Changing with the Times
12/05/2014 New York
Print is not dead, but with digitization newspapers face new and daunting challenges. In order to survive they will have to take steps towards responding to the ever more demanding customers, who want additional information and new formats, including those for mobile devices and those adapted for social media.
"The one thing we know is that we have to continue to adapt," said Arthur O. Sulzberger Jr., publisher of the New York Times, during a Global Leadership Breakfast at IESE’s New York Center.
Arthur O. Sulzberger Jr. took the helm of the New York Times in 1992. During his 25-year tenure, Sulzberger has lived through a rapidly changing technological scene and increased industrial and economic challenges. In spite of this, he has managed to uphold the high quality of the newspaper’s content and has even improved the economic results: in the last four years the Times’ stock price increased 300 percent, and both its advertisement revenue and its circulation have seen considerable growth.
Embrace the digital era
Ten years ago, the paper edition was only available in its entirety. Today, however, with Internet and various mobile capabilities at the fingertips of most readers, many are opting not to receive the paper in full.
In 2011, the Times launched a digital subscription model, which has set the corporation on a path for growth. In addition to this platform, which has already proved to be a success, the Times plans to launch a range of new products.
These efforts seem to be working. A staggering 65 million unique users are exposed to New York Times articles each month – more than ever before.
Despite the huge popularity of the digital platform, Sulzberger feels that no there is no digital-only magazine whose quality rivals that of the Times. And despite the rapid digitalization of the media industry, Sulzberger is confident that print is not dead.
"I made the mistake years ago of saying that print would be gone in five years, and I think that was easily seven years ago," he says. Today 820,000 New York Times customers are subscribers to a home-delivery in-print plan, and have been for two years or more.
Aggregation and social media
A large portion of the 65 million unique users who access the New York Times monthly do so via Google and other search engines, or through social media sites – a statistic that raises the question of aggregation. For Sulzberger, aggregation is an opportunity for introduction.
"If people are taken to our site, that is a chance for them to experience the New York Times. And there is value in that," he says. In fact, some of the Times’ newest products feature segments linking to articles that New York Times writers find noteworthy, regardless of whether they were written by competitors.
Mark Thompson, the CEO of the New York Times and former director general of the BBC, believes that the debate over reuse is based upon a slight misconception over what constitutes ownable "intellectual property." He urges newspapers to think of reuse as a marketing opportunity. If article reuse increases a piece’s chances of exposure, there is the potential to turn viewers into subscribers, and to yield a significant cost benefit.
Mobile devices have become the mode of choice for news delivery. The greatest drop, according to Sulzberger, has been in desktop use. In light of this tendency, the New York Times has begun to prioritize mobile devices in the creation of its new products. They have launched a slimmed-down version of the paper, available via mobile devices for a reduced price, and a new ‘opinion app.’ "We are trying to create more mobile experiences," says Sulzberger.
Thompson highlights the implications of this fast-paced change, noting that while companies used to plan in terms of five-year strategies, changes have become too rapid even for a three-year plan to be of use. He posits that the media industry is moving toward a "real-time" process as it struggles to keep up with the changing demands of its consumers.
As the New York Times expands globally, it has an increased level of competition. A decade ago, when the Times was still a regional paper, its competition was limited to other papers of similar scale – the Washington Post, the Boston Globe and the LA Times.
But since then, the Times has extended nationally, and more recently, internationally. But along with the debut of the International New York Times comes a list of additional competitors. With a future geared toward going global, the New York Times is now up against several international opponents, with the Financial Times, the Guardian and even the BBC among its top competitors.
In addition to this global expansion, the Times has also begun expanding digitally, with a digital subscription option. This platform has attracted 800,000 digital-only subscribers.
While Sulzberger and his colleagues clearly understand and respect the need to adapt to changing technological and consumer circumstances, the New York Times holds fast to its core values.
When the Graham family sold the Washington Post last year, Sulzberger declared, "The New York Times is not for sale." To pull the corporation out of its slump, Sulzberger called upon the values of resilience, and most importantly, teamwork.
"If you don’t unify as a team, you’re not going to make it through," he says. It was ultimately the incredible joint support of the corporate leaders, the board of directors, and the Sulzberger family that enabled the Times to remain afloat in this critical moment.
The New York Times has become a leading source for news, regionally, nationally and globally. As time launches us into new circumstances and presents the newspaper industry with a new body of consumer needs, the Times moves with it, crafting a legacy that is sure to last.