I attended the Columbia Journalism School’s symposium last night, featuring Arthur Sulzberger Jr. and Janet Robinson, the top executives of the New York Times Company. As it is now nine days since the new digital pricing plan, originally implemented in Canada, it was a perfect time to review the strategy of the company. Here are a few of the key insights from the session:
- Digital pricing plan, not a pay wall–Sulzberger said that the digital subscription ($15 per month for smart phone access; $20 per month for tablet; and $35 for all digital access) is not a complex plan, it is a new plan. “We have built a system that is adaptable and allows us to change based on experience. It is not about the next quarter or even year. It is a long term bet on the digital future.” For example, the Deal Book, focused on financial transactions, will remain outside of the pay system because “we just did a metamorphosis of the site in December and are now most interested in building a loyal base of readers.“ A person can get 20 stories for free per month before the new scheme comes into play.
- This is a decision to create a third revenue stream—This will complement the money coming through advertising and subscriptions. Even though print subscribers get the new service for free, this was “not about boosting print circulation,” Sulzberger said. In fact, the print home delivery business is very healthy. We now have 830,000 subscribers who have been with us for two years or more, up from 650,000 in 2000. We think that print will be around a lot longer than expected,” Sulzberger noted. Robinson added that the engagement with print advertising continues to be very strong, with highly satisfied customers.
- The NYT advantage is quality—Sulzberger noted that “the math of the business is that quality journalism attracts a quality audience which yields a quality group of advertisers.” He said that the Times has more foreign and national bureaus than ever before. “At the core of our paper is original journalism, with real sources and a commitment to acknowledge and correct errors when made.”
- Reduction in cost base—Robinson acknowledged that though NYT has taken out costs out in the past three years, they “have done this very carefully, focusing on production aspects such as paper and shipping, trying to keep as many reporters as possible.”
- Direct, free access via Facebook and Twitter—The digital plan allows people to click through to stories from links posted in social media platforms. People can also come in via search engines for subsets of the stories. The New York Times has three million followers on Twitter, more than three times the next closest competitor (Chicago Tribune) and four times the Wall Street Journal.
- Customized platform—Users will be able to “tailor the NYT experience to their own needs,” Sulzberger said. “For those who wish to explore, they can have all they want. For those only interested in metro or business news, they will have that, in short or long form.” He added that the paper has learned from the Huffington Post about the power of aggregating comments and building community in that way.
I walked away last night with a sense of hope for the newspaper industry. All of us in PR must root for the success of the NYT plan because only quality journalism will allow us to succeed in our profession. If, in fact, NYT’s 33 million monthly unique visitors can be protected via this porous pay wall approach, it is likely to “open the flood gates on comparable plans,” as Sulzberger said.