Tom Grubisich is senior Web editor at the World Bank, a former reporter at the Washington Post and a frequent contributor to OJR.
You don’t have to be a Cassandra to fear for the New York Times. Its stock is at a 12-year low. Wall Street is trying to defenestrate the Sulzberger family, which bought the Times 111 years ago and has ruled it even since the company went public in 1967. Ad revenue at the print Times, as well as the Boston Globe and other Times-owned papers, is weak, and the Times’ national circulation, after years of trending upward, is starting to slip.
But perhaps the Times’ worst news is Rupert Murdoch. In what Madison Avenue describes as the “dog-eat-dog” competition for ad dollars, he seems ready to weaponize his newly acquired Wall Street Journal by broadening the paper’s appeal with stronger international and Washington coverage, possibly converting the website from paid to free (or at least giving away more content) and re-purposing WSJ content for other News Corp. platforms, including the dizzyingly popular but not yet fully realized social media site, MySpace. The biggest target of such a multi-front offensive would be the Times.
How can the Times survive this onslaught? In a media world where print is not just mature but senescent, the only answer is nytimes.com. The Times’ website is no slouch. It is, in fact, the company’s best-performing property. It is the most popular newspaper site in unique visitors, beating its nearest rivals, USA Today and the Washington Post, by 50 percent. In June, it had 12.5 million unique visitors, according to Nielsen/Net Ratings. The Nielsen report also said nytimes.com became the top newspaper site in average time per user each month, at 27 minutes and 34 seconds. [Corrected from original, which cited that figure as per user visit, rather than per user each month.] Those numbers will surely improve if and when the Times scraps TimesSelect, its attempt to monetize its marquee columnists and other attractive features as premium content, a valiant strategy in 2005, but unsupportable against the Murdoch offensive. But a 100-percent free nytimes.com won’t begin to produce enough new ad revenue to offset falling ad and circulation revenues at the Times’ print operations. To save those properties, nytimes.com must be reinvented. It must become a total Web 2.0 news and social media site. It must transform its users into participants and attract many more of them. Nytimes.com should embrace social media with more goodies than USA Today’s tepid experiment, as Steve Rubel urged in his Micro Persuasion blog last March.
A fully participatory nytimes.com with thousands of hyperlocal sub-sites could, I believe, double traffic to 25 million users. Look at how MySpace and Facebook, which started from nothing, grew. Veronis Suhler Stevenson says in its new report that online ad revenues will soar to nearly $62 billion by 2011, at which point the Web will pass print newspapers. If nytimes.com transform itself into a bigger, livelier and more inclusive news and social media site, wouldn’t advertisers be beating on its door?
In the 1970s, the Times, then totally print, reinvented the Gray Lady with a series of exciting new sections, science, food and fashion among them, that literally saved the newspaper with an infusion of new revenue. Thirty years later, nytimes.com can and must do something as bold and creative, for the same life-or-death reason.