Can offering 3 million free student subscriptions pay off for the New York Times? Chris Sutcliffe runs through the pros and cons of the bold strategy for Digital Content Next, from cultivating a more desirable audience base for advertising, to using the data to support other parts of the business.
It does not come as a surprise that most digital publishers look to the New York Times for subscription strategy advice: On February 6th, The “failing” New York Times posted digital revenue of $709 million for 2018, based largely on its 3.4 million digital subscriptions. It also bucked expectations when it came to its ability to attract new subscribers. The NYT added 265,000 new digital subscriptions in the last quarter of 2018, which it calls “the biggest gain since the months immediately following the 2016 election.” As a result, the paper has set itself the new goal of having 10 million subscriptions by 2025.
This all suggests that while the “Trump bump” was a reality, there is more to the NYT’s success than simply being the target of The President’s ire. In an interview with Ken Doctor, the NYT’s Chief Executive Mark Thompson attributes much of its success to steady investment in the newsroom – which he calls a “very simple, old-fashioned model” – through having the highest number of journalists on staff in the paper’s history.
The vast majority of news publishers, however, do not have the coffers of a national title. Later in the interview, Thompson acknowledges that the NYT has unreplicable advantages when it comes to adding staff. However, the New York Times is employing a strategy that more publishers can and should emulate: It’s giving its news away for free – to 3 million students.
On its face, the idea sounds crazy. Back in July of last year, the NYT’s ‘The Truth Is Worth It’ advertising campaign made paying for high-quality news the responsibility of the public. Its press release stated that its research had “found that seventy-three percent of U.S. news consumers who pay and subscribe to a news source say that it has never been more important to support quality journalism.”