10 years on from the first digital subscription

The end of March 2021 marked the ten year anniversary of the New York Times' first digital subscription, one of the milestones in its digital transformation. The bottom line has been a win-win. The world's most prestigious media company took a risk and focused on the long term, and time has proven that to be a good decision. This is the story of its formula for success.

21 April 2021

A decade on from its first digital subscription, the bet made by the New York Times — one of the most prestigious newspapers in the world — has taken shape and been transformed into a successful model; one which is being closely scrutinized by a number of media companies in the world.

What do the numbers say? The digital subscription model at the New York Times (NYT) has grown exponentially in recent years. As a result, this renowned media outlet gained the financial independence necessary to free itself from having to rely solely on advertising revenue.

  • Currently, 89% of the Times’ subscriptions are digital, which is to say that 7.5 million people pay for its online content.
  • The company’s digital subscription revenue is double that from advertising, according to 2020 figures.

Why does this matter? While the world’s press undergoes trying times and its executives reel wondering how to survive within a ‘stagnant model‘ with plummeting advertising revenue and no clear subscription paradigm, the NYT team is popping champagne to celebrate the digital transformation process begun in 2011.

How did they do it? In 2011, the NYT introduced a paywall but continued to bet on journalistic excellence and moving forward in the digital world.

  • The big move took place in the digital area, where the company designed a purposeful journey for users browsing its website. This allowed the Times to build deep and engaging relationships with readers, which it could then use to drive growth in the subscription area. The journey was meant to be such a seductive experience that the reader would ultimately subscribe.
  • From 2016 to 2017, the company witnessed a rapid acceleration in subscriptions following the election of Donald Trump. From then on, they coupled compelling news events with subscription plans, thereby creating the ideal “dance partner”.
  • Although for more than a century the NYT had focused on traditional print, it gradually began to move toward new opportunities, like evolving online news and real-time coverage. This resulted in excellent real-time features, where both new readers and frequent visitors would be welcomed into a continually updated website. The advantage of this updating — specialists say — was to achieve greater visibility for the NYT in Google searches. This attracted new readers and pushed them to share the content on social media platforms.
  • In mid-2018, the company redefined its goals into five areas: subscription growth, engagement, new products and businesses, brand advertising, and digital.

The final stretch: Numerous news events allowed the New York newspaper to create the “perfect match” needed to consolidate its digital area. However, it was at the end of 2020 that it set a record in digital subscriptions.

  • In just four years, the length of Donald Trump’s term in the White House, the newspaper nearly tripled its digital subscriber base.
  • In 2020 the New York Times added two million subscribers compared to 2019, which allowed it to ride out a year that in terms of advertising had been, quite literally, dismal for the entire media industry.
  • Far exceeding analysts’ expectations, and due to interest both in the U.S. elections and the pandemic, the publishing company added 627 thousand digital subscribers in the last three months of 2020.

The great consolidation: Undoubtedly, 2020 was the year that the New York Times’ digital transformation strategy fully took hold.

  • “In 2020, we achieved two key milestones: digital revenue surpassed print revenue for the first time. And digital subscription revenue, long our fastest-growing stream, is now also the largest,” explained Meredith Kopit Levien, CEO of the newspaper and the first woman to take on this role.

The opportunities: The bets on other digital offerings, such as the Cooking and the Crosswords applications, led to dizzying growth in digital subscriptions.

  • In 2020, Cooking and Games reached an amazing 600,000 subscriptions.
  • But with “pandemic news fatigue” in mind, the company also created a new editorial experience called “At Home,” offering readers products such as videos, newsletters, and suggestions on what to cook, watch, or do when they were stuck at home.
  • Also, having noticed the increased interest in newsletter subscriptions, the company decided to convert its flagship newsletter, “The Morning Briefing,” and relaunch it around David Leonhardt, one of its most distinguished journalists. He writes it every day as a narrative rather than a list of headlines.

Will the paper die?I think the Times will survive as a print newspaper 10 more years, maybe even 15; I’d be surprised if it makes it to 20,” said Mark Thompson, the paper’s chief executive officer from 2012 to 2020, and the person who implemented the company’s big business turnaround.

What’s ahead: the NYT’s goal is to have 10 million subscribers by 2025.

  • The last 10 years were about proving our strategy of journalism worth paying for. The next 10 will be to expand on that idea,” according to Meredith Kopit Levien.
  • Subscription revenues are expected to increase by 15% in the early months of 2021, compared to the first quarter of 2020.
  • The New York Times is in the early stages of developing a digital subscription product for families called NYT Kids. This is a product focused on children, like the lifestyle apps previously built by Cooking and Crosswords that were for adults. The idea is for such content to help children ages 8 to 11 explore a variety of topics and activities, including crafts, recipes, thought experiments, and physical activities.
  • Lastly, the NYT’s ambitions are to continue to grow its readership in the coming years. “With one billion people reading digital news and an estimated 100 million willing to pay for it in English, it’s not hard to imagine that, over time, the subscriber base could grow larger,” says Kopit Levien, the company’s chief executive officer.