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New York Times shares its subscription growth drivers

By Greg Piechota

INMA

Oxford, United Kingdom

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In this newsletter, I analyse the role of agile organisation in the hockey stick-like growth of The New York Times and bring good news about digital subscription trends worldwide.

If you have questions or suggestions, e-mail me today at greg.piechota@inma.org or meet in person at the INMA Media Innovation Week in September in Antwerp, Belgium.

Three keys to The New York Times’ unmatched growth: journalism, news cycle, and “missions”

Agile organisation and focus on experimentation led to a fourfold increase in digital subscription sales of The New York Times, its executive Hannah Yang told INMA.

Yang spoke at the recent INMA World Congress of News Media in New York. It was her first on stage interview ever for INMA and a rare public appearance.

As chief growth and customer officer, she co-leads a team of about 1,000 engineers, product managers, analysts, marketers, and project managers. It is likely the largest reader revenue team in news media.

Since Yang took over the consumer revenue function at the end of 2015, the number of digital subscriptions grew from 2.3 million to 10.4 million. In 1Q 2023, publicly available data indicated The Times had more paying subscribers than any other news brand in the world.

The accelerating growth pattern of The Times resembles a hockey stick, a rare find among news media that usually observe a more linear growth, per INMA Benchmarks

What is driving the exceptional growth at The Times?

Subscription growth drivers: Asked about the propellants, Hannah Yang told INMA World Congress attendees: “First and foremost, journalism. We invested in journalism no matter how tough it got, and we continue to invest. And that just pays off.”

Demand for that journalism is driven by big events: “Trump and COVID absolutely propelled us. A lot of that hockey stick is the news cycle. But we were prepared for those moments.” 

How? “Definitely, the org is what accelerated us,” said Yang.

When The Times launched its paywall in 2011, it operated in siloes. Functions worked separately, each with its own goals that sometimes aligned but not always. When finished, a department was throwing their work “over the wall” to the next, hoping it would be caught and carried forward.

In 2018, The Times reorganised. Inspired by tech companies, it added a layer of cross-functional teams to the functional organisation. These teams were focused on specific products or business goals, such as stages of the user funnel, allowing experts of different domains to find the best ways to reach the goals.

Key to speed and innovation: The Times refers to the new teams as “missions.” There are three types: 

  • Consumer-facing missions (e.g., subscriber engagement or Cooking).

  • Monetisation missions (e.g., acquiring subscribers or growing advertising revenue).

  • And platform and capability-building missions (e.g., improving machine learning capabilities or commerce engines). 

As the teams focus on outcomes, they can flexibly adapt to customer or market changes. They are encouraged to leverage data and learn quickly with experiments. After the reorganisation, the number of tests and iterations increased four times, per Yang. 

This has led to a faster pace of shipping features and new products to market, and a better understanding of what works and what doesnt in driving subscriptions. 

“It’s not about smart ideas. It’s not about making it look perfect,” she explained. “It’s all about just testing and iterating and putting stuff out there.” 

In her role of the chief growth and customer officer, Yang spends most time helping teams prioritise and allocating resources across the teams.

Impact of agile organisation on performance: Based on the financial reports, The Times gained four times more digital subscriptions every year after the reorganisation than it was gaining before the change.

  • In 2018-2022, The Times reported, on average, 1.54 million net additions per year. Net additions represent the number of subscriptions gained after subtracting the number of subscriptions cancelled or not renewed during that same period.

  • In 2011-2017, The Times reported, on average, only 371,000 net additions per year. 

Academic and business studies confirm the link of agile organisation to improved performance. 

  • For example, a 2021 academic study of 134 companies across 16 industries revealed average productivity gains of 60%, time-to-market reduced by 67%, quality improved by 61%, and employees happier by up to 75%. 

  • Same year’s survey by McKinsey of 2,190 executives found that 65% of companies successfully transformed to agile saw a significant impact on financial performance.

Intrigued by The Times’ missions and the idea of product-led growth? Check this INMA report by INMA Product Initiative Lead Jodie Hopperton.

Amid economic uncertainties, news media see reader revenue resilient and growing again in 2023

Digital subscription business has not reached a peak, as some feared, but rather just paused for a quarter, new data from INMA members reveal. 

The digital subscription growth index for the last four years is mostly a straight line upwards, apart from a blip in the last quarter of 2022. 

In 1Q 2023, a median news brand saw digital subscription volume and revenue up 3.8% and 3.7% respectively versus previous quarter, and 13.6% and 16.1% respectively against the same quarter last year.

This is based on INMA Benchmarks, an ongoing study of performance of 175 news brands globally. Median reflects the halfway point in the sample, or “normal performance.”

INMA revealed the results of this and other original studies at the recent World Congress of News Media in New York.

Demand for news: Publishers’ performance seems to contradict anecdotal evidence of so-called subscription fatigue. The impact on news subscriptions sold by INMA members seems to be insignificant.

Actually, the sales in 1Q 2023 was only slightly lower than at the COVID pandemic peak in 2Q 2020, suggesting publishers learned how to sell subscriptions despite declining engagement with news sites. They squeeze the same juice from a drier lemon.

News Web sites’ reach and penetration, sessions, and pageviews have declined in recent years, as the news cycle cooled down, but it’s not an attention recession. 

Instead, were seeing a return to pre-pandemic engagement levels, indicating a fresh kind of normalcy. Online sessions, a measure of frequency, are still a bit or 4% higher than in 2019.

Consumer surveys may suggest a 18% spike in news avoidance globally, between 2019 and 2022, but actual engagement stats for INMA members disagree. 

Subscription market dynamics: Another INMA study found an impressive 25% uptick since 2018 in the proportion of top sites charging for online news. Some 41% of 473 top news sites in 33 major global markets had paywalls or membership programmes in 2022. 

As the digital subscriber base grew, so did the number of cancellations. The monthly churn rates, hovering between 3% and 4%, are eating into growth.

Publishers’ churn rates are still lower than observed in other sectors — the video streamers’ average churn rate of 6%, for example. News media are likely still acquiring heavy readers rather than the casual ones.

Rising sales and revenues, early adopter conversions, and increased competition are all textbook characteristics of a product category at the growth stage rather than the mature one.

Dominant strategies: On a growing market, textbooks recommend maximising share — adding features to attract new segments, pricing for penetration, intensifying distribution beyond the owned channels, promoting the brand and trial.

The world’s top-50 news brands by the size of the digital subscription base are clearly fighting for market share, an INMA annual survey showed. 

  • They are enriching their bundles, adding features and content to main products (96% top brands do it), and largely selling these as one package (79%). 

  • Additionally, theres a growing trend of offering trials, which are becoming increasingly longer, typically more than three months. The proportion of the top brands with trials increased by 26% in the past year, to 86%. 

  • While maintaining low entry prices, publishers are increasing end prices — 53% increased the post-trial prices in the past year, and the average increase was 59%.

 

New tactics: To ease conversions and retention, publishers are progressively personalising prices. In the U.S., an estimated 80% of circulation is sold based on personalised prices, with Europe lagging behind at below 50%, per Mather Economics.

Another significant trend is the addition of non-news products to news bundles. This tactic, according to publishers financial reports, is helping boost the number of digital subscriptions and revenue per subscriber. 

The latest development in bundling includes large, cable-style bundles operated by groups publishing multiple titles. Although they are primarily being used as a revenue retention strategy at present, they also offer the opportunity for customer acquisition beyond core channels.

Interested in comparing your performance to the peers? Join 175 brands from 34 countries that benchmark with INMA.

About this newsletter

Today’s newsletter is written by Grzegorz “Greg” Piechota, INMA’s researcher-in-residence and lead for the Readers First Initiative. In his letters, Greg shares original research, analysis, and best practices in growing reader revenue.

E-mail Greg at greg.piechota@inma.org, message him on Slack, meet him at the next online meet-up or in person at the INMA Media Innovation Week in September in Antwerp, Belgium.

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