The Times It Is a Changin’
Its investment in non-news content is key to its growing lead in the subscriptions race.
A song to read by: "You Oughta Know," by Das Racist
What I’m reading: "Braiding Sweetgrass," by Robin Wall Kimmerer
Non-news is good news
The race for digital subscriptions amongst the top news publishers in the country — a relatively competitive contest just three years ago — has now taken on the look of a blow-out.
The New York Times announced Wednesday morning in its annual earnings call that, due in part to two strategic acquisitions it made in January — one an innovative, wildly popular digital property, the other The Athletic — the publisher has surpassed 10 million total subscriptions. The Gray Lady had set itself the goal of passing that milestone by 2025, but it arrived early. It has since updated its goals and now aims to net 15 million total subscriptions by 2027.
By comparison, none of its closest competitors have topped 4 million subscribers. The Washington Post and Wall Street Journal, which recently were nipping at The Times’ heels, have stalled somewhere between the 2 - 3.5 million subscriber mark. If memory serves, the publisher with the fourth-most subscribers just a year ago was The Athletic, which The Times now owns. Bloomberg Media is ascendent, nearing the 4 million mark, but it might find itself in a struggle similar to its peers.
Why? Increasingly, the key to The Times’ success, and what differentiates it from its competitors, is its investment in non-news products. In 2021, its non-news revenue — from games, puzzles, cooking, Wirecutter — made up 55% of its subscription growth. Of the 375,000 net new digital subscribers it added in Q4, 171,000 came from news and 204,000 came from its other products.
Its last two acquisitions — Wordle and The Athletic — are clear plays to bolster its non-news appeal, adding a viral new puzzle to its stable of games and materializing an industry-leading sports section out of thin air. Its Cooking app, at least in my estimation, is a peerless product — even outside the world of news publishers.
The Times has been building out its non-news offerings for several years now, and their foresight has proven especially well-timed. Last year, as part of the Trump Slump, traffic to nearly every major news publisher plummeted and stayed low, month after month. Put simply: People are not in the mood to read the news.
Other publishers, especially the ones that have positioned their entire value proposition around covering a singular industry in depth, were caught flat-footed by this nationwide ennui. Only The Times has built out a bundle of products diverse enough to carry it through this season of fallow readership, and they have reaped the benefits.
As others have noted, their strategy is not a newfangled one: The Times has simply rebuilt a newspaper. Replete with sports, food and dining, lifestyle and hard news sections, the publisher has constructed a digital version of the wad of paper that was once wrapped in a rubber band and flung at your doorstep. What’s old is new again.
This newly rebundled packet of content is digitally native and offers more granular insights than its print counterpart, but the same logic applies. As I wrote in August about the importance of games to publishers, even on a slow news day, fans can think of a nine-letter (or now five-letter) reason to visit the site.
The same is true for sports — the NFL has seen record viewership numbers this year, its highest since 2015 — and for cooking. Regardless of the state of the world around them, people still need ways to cook, relax and root for some kind of sports team.
What does this mean for other publishers?
I hate to beat this drum, but it must be said: The success of one publisher does not spell success for the news industry.
As Matthew Hindman writes in “The Internet Trap,” the structure of the web ensures that once a company gains a competitive edge, its advantages then accrue exponentially. The Times’ success will generate more revenue, which it will invest in more journalists and better tech, which will lead to more revenue, ad infinitum.
The momentum of The Times, then, while heartening, comes at the expense of the industry writ large. It is natural to root for a news publisher — any news publisher — in the inhospitable media landscape we live in. But as in any industry, a diversity of choices, especially from local and independently owned operations, will always result in a richer, more equitable experience for consumers.
The challenge with news subscriptions, and The Times knows this, is that most people view them as a utility. As with music-streaming services, consumers will only pay for one product — why have Spotify and Apple Music? Why pay for two gym memberships? Can you imagine having two meal delivery subscriptions?
The Times knows that most people are willing to pay for one news subscription, and it wants to be that one. So the more value it can bundle within its subscription — sports, cooking, games — the more irresistible it becomes. Consumers will engage in the same calculus across the country, comparing The New York Times to [insert local paper] or comparing The Times to [insert news media publisher]. If they are only going to pay for one, nine times out of ten The Times will win that battle.
To compete, other publishers will have to build out equally competitive bundles, perhaps looking to dominate areas where The Times is still weak. But they will have to do this with scarce resources, and they are already behind.
Of course, there is still one way these publishers could make up the distance and become competitive overnight: More mergers, and bigger bundles, might be their only hope. And then we return to the beginning.
Some good readin'
— My alternative name for this article was: Forbes is building a LinkedIn that it thinks people will pay for. (Adweek)
— Capital B is here! The non-profit serving Black audiences, staffed by industry veterans, is exactly what the industry needs more of. (Washington Post)
— I have a lot to learn about the TV news beat, but one thing is clear: Zucker's departure could not have come at a worse time. (Vanity Fair)
— Apparently the author behind "Goodnight, Moon" was a radical surrealist artist? This is quintessential New Yorker. (New Yorker)
— Can we just fast-forward through our current infatuation with TikTok and get to the part where we realize it is, like all social media, an inherently corrosive force on society? (Real Life Mag)
— Jonah Weiner is my favorite men's fashion writer, bar none, and his latest stunt is perfect. The beat needs far, far more writers that grapple with the environmental and consumerist components of the industry. (Blackbird Spyplane)
Cover image: "Autumn Landscape with Four Trees," by Vincent Van Gogh