The Business Genius of The New York Times
Against all odds, the Gray Lady is still a leader in innovative journalism
Writing in praise of the New York Times is hardly the boldest way to recognize the value of traditional media. Its overall quality in print and online is widely acknowledged. In fact, there are those who say that the enterprise is so formidable that it is sui generis to the rest of the industry. In evaluating the status of the news ecosystem at the start of 2013, this argument holds that the Times should be omitted from comparative assessments because it is so much better equipped than other organizations and more imaginative in the way it uses its resources. However, I cannot resist adding yet another accolade, if only to support their efforts at every level of the company to be creative in developing extraordinary journalism and adding as many revenue streams as ingenuity permits and readers will accept.
In the continuing struggle to adapt to the opportunities and financial challenges of the Internet age, the Times remains focused on maintaining the highest possible standards in the newsroom while driving the business toward acceptable margins of profit. On the news side, I don't think the output has ever been more consistently impressive in all the decades I have been a subscriber. The investigative pieces about corruption involving Chinese leaders and Walmart's nefarious international activities, to pick just two projects in recent months, were triumphs in penetrating secretive barriers. As for the condition of the business, the steady loss of print advertising and a stubbornly low stock price are perilous, but predictions of the Times' demise (at least in print) miss the impact of the company's many advances in the success of its paywall and innovations in distribution of its content.
The latest example of the Times' strategy was the release in late December of Snow Fall, by John Branch, a multi-media extravaganza available in the newspaper, on the website with a multitude of interviews and other video features, and as an e-book from Byliner at $2.99, expanded in length but without the digital extras. Having read all the versions of this beautifully written account of a deadly avalanche in Washington's Cascade mountain range last February, I would have been satisfied with the text version in the newspaper, which was enhanced with many sidebars (mini-biographies of the characters, for instance), color photographs, and graphics that did not turn up in the e-book. The online effort was clearly a smash. In a memo to the staff picked up by JimRomenesko.com, executive editor Jill Abramson wrote that the interactive feature received about 2.9 million visits for more than 3.5 million page views. "Strikingly," she wrote, "a quarter to a third of them were new visitors to nytimes.com. . . . Rarely have we been able to create a compelling destination outside the home page that was so engaging in such a short period of time on the Web."
The Byliner e-book is the first in what will be a series of 10,000 to 20,000 word narratives intended to offer original content from leading Times writers, not necessarily also appearing in the newspaper or online. Among those scheduled are Pulitzer Prize winners David Leonhardt, the Washington bureau chief and business columnist James Stewart, who has authored a number of bestsellers, including Den of Thieves. As was the case with Snow Fall, these will be for sale on every major Internet retailer as well as Byliner's own site and the New York Times Store. There has been no public accounting of how well Snow Fall sold as an e-book, but what impressed me was that it could be downloaded in so many ways, including from the Times' own site, an indicator of the company's ability and determination to sell goods of all kinds that expand the brand. Also in the works are collected articles packaged as TimesFiles e-books, a partnership with Vook. For $1.99, I chose The Fall of the Berlin Wall among the twenty-five initial offerings.
Another initiative with momentum are the events scheduled for the Times auditorium. They are extensive, star-studded, and, I am told, starting to make money from sponsorships and ticket sales as high as $1,500 for the recent DealBook conference with top tier financial figures. All this promotional activity is an enormous change from the New York Times of the past. In the mid-1980s, fed up with the hassles of managing a small book company, the Times sold Times Books to Random House and showed little interest in a partnership, except for crossword puzzles. (I was publisher from 1991 to 1996, and few of our books were collaborations with the newspaper.) Times Books has since relocated to Henry Holt, a division of Macmillan, and from there and elsewhere, books of all kinds are released that are regularly promoted in the pages of the print newspaper and at the New York Times Store. Gradually, the company has divested itself of its magazines, its classical music station, a chain of smaller regional newspapers, its ownership of About.com, and even its small share of the Boston Red Sox. The Boston Globe remains in the portfolio, but I am guessing it would be sold if there were a buyer, preferably local, willing to pay a reasonable price for it. The International Herald Tribune, long shared with the Washington Post, is now wholly owned, and integrated closely with the home paper. It is regarded as a meaningful extension of the global enterprise, apparently without demanding enough cash to be considered a problem.
These have not been easy years for the New York Times. Even the arrival of its new CEO, Mark Thompson, was tarnished by a scandal at the BBC, where he had been director general. (Thompson was eventually exonerated from any role in the cancellation of an investigation into the sexual activities of the late Jimmy Savile, a popular longtime broadcaster.) For all the difficulties, there has been so much to admire at the Times. The newspaper has overcome obstacles to stay at the pinnacle of news-gathering and reframe its business model. Only the most dyspeptic of critics would not wish for it to flourish.