Nov 24, 2020 - Economy

Trump bump: NYT and WaPo digital subscriptions tripled since 2016

Data: Axios reporting and public filings; Chart: Axios Visuals

The New York Times and The Washington Post have very different strategies for building the subscription news company of the future.

The big picture: Sources tell Axios that the Post is nearing 3 million digital subscribers, a 50% year-over-year growth in subscriptions and more than 3x the number of digital-only subscribers it had in 2016. The New York Times now has more than 6 million digital-only subscribers, nearly 3x its number from 2016.

  • Much of the Post's growth is attributed to back-end technology investments supported by The Post's owner Jeff Bezos.

The Times has been vocal about its strategy to build brand awareness to drive subscriptions, which includes everything from launching TV shows to hiring big-name journalists with loyal audiences and building products around them.

  • It's also focused on creating editorial products that it hopes will help make it a daily habit for readers, like its cooking and crossword apps.

Why it matters: Both companies are growing at an impressive pace, especially given the bleak outlook for media amid the pandemic. But the Times' recent investments in stars — like Ezra Klein, Ben Smith, Kara Swisher, and Jane Coaston — has some media insiders wondering about The Post's plans.

  • The Post's culture isn't driven by boosting individual brands, and sources say the company has no interest in hunting for big personalities to boost products.
  • That doesn't mean it's not investing in editorial talent, but it's more focused on building editorial teams in topic areas that drive lots of user interest, like politics, international, tech, business, investigations and data journalism.
  • Post insiders told Axios that much of the company’s focus on stars has been internal, including more women of color elevated to leadership positions.

The Times has also leaned heavily into its opinion section, recruiting big names to not only write columns, but also to launch new opinion podcasts.

  • Some argue that the Grey Lady's focus on subscriptions could cause its journalism to cater to more to its mostly progressive and affluent subscriber base.
  • By comparison, The Post hasn't leaned as far towards its opinion voices to drive sign-ups. It's focused more on attracting a wider net of potential subscribers through investments in other areas, like video across social platforms, including TikTok, Snapchat, YouTube and Amazon-owned Twitch.

One of the Post's biggest areas of focus has been on building a technology stack that can help it accrue and retain subscribers long-term.

  • Much of the focus of The Post's investment has been in its proprietary advertising and publishing software tools, called Zeus and Arc, respectively.
  • The software businesses are important revenue-drivers for the company, but they also help make the Post's digital experience more user-friendly.
  • Sources tell Axios that eventually, The Post hopes to build out a single sign-on authentication feature across all of the sites that license Zeus, which could help it boost subscriptions, especially at the local level. Since February, more than 100 sites have signed with Zeus, including many local news outlets.

Between the lines: Much of The Post's strategy is informed by its ties to Bezos.

  • The Post now has an engineering team specifically focused on subscription conversions that rebuilt The Post’s paywall and metering applications this year to boost sign-ups. It also created a new post-purchase experience that has helped The Post dramatically reduce subscriber churn and increase app adoption.
  • The paywall tech is now licensed to other media companies through Arc.

Yes, but: The Post's investments in tech, while critical, aren't happening in a vacuum. The Times' CEO Meredith Kopit Levien told Axios in September that the Times today has more engineers than any other role other than journalists.

Our thought bubble: When it comes to subscription content services broadly, research shows that shiny objects (original content, hot talent, discounts, etc.) tend to get people to sign-up, and that functionality and lots of content options keeps them from leaving.

  • Sources wonder if the company's long-term focus on behind-the-scenes tech, and on journalism over journalists, will hamper its ability to compete with The Times for the buzz that drives new subscriptions.
  • The Times, being publicly traded, is under more pressure from investors to grow subscribers quickly, which is why buzz matters. And because it's controlled by a newspaper family, investments in editorial products are more akin to its DNA. (The Times doesn't have a software licensing business, for example.)

The bottom line: The two news giants must chart a path forward in subscriptions without the news momentum from Donald Trump's presidency.

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