In an age where most news publications are struggling to stay profitable, The New York Times (NYT) offers a beacon of hope.
It returned to profit this year, having made roughly $240m in adjusted operating profit in the year to 25 December 2016. The NYT has also managed to grow revenues 6.8% in the first three quarters of this year and now has 2.1 million digital-only subscribers.
Print advertising used to make up between 75% and 80% of all revenue, but now accounts for only 17%, while reader revenue from both print and digital now makes up 62% of the total, compared to about 44% when CEO Mark Thompson took on the top job in 2012.
Thompson was on stage last week at the Marketing Society’s 2017 Brave conference to talk about the success of this “subscriber-first” strategy. But the big question is, would it have worked so well if Donald Trump had not become the US President?
That might seem like a strange question to ask. Trump has turned on many of the big US newspapers since he took office, singling out media organisations including The NYT on Twitter or banning them from press briefings.
But all this does, says Thompson, is lead to a spike in new subscriptions – a trend he describes as a “visceral reaction” by people in the US.
That means that despite Donald Trump’s attempts to label the publication’s journalism as “fake news” and argue that the media company is on its way down, its subscriber growth is actually accelerating. Before the US election, The NYT would add between around 23,000 and 33,000 subscribers a quarter; this has now increased to roughly 100,000.
While Thompson says subscriptions are “building very nicely” on the back of Trump’s outbursts, it has also led to a growing feeling that the brand was being defined by both its attackers and defenders, rather than telling its own story. And so Thompson decided to hand over $10m to its marketing team for a new campaign to try to rectify the issue.
‘The truth is hard’ campaign is the result. Thompson says is not an “anti-Trump campaign, but [a recognition] that there is now a fundamental debate going on about the facts and what to make of them – and that’s where we come in”.
Not being an opposition party
Speaking exclusively to Marketing Week after his talk, Thompson seems keen to reiterate that the media brand is not “defined by Trump”. Instead, it wants to portray itself as an impartial examiner of the facts.
“We certainly don’t see ourselves as an opposition party. We are not a political party, we are here to report. If you read Hillary Clinton’s recent book, she has a really bitter section on The NYT that broke the story on her…