data for Media conference in New York City earlier this year, The Washington Post’s senior director of product strategy and operations spoke of the plethora of investments the company is making to improve its digital position.

Investments are company-wide: IT, marketing, editorial, and sales. For example, new technology in the newsroom prompts reporters to post stories online at exactly the right time to maximise digital readership.

The New York Times is also committed to investing in new technology. Over the past two years, there have been significant improvements to its Web sites and mobile platforms. Digital innovation is clearly stated as the core strategy of the legacy media company. Expect to see more investments in this area.

3. Persistent leadership.

You’ve got to give it to these companies for showing grit. In the face of countless media pundits predicting the news media companies’ deaths, they continue to try new things and expand on digital success.

Since Jeff Bezos purchased The Washington Post in late 2013, the company’s efforts have consistently pointed toward digital growth. The company has successfully transformed from a regional player into a national one.

And The New York Times has remained true to its cause. Its pay meter strategy, officially launched to online consumers in early 2011, remains integral to the company’s future.

The pundits said it wouldn’t work. And they were wrong.

4. The power of print.

There is clearly one thing that New York Times and Washington Post each have that BuzzFeed and Huffington Post do not: printed newspapers.

Print subscriptions allow newspaper companies to offer print plus digital bundles that are attractive to newspapers readers.

Print editions also allow an array of in-newspaper marketing messages that drives readers to the Web.

Let’s face it, Huffington Post and BuzzFeed may be able to compete on the dimensions listed above, but don’t expect them to publish a printed newspaper.