It was a tale of two Times when digital leaders of London’s and New York’s flagship newspapers claimed the dais together at the INMA Media Subscriptions Summit in London to discuss similarities and differences in how they approach building a revenue brand.
Charlotte Gordon, vice president for international consumer marketing at The New York Times, shared an approach that was all about seizing every opportunity to become more relatable and emotionally connected to millions of new younger readers.
“In a sense, messaging becomes slightly less important,” she said. “It’s a hard thing for me to say out loud as a data marketer, but it seems that as exposure to the paywall and to the gateway becomes more frequent, then you don’t necessarily need to be bombarding people morning and night with offers.”
While The New York Times goes out of its way to sample and respond to market feedback, the digital story of The Times of London, as told by Head of Digital Alan Hunter, is one of often bucking industry and even reader criticism to pursue the newsroom’s standards and instincts as a financially successful 21st century news source.
“I do think that being radical can be as much about what you don’t do as what you do do,” Hunter said. “We are very much the establishment paper.”
“But we do do innovation and have done, throughout our history,” he quickly added, citing as an example the Times of London’s first adoption of a steam-driven printing press in 1812.
More recently, the two Times have been notable in their very differing philosophies on putting high-value content online behind paywalls.
New York’s wall has adjusted repeatedly over the years to become more concrete and then more porous. It also has been routinely buttressed with special offers to new and potential subscribers in an effort to cement their fledgling interest.
“Of course, we’re still making offers,” Gordon said. “But we’re making it more about journalism and what you’re paying for. Yes, there’s an offer, but we’re leading with the value.”
Challenged later in the session on the apparent inconsistency between staking out a premiere value position versus continually discounting the price of subscribing, Gordon said that “in an ideal world, we wouldn’t. In an ideal world, we’d all be like Apple or Netflix and have one price. But that hasn’t driven the optimum performance for us at this stage.”
Gordon’s colleague in the audience, Vice President for Subscription Growth and Planning David Gurian-Peck, added: “We’ve tried to test our way with different things. And we constantly test different offers optimising for that trade-off between short and long term. And anytime we’ve tried to move away from having discounts, it’s simply not effective.”
In contrast, The Times and its separate Sunday Times in London have taken a much harder line on paying for content online ever since 2010 when the daily became the first general-interest newspaper to go behind a paywall.
“It is fair to say that it wasn’t received rapturously across media land, where it was declared that we didn’t understand the Internet — particularly that the proprietor [Rupert Murdoch] didn’t understand the Internet, where content wanted to be free,” Hunter said. “Our model was really the hardest of hard paywalls. You couldn’t read anything unless you paid.”
And The Times also kept raising its digital prices.
When online subscription growth stalled in mid-2016, however, The Times started its own recasting of the digital value proposition, while “in no way compromising our commitment to paid content,” Hunter said.
“I think it’s fair to say that, when we look at our past paywall, it was probably too hard, though it did establish in readers’ minds that you need to pay to read quality content from The Times and Sunday Times,” Hunter said. “But then we also ... realised that there were some meters that were too generous. It seems clear the answer is in the middle. So the paywall has given us profitability, but also given us the freedom to be different, to find out and respond to what our subscribers want. We don’t follow fashions or respond to what everyone else is doing.”