Providing oodles of entertainment has become key to floating The New York Times’ news operation.
The New York Times building in New York City. The company recently acquired the popular game Wordle. | Andrew Burton/Getty Images
Opinion by Jack Shafer
Jack Shafer is Politico’s senior media writer.
The New York Times would like you to stop thinking of it primarily as a venue for news. Oh, it still wants you to subscribe for the latest intrigue from Washington, coverage of hurricanes, opinion columns and all the rest. But its new business model is more Amazon than dowdy newspaper. The modern Times company wants to be your “everything store” for not just news but entertainment, consumer advice and general mental recreation.
You want news? Of course, the Times still has news. But you want games? The Times offers the best daily crossword puzzle in the nation, not to mention its wildly popular Spelling Bee and now this year’s game sensation, Wordle. Do you cook? The Times is serving. For sports nuts, the company just picked up The Athletic. Need to know what’s the best smart thermostat, the best KN95 mask, or best sports bra? Its Wirecutter site has the answers.
The new New York Times now reports that it has about 7.6 million subscribers paying for 8.8 million subscriptions, and company president Meredith Kopit Levien asserts a potential market of at least 135 million people worldwide for its subscription products. The paper appears ready to fill almost every request for non-news information as long as it can find enough readers willing to pay for access. The Times’ continuing success at creating content and building paywalls around it has helped make the paper profitable and stands as an example to other news outlets that if you create something really useful and entertaining, readers will come — and they’ll bring their wallets with them.
Can games like Wordle save American journalism? In a six-letter word — surely. But it’s really not all that new a concept, which is probably why it’s having success.
In some respects the Times is just reassembling the traditional newspaper “bundle” that dates back to the 1890s when William Randolph Hearst and Joseph Pulitzer’s New York dailies widened the range of their newspapers beyond hard news to include soft stuff. In quick succession, newspapers added comics, advice, puzzles, recipes, games, and eventually columns on chess, bridge, gardening, hunting and fishing, retirement, and health. Once a news organ, newspapers now resembled home entertainment centers. The bundle continued to grow until the early years of this century, when falling advertising revenues convinced newspapers to shrink their product. Papers literally got smaller and there was less of everything inside.
What’s different about the Times approach to the bundle is that it sells it two ways: You can get all New York Times content for the price of one hefty subscription or you can buy the little bits of the bundle à la carte. The Times never bundled as much entertainment and news-you-can-use into its package as other dailies, but like its fellow newspapers, it dumped some bundle-like content when money got tight. In 2014, the paper’s chess column was slipped over the side. In 2015, it scuttled its bridge column. Now that the Times has gotten serious about being a game host and given that both chess and bridge attract tens of millions of viewers on YouTube, we can expect the paper to eventually exploit chess and bridge enthusiasts with Timesian, turbocharged paid apps on the site.
The Times’ early successes with web-based entertainment and diversions indicate that newspaper publishers were too hasty in spiking so many features as they scrambled to avoid red ink. Were they misled by editors and reporters who told them that hard news coverage was the only drawing card? Did they not appreciate that the readers who desire the poison of hot news also crave the antidote of diversion? That the bundle is not an extravagance but an essential of newspaper health?
The Times has a major advantage over its competition in marketing its fun and food verticals because it conveys high social status in some circles. The Times’ cultural identity is so refined, you could slap its NYT logo on some substandard puzzle and some people would still be convinced they were partaking of brilliance. How else to explain why people who complete the paper’s Sunday puzzle think they’ve done heavy lifting (you know who you are)? The snootiness of Times readers (I know who I am) compels them to think merely touching a Times product conveys a glow and this works to the paper’s benefit. Could the Baltimore Sun or some other vulture-pecked Alden Global Capital paper make such class-signifier magic work for them? Probably not. But maybe papers like the Los Angeles Times and the Boston Globe could increase readership by projecting more pomposity — or fun.
The New York Times crossed a Rubicon in 2012 when, for the first time in the paper’s history, its parent company collected more revenue from readers than from advertisers. The paper appears to be replacing its “All the News That Fits” motto with “You Pay, We’ll Provide.” Today, Times podcasts, which now include “unsolved mystery” fare, are free. But it’s easy to predict that someday some of the podcasts will become paid products. Nobody will be surprised if the Times offers its subscribers discounted offers for The Athletic or somehow folds it into the bigger product. Like your local cable TV provider, the Times is likely to develop a slew of bundle offers.
Is the modern bundle good for journalism? The main draw for most Times customers remains the newspaper and will stay so for some time, so I don’t think we need to worry about Times Executive Editor Dean Baquet taking his eye off Ukraine because he’s too busy editing the Sunday Magazine crossword. From one perspective, the individual bundle-bits look like a waste of time and effort, especially if you dislike puzzles and don’t cook. But if they help pay the bills to send reporters on international assignments and to the Gulf Coast when hurricanes make landfall, who can argue? Not everybody approved of the ads from department stores, furriers and other advertisers that provided 80 percent of the average newspaper’s revenues. But they made most of the best newspapers possible.
Ideally, a newspaper should be run like an army. It should have a steady source of reliable revenue so that when a crisis breaks out and you really, really need its breaking news, those steady revenues will have prepared it for action.
So let the bundle grow! I’m counting the days until the Times starts its paid gambling app.
I don’t gamble, I don’t puzzle, and I don’t snip recipes. Send bundle ideas to [email protected]. My email alerts have never listened to a podcast. My Twitter feed has blocked the word “Wordle.” My RSS feed prefers its news on newsprint.
CORRECTION: A mistaken reference to the Chicago Tribune that implied it is not an Alden paper has been deleted.
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Opinion | The New York Times Is Becoming Amazon. And That's a Good Thing. – POLITICO