The New York Times - History
The New York Times or ” The Times” as it is called is one of the most iconic newspapers with a total of 6.5 million subscribers. Interestingly out of the 6.5 million subscribers, 5.7 million are digital subscribers alone. The New York Times was established in the year 1851 and claims to have deployed journalists to every nook and corner of the world to witness and report stories that unfold. The Times has seen 130 Pulitzer prize winners since inception, 20 Emmy nominations in 2020 and countless other accolades that has been the aspiration and the envy of other similar publications. Since its early days the newspaper emphasized on full reporting of the ‘news of the day’, extensive coverage of international news and accessibility of the publication to the general public. These are some of the prime facets that the publication still retains to this day (Britannica, 2020).
One of the key highlights in the early days of the Times was the detailed coverage of the “Titanic”, the most famous of ocean tragedies till date. On April 14th, 1912, Van Handa, from the Times was the first to report the sinking of the Titanic which propelled the reputation of the Times to greater heights. Later in the year 1918, the Times won its first Pulitzer for publishing classified speeches and text of official reports and documents of World War 1. On 1945, William L. Laurence published the official history of the “Manhattan Project” and became the only journalist to witness the Nagasaki bombing. The coverage of the Vietnam war and the publication of the excerpts from classified government files in the year 1971 was yet another milestone in the publications illustrious history. By 2017, it had a based membership of more than 3 million paid subscribers, the most for any US publisher. In 2018, the Times surpassed the 4 million subscriptions mark and in 2019, the Times entered into the television domain with the launch of “The Weekly” on FX and Hulu, “Diagnosis” in Netflix and “Modern Love” in Amazon Prime.
The Digital Transformation of New York Times
The greatest digital transformation success stories are typically confined to the technology firms who seem to have control over our lives and livelihood. The likes of Google, Facebook, Microsoft, Amazon, Netflix etc. are the first ones to invariably come into our minds when we think about “digital transformation”. This makes it all the more difficult to imagine if any non tech firm could come close to the insurmountable success recorded by these tech giants. Chances are slim but the digital transformation story of the New York Times, in an industry that does not even come close to the high and mighty of the digital natives, stands out.
The digital roadmap of Times was ignited during 1995, the beginning of the internet bubble, when Steve Luciani from the Times’ information systems group understood the importance of riding the internet bandwagon. A year later, the Times launched its first website from its Manhattan office which allowed all the users to access the contents of the website for free after registration. The registration process was simple and captured basic demographic information which would later be the cornerstone for targeted advertisements. To ensure business and cultural alignment, the company ensured that the web unit, NYTimes.com was seen as an extension of the newspaper unit and not as a separate entity. This was a part of the digital strategy to ensure that the ‘core’ of the publication was preserved by all the entities and divisions within the firm. Once this was decided, investments were pumped in to ensure a more holistic, technologically oriented, interactive experience through audio, visual, slideshow, pictures etc. This laid the foundation to the launch of a few entities such as New York Times Digital (NYTD) in 1999, a separate business unit consisting of all the digital operations, Times Reader in 2006, Paywall in 2011 and Beta in 2013.
The Times has been one of the best known success stories not only of a successful digital transformation strategy but a lesson to the corporate world on business adaptability and sustainability. Listed below are some of the core reason of the success of the Times in its digital transformation journey.
1. Strengthening the core with a unified digital strategy
The premise of the Times has been unchanged since it was first founded in 1851 and that is to “seek the truth and help people understand the world”. This has been the bedrock for the formulation of its digital strategy since it always wanted to deliver quality news to its readers.
The question that the leadership was faced with was “how could the Times transition to a digital model knowing very well that more than 70% of its revenues came from the legacy print business?” What was needed to be planned and achieved to embark on the digital transformation roadmap to ensure business continuity? Was there a case to significantly alter their core? How could they enhance it while exploring newer avenues to expand readerships and subscriptions? Would there be a cultural collision between the legacy and digital businesses posing serious threats to the culture of the Times? What kind of additional revenue streams were needed to be explored to drive sustainability and be relevancy? Do these revenue streams pose a threat to the brand of Times, what were the risks?
To find answers to these questions, the Times put forth an executive committee to look into these specific questions and the road to be traversed knowing very well that if they had to succeed, synergies had to be established across departments, domains, functions, people etc. More importantly, the journalists, newsroom, developers, engineers, sales and the revenue team had to work cohesively towards a unified, technology driven, journalist centric, lifestyle model.
2. Data driven insights and decision making
The digital transformation success of the New York Times has been attributed to a number of forward looking decisions and deployment of technology. Case in point being how the Times used data and analytics to drive key subscription based decision making. There needed to be a complete revamp on how data was to be deployed and how intelligent insights could play a major role in increasing revenues. For this to fructify, the Times had to transform itself into a data and analytics company and view subscriptions much like how SaaS entities looks at renewals. By structuring its data and analytics infrastructure into a modern technologically enhanced environment, it was able to assimilate consumer demographics, understand consumer behavior and actions and leverage analytics, which enabled the firm to predict what it took to renew their subscriptions.
3. Entry into new segments and markets
With the unified digital strategy in place, The Times saw a change in the mindset and there was enthusiasm on active experimentation, new market and segment analysis, product development etc. This exuberance led to the initiation of numerous projects. By 2013, the Times forayed into the world of mobile apps made possible by the launch of their internal product innovation project called Beta. Beta’s role in Times was that of a present day start-up incubator serving as the source of new ideas, hypothesis, products and later translating them into minimum value propositions to test their business viability. As per reports, Beta released a series of products such as the NYT Now, the new aggregation app in 2014, NYT Opinion, NYT Cooking, NYT Crossword to name a few. With a slew of products and apps launched over the next few years, the Times was able to spread its wings to larger audiences with content that was relevant to the lives of the readers and not just fuel their appetite for quality news. While Beta may not been an all-out success, it definitely provided a much needed boost to the revenues from digital operations fueled by rise in subscribers and users.
4. Leveraging archives to drive monetization
After Beta launched the NYT Cooking app, the Times saw a massive influx of interest, downloads and subscriptions which has culminated to more than 4 million subscribers till date. One of the interesting facts of the revenue model has been to reanimate more than 17000 recipes from the archives and produce them in the app and help users solve for their cooking interests.
5. Augmenting the Ecosystem Infrastructure
Decisions for digital transformation cannot be taken in silos. In other words, they cannot be confined to one specific department or function while others wait for their turn. Such models are not only inefficient but can drain resources. The Times seemed to have understood the same and hence took a unified approach to build an ecosystem where the people, processes and technology thrived in a cohesive manner. When Times launched their digital operations, there was a strong management decision to ensure the culture was preserved across segments and business units. An ecosystem where all the individuals from the various departments such as newsroom, technology, development, sales, marketing worked as one cohesive unit was important to prevent them from spiraling out into their own worlds. From a technology point of view, there was a need to have an integrated and communicative technical stack and not be limited by disparate ones. The intent towards this path is visible in their efforts to re-imagine and re-architect their technology stack with a deployment of a sizable budget towards this goal. As per a report by CIO, a web publication, Times has now moved to Google BigQuery for their data environment, migrated to Google Cloud, use GraphQL and React to deliver their digital experience.
The New York Times - Present Day
Fast-forward to 2020 and digital transformation decisions seems to have paid off. As per the latest figures, the Times has 7 million subscriptions in total and the revenue generation from its digital subscribers is more than its legacy print subscribers. In the year 2020, the number of digital news subscribers saw a 46% jump from the previous year while its cooking and gaming subscriptions were up 64%.
There has been an increase in the product development space and the associated costs were up by 28% compared to Q3-2019. Times has certainly stood-up to challenges that have come its way and has emerged as a winner without shredding its value proposition of providing world class, independent and powerful journalism and content. The increase in operating profits to $40 million dollars in Q3 2020 is higher than $25.1 million last year for the same period.
The Times has certainly inspired a lot of non-tech companies that digital transformation is not a function of technology alone but more a function of will, determination, innovation and more importantly, an unrelenting leadership intent.
Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth – William F. Achtmeyer Center for Global Leadership
The New York Times is winning at digital by Howard Tiersky, Navigating Digital Transformation,CIO.com, June, 2017
The Evolution of The New York Times Tech Stack by Yonas Beshawred, Stackshare.io
For the first time, The New York Times’ digital subscriptions generate more revenue than its print ones by Hanna Tameez, November 2020, in https://www.niemanlab.org/