Feb 5, 2021 - Politics & Policy

Trump era pushes NYT to new heights

Reproduced from: New York Times company filings; Chart: Axios Visuals

The New York Times added nearly 5 million digital-only subscribers in the past four years, helping to firmly transition its business from a 170-year-old newspaper company to a modern digital behemoth. The paper has roughly 6.7 million digital-only subscribers in total.

Why it matters: No other U.S. news publisher comes even close to that number. The Washington Post and The Wall Street Journal have 3 million and 2.46 million digital subscribers, respectively.

The big picture: While the Trump news cycle did give the paper an subscription boost, the Grey Lady's real opportunity over the last four years came from strategic business and technology investments, like acquiring a podcast company, overhauling its data operation and launching standalone subscription apps for Cooking and Games.

  • "The Times, for as long it's been around, has always been bigger than any one story," CEO Meredith Kopit Levien told investors Thursday.
  • "If you look under the hood and how our subscribers engage, and what drives people in the path to purchase — and then ultimately, stay and be a healthy subscriber — it’s the experience of the breadth of our journalism."

Driving the news: While the company experienced a transformative four years, 2020 was by far the most important in terms of growth.

  • The Times added 2.3 million new digital subscribers last year, a historical record. All three of its subscription products (news, cooking and games) broke previous records for annual net additions in 2020.
  • A whopping 273 million global readers visited The Times' digital properties during election week, nearly doubling its previous weekly record.
  • New reader activations, like its viral coronavirus database, drove elevated traffic.
Data: New York Times earnings reports; Chart: Axios Visuals

Under Kopit Levien's leadership, and with the hiring of smart technologists and product leaders underneath her, The Times has become a lifestyle services company in addition to a global news leader.

  • About one third of its new digital subscriptions come from its Cooking and Crosswords apps. Kopit Levien said the company will double down on puzzles in the future as a part of its games strategy, given the success of NYT Spelling Bee.
  • Kopit Levien confirmed Axios' reporting that the company is testing a subscription for its consumer reviews website Wirecutter.
  • The Times, which has made huge investments in both audio and video, brought in nearly $40 million in podcast revenue alone in 2020. The company has 10 scripted TV show projects in development with topics ranging from love to race.

Yes, but: The company hasn't been immune from some of the advertising-related headwinds facing the media industry. While its subscription business has soared, its advertising business has declined significantly in the past four years.

  • The company has at times faced reader and employee backlash for editorial decisions, particularly from its Opinion section.
  • In doubling down on a subscription business during the Trump era, The Times leaned more heavily into Opinion, hiring several big-name journalists for the section and launching a slew of new Opinion podcasts.

What to watch: When The Times two years ago announced its lofty goal of reaching 10 million paid digital subscribers by 2025, the ambition seemed aspirational. Now, it looks more than doable. Today, 7.5 million people pay for New York Times content.

  • "There's no reason we can’t have two, three, four times that over time maybe, even more," Kopit Levien said.
  • The Times expects that there are 100 million willing to pay for news in English.
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