Ten Takeaways From New York Times Digital Strategy Memo

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“We must get better at demonstrating and communicating the unique value of reading—and especially paying for—The New York Times.”
A memo from the executives of the Times issued earlier this month

In the excellent Steven Spielberg film out now, Bridge of Spies—taking place between 1957 and 1962—two scenes involve train rides where commuters are reading the newspaper, and the person they are reading about sits noticeably before them. I thought about what those scenes would look like today or even if we could still have them, as niched and multi-platformed as everyone’s attention is.

The Times does take on that notion in their memo—”Our first two million subscribers…grew up with The New York Times spread out over their kitchen tables. The next million must be fought for and won over with The Times on their phones.”

B2B publishers may not be dealing with an all-phone audience just yet, but in reading the Times memo, there are definite similarities in the journeys. Here are 10 takeaways:

1. Continue to pursue the best writing, reporting, and service to your audience. “We must remember that quality journalism and reader service don’t just embody our mission; they represent our competitive advantage,” the memo said.

2. Stick with “simplified pricing options.” The Times wrote that these options must “reflect our readers’ multiplatform lives.” Publishers can provide different tiers and frequency of delivery options, but make sure it’s easy to read and act on via desktop, tablet and mobile devices.

3. Look for sponsorship connections. The Times has created a new position that works with both the editorial and business sides of the paper to identify editorial projects that might be ripe for special sponsorships. This is not your mother’s NYT. One example they mentioned is the pairing of Google Maps with their popular 36 Hours travel series.

4. Ensure that editorial knows its analytics. “This month, for the first time,” the memo said, “we will provide every reporter and editor with access to tools that will allow them to see how readers are finding and engaging with their stories.” What headlines and subject lines are getting the most clicks? Which stories get the most forwards, shares and “likes”? Which stories have the longest time-on-page? This information isn’t just for marketing departments, but for the reporters and editors that are producing the content so that they can be more effective and efficient on the front end when deciding on topics and creating headlines.

5. Personalize your outreach. From the memo: “We are trying new features and making improvements monthly—from mobile alerts connected to readers’ interests to articles that rewrite and contextualize data based on your hometown—and we are assembling teams to take on the more ambitious work of designing fully personalized, responsive experiences, starting with mobile.” Segment, target and design as much as you can for the individual in order to get the best response.

6. Expand your global audience. Going international may not be for everyone, but it’s definitely worth it for some. The Times began translating a handful of stories each day into Spanish. In September, they also began targeting readers in Asia through the popular messaging app WeChat with posts in English and Chinese.

7. Treat your most loyal readers with great care. For the Times, that core of readers generates the “vast majority” of their revenue. In our search for new audiences, we can sometimes take for granted our loyalists. Remember this old business adage: about 20% of your customers produce 80% of your revenue.

8. Take on the challenge of getting younger people to pay. We know that millennials are not accustomed to paying for information. The Times acknowledges that its first attempt at a lower-priced mobile product, NYT Now, failed to attract a substantial paying audience. Last year, they made the app free and advertising-supported. For niche publishers, maybe this is where sponsored webinars and events can help attract new people. The Times is “actively testing to find the right price and approach,” including free trials.

9. Pick your spots for print. “We will continue to treat print as a product that can evolve and improve.” While they cut Auto and Home print sections, they added a Men’s Style. The point is that certain types of reports or sections can still work for print.

10. Form cross-functional teams. The Times had great success recently with this strategy—”with news, product, design, technology, marketing and advertising working shoulder to shoulder”—creating “more cohesive and comprehensive products…”

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Ronn Levine began his career as a reporter for The Washington Post and has won numerous writing and publications awards since. Most recently, he spent 12 years at the Newspaper Association of America covering a variety of topics before joining SIPA in 2009 and SIIA in 2013 as editorial director…