How the New York Times can fight back and win: a reprise

The New York Times Co. — the whole caboodle, including the esteemed and necesssary flagship paper, 18 other, mostly monopoly dailies, the spunky About instructional search engine and minority ownership of the half-redeemed Boston Red Sox — is worth less than what the company paid for just one of its properties, the Boston Globe. That’s what the stock market said as of Wednesday, Nov. 26, and that was after a bounceback from a near-historic low — $5.34 – on Nov. 21.

With advertising in its print edition continuing to slide by double-digit percentages, the Times is pursuing, in the words of President/CEO Janet L. Robinson, a “strict cost discipline.” But, happily, it’s looking as if the company finally understands that it can’t cut its way back to financial health (and a stock price that doesn’t look like an unfortunate misprint).

In August 2007, when the company’s stock had already fallen to a 12-year low, I argued in these pages that the Times could fight back by leveraging the power of its nytimes.com website through the force of social networking. Finally, it’s begun doing so.

The results of the Times recent presidential election promotion on Facebook are amazing – 68.3 million page views of the “What should Barack Obama do first as president” teaser ad and the number of Times “fans” on Facebook soaring almost overnight from 49,000 to 164,000. That’s precisely what viral marketing can do – when there’s untapped potential behind the marketing hype. And nytimes.com – with more than 20 million unique visitors monthly – has potential that no other newspaper site can approach.

I stress “potential,” because the Times, so far, has done too little to capitalize on an audience that includes big slices of all the demographics that advertisers want:

  • Two thirds of users are in the most coveted 25-54 age range.
  • Fifty-seven percent are women (who buy or influence the purchase of 80 percent of all consumer goods, according to marketers).
  • Average income is near $80,000.
  • Close to 50 percent live in the top 25 markets.

    The Times did make one big try to monetize nytimes.com, but that turned into the flop called New York TimesSelect, which put the paper’s columnists behind a subscription wall. Only about two percent of nytimes.com users signed up for the premium service, which cost $7.95 a year or $49.95 yearly. The $10 million in revenue that TimesSelect reeled in was more than offset by potential long-term traffic losses because some of nytimes.com’s most popular features were no longer available on search engines. The walls of TimesSelect came down in September 2007, two years after it was launched.

    The big mistake of TimesSelect, beyond ghetto-izing 98 percent of nytimes.com users, was trying to monetize a mass product, which is what Times columns are, even if they bear the marquee names of Paul Krugman or Maureen Dowd or Tom Friedman. What the Times ought to be doing is monetizing all the resources of its considerably talented staff, which includes not just the renowned names on op-ed columns but scores of reporters, critics and editors who are treasure trove of valuable intelligence on any number of subjects, elevated or lowly, or know where to find it.

    Here’s how that could be done:

    Newyorktimes.com launches TimesPlus – a premium service that gives subscribers access – literally – to the minds of the entire Times newsroom staff, which includes more than a thousand information experts.

    Let’s say you’re planning a trip to New York. You would complete a checklist where you list all your preferences – everything from hotel (e.g., small, non-convention, mid-priced, convenient to theater district and Madison Avenue shops) to hot but unheralded shops and attractions. Your preferences would be fed into a continually updated database to which the entire Times editorial staff would, as part of their jobs, contribute the latest information (and maybe gossip). You would get back responses to all your preferences, and also an advisory listing discounts your handsomely embossed, computer-chip-embedded TimesPlus subscriber card would give you at New York shops, restaurants and attractions.

    Let’s say, like many nytimes.com users, you follow national politics closely. You could sit in on a weekly video conference phone call — open only to TimesPlus subscribers – during which top Times political reporters, columnists and editors would riff about latest developments and take questions.

    There would also be similar exclusive-content conference calls covering subjects like foreign affairs, the arts, books, entertainment sports, food, science and health – anything that the Times staff is expert on.

    Five times a year, TimesPlus subscribers could submit personalized requests – say, what are safe and interesting but not pricey neighborhoods in Brooklyn (or Los Angeles or Dallas/Fort Worth)? – that would be answered with up-to-date information contributed by Times staffers.

    TimesPlus would be priced at $10 a month, or $100 a year if paid upfront. If 5 percent of nytimes.com’s 20 million unique visitors became subscribers, that would add $100 million revenue that would more than replace tshrinking print ad revenue.

    The percentage of subscribers could be even higher if the Times could convince merchants, restaurants and entertainment venues in all the major U.S. markets to give special deals to TimesPlus members. For many subscribers, those deals would more than pay their TimesPlus fee – just like most holders of the Barnes & Noble Membership card save more than the $25 fee through their discounted book purchases

    TimesPlus would have its own comment boards where subscribers could contribute their ratings, and cross swords with Times experts.

    TimesPlus would also let subscribers build their own multi-media mini-sites and form groups among themselves. What a great place the site would be for subscribers to offer housing for pleasure or even business trips to New York and other cities, as well as vacations, or to sell art and other special and unique objects.

    Subscriptions might start slowly – many people remember TimesSelect – but if the site lived up to even half of its potential, viral marketing would take over and in a couple of years subscribers could swell to several million or more. Imagine the revenue potential if that happened.

    Purists might say what does all this – tips for tourists! — have to do with the mission of the New York Times. But the Times already produces reams of features that are tips about a 10,000 things less significant than how to reduce your carbon footprint. What would be different about TimesPlus intelligence is that it would marshal all the Times considerable but underused resources. The Times has a newsroom staff of about 1,300. TimesPlus would mobilize that talent much more efficiently than the space that editorial content gets in either the print or online paper.

    As recently as 15 years ago, the only New York Times was its print edition. If you lived in Peoria, Ill., you might have to drive a couple of miles to find a place that sold it. The Internet put the Times in reach of anyone with a computer. The editors still made all the decisions about what would go online pages, but at least now there was feedback – sometimes blowback — from users. TimesPlus would break down even more barriers. It would create more and direct connections between Times staff and its readers, and, let readers form relationships among themselves in all kinds of social, professional and volunteer categories. Very likely, subscribers could become a critical mass of resource material for the Times as it uses the Internet to widen its net of information gathering.

    As Times stock has descended in a near-straight line, the specter of bankruptcy has reared its head. Even reorganization would probably mean the end of revealing investigative stories we have seen during the current financial crisis, like this one that opened the door to the executive suites at Merrill Lynch as it was gorging itself on fees from flipping high-risk derivatives, or this one that did the same for Citbank.

    TimesPlus could prevent that from happening. It would provide the bridge from the print to online paper that is desperately, and speedily, needed.

  • About Tom Grubisich

    I write about hyperlocal grassroots sites regularly for Online Journalism Review. What I've seen checking out proliferating sites has not been encouraging. The content is generally dull "happy news" or aggregated wire stories and doesn't seem to tap into what's special about the communities being covered.

    I am senior web editor at the World Bank in Washington, D.C., where I help develop blogs and other content aimed at broadening the Bank's audiences around the world.

    Earlier in my career, I was managing editor of news for Digital City/AOL and before that co-founder of the free-circulation weekly Connection Newspapers in Northern Virginia. Earlier yet, I was a reporter and editor at The Washington Post. For more information, consult, Who's Who in America (2008 edition). I'm reachable at [email protected]

    Comments

    1. Don’t get lulled into the idea that this idea is strictly for the New York Times. Any news publication ought to be thinking about these types of creative ways to get folks to pay more money, directly or indirectly, to access the expertise of its journalists.

      Of course, doing so presumes that your journalists have expertise that the public values. That’s why it is so disheartening to see news organizations laying off experienced, knowledgeable staff members. Those folks are, or at least could be, valuable assets.

      This is one idea. What else you got? 😉

    2. Jon Greenberg says:

      I’m skeptical for two reasons. First, I detect a hint of the assumption of “something for nothing” when I read “a continually updated database to which the entire Times editorial staff would, as part of their jobs, contribute the latest information (and maybe gossip).” If you add one more thing to the reporter’s task list you risk diluting their ability to do their main job of gathering and digesting information. And then there’s the ethical issue of reporters and editor getting paid to deliver their wisdom to select customers. This might create financial incentives that run counter to the more egalitarian traditions of journalism.

      Second, the allure of the mighty database algorithm that connects individual preferences to a precise bit of content reminds me of the old line about shale oil in Wyoming. The potential of shale oil is great. And always will be.

    3. Tom Grubisich says:

      Jon raises good questions that need hashing out. I don’t think building and continually updating the database I’m talking about would dilute current Times print/online content. The Times newsroom numbers close to 1,300, of which only a relative few are busy on any given day reporting, writing, editing or otherwise contributing to stories and other regular content. Why can’t the full potential of those experienced and talented staffers be unlocked?

      Regarding “the ethical issue of reporters and editor getting paid to deliver their wisdom to select customers,” these staffers would be responding to specific requests outside of their regular assignments. Even if they were paid a bonus for this outside work, I don’t see an ethical issue. Regular Times users would continue to get the daily report that editors assemble, using their judgment and balancing space limitations. Nothing would be withheld from the report and reserved for TimesPlus subscribers.

      Regarding how TimesPlus would actually operate, individual requests made via online forms would be computer-compiled and -sorted so that the same question asked, say, a thousand times (or more), would require one database-supported answer.

    4. 194.169.201.2 says:

      Great post but even with this model, many people will say that we can only monetize on advertising.

      If I cannot sindicate my sources to my own sindicator, that tool is quite limited, if I can, then we can go a kind of piracy 2.0 because I understand it would be much about links and sources.

      I liked very much this approach, no matter what and I share most of what it states.

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    7. Great post , i think in the last Tech-Crunch T50 you can find some companies with same model ..
      kidworld
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