As the newsmedia industry fights to retain relevance in the digital age, many companies look to The New York Times as a bellwether for media trends. In an exclusive question-and-answer session during INMA World Congress 2011, moderator Juan Senor sat with Times Publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr. and walked through his views on the newspaper’s present and future for a room packed with more than 300 attendees.
The session covered a broad range of topics, but Senor led off with a simple question that got right to the question on the minds of many attendees: How’s that paywall going? So Sulzberger began by discussing the Times’ recently implemented digital paid-content strategy.
The paid content model experienced a strong opening in the first six weeks of its existence. Sulzberger said it is too early to provide solid numbers, but he confirmed that the Times has not seen a big decline in online traffic, and that the site currently has well over 100,000 paid subscribers. (This number does not include 100,000 more who received free subscriptions courtesy of Lincoln via a marketing deal between the two companies.)
Sulzberger said that the “digital subscription model” was devised over a year and a half spent researching other successful businesses, both in news and other industries. They also met with groups of core users to keep the focus on providing quality content, and also to decide price points for the publication across various platforms.
The new site format features very little content that is available without paying, but the system wasn't designed to completely block all unpaid traffic. Sulzberger avoided using the term “paywall,” saying it evokes the image of an iron gate, and that is not how the Times wants to function. Instead, he said, they created their Web site as a “porous” environment where links to articles sent by subscribers via Twitter or other formats will give access to the full article. Sulzberger said that this approach allows people to interact through them and with them, while simultaneously building a digital subscription base.
The way that people interact with news and information is evolving, he said, so part of the new media plan created by the Times also includes heavy investment in the social world of Facebook and Twitter. This part of the plan has been successful as well, Sulzberger said, noting that the Times is mentioned in a tweet every four seconds, and the Times’s own Twitter account has four times more followers than any other newspaper in America. In fact, he said, some reporters for the Times have larger Twitter followings individually than most major newspapers.
“The world is moving to social, and you’ve got to be part of the discussion. That's what drove us,” Sulzberger said. “It is a powerful resource, and it’s where we just have to be.”
Naturally, a follow-up question dealt with how the Times is monetising social platforms. Right now, Sulzberger said, they are just focused on building engagement, and even there, they are in the early stages.
“We need to make sure we are part of the conversation and part of the linking, and the monetisation will build,” he said.
He gave a large part of credit for the success of the digital subscription model to the Times’ integrated sales teams that constantly rethink the way news is presented. Many media organisations are debating whether or not to integrate. But for the Times, Sulzberger said the combining of digital and print journalists has made a tremendous difference in business.
Yet this multi-level structure can create problems, Sulzberger said. The matrix-like structure of the New York Times often makes response time to consumer and technology trends slower.
“Our decisions are usually right, but they should have been made a year earlier,” Sulzberger said.
Building the partnership between print and digital has been a challenge, Sulzberger said, but they’ve done it. “We are in the process of testing and learning, and all of us have to be there,” Sulzberger said. “And if you’re not occasionally failing, you’re not trying hard enough.”
While Sulzberger talked extensively about the Times’ participation in blazing the digital frontier, he reiterated the value of the print edition to consumers as well. In 2000, the New York Times had 640,000 people who had been receiving the publication for two years or more. Sulzberger said that today the number of engaged readers now tops 820,000 and continues to grow.
“Print still has vitality to it,” he said. “And as long as it does, we will meet the needs of our users.”
In response to a question from the audience, Sulzberger said the Times would not offer the print version for free at some point in the future: “Our journalism is valuable and people are paying for it.”
He said that the Times has been aggressive in its pricing and receives significant revenue that is important to fulfilling its journalistic mission.
Sulzberger said repeatedly throughout the Q&A that going forward, the focus of the Times’ strategy is the consumer and creating the best user experience possible across all platforms.
“The ideal user experience is that they engage with our journalism in multiple ways,” Sulzberger said.
Sulzberger’s final advice to those present at the conference was that innovation should take place both from the outside and within, but to never lose sight of the principles of journalism.
“We’ve got to always remember that we are about the core of our journalism,” he said, adding that media companies need to remain flexible and be willing to embrace change.
“And that is that challenge that everyone in this room faces,” he said.