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The New York Times: Adapting to the Digital Revolution*
On January 1, 2018, 37‐year‐old A.G. Sulzberger succeeded his father, Arthur Ochs Sulzberger,
as chairman of the New York Times Company (NYT). He is the sixth member of the
Ochs/Sulzberger family to lead the newspaper since it was purchased by Adolph Ochs in 1896.
Yet, this apparent reverence for family tradition was not matched by conservatism in the
company's strategy and operational management. Indeed, A.G. Sulzberger was the primary
architect of the digital strategy that had shaken the “Gray Lady”—as the Times was
affectionately known—to her very foundations.
In 2012, the prospects for the New York Times Company (NYT) were bleak. In common with
most of the world's newspaper companies, revenues were in steep decline and the company was
losing money. Most commentators were pessimistic about the company's future. Henry Blodget
of Business Insider predicted a continuing decline in the company's revenues as news readership
and advertising moved online.1 Eric Jackson of Ironfire Capital LLC predicted that declining
advertising revenues, rising pension costs, and limits on further cuts in operating costs, would
mean that the NYT would be unable to continue as a standalone business.2
For over a decade, the NYT had been experimenting with different online business models, while
at the same time selling assets and cutting costs. However, growth in revenues from digital
advertising had failed to cover the shrinking revenues from print advertising, while cost cutting
was limited by NYT's commitment to comprehensive, high‐quality journalism.
The appointment of Mark Thompson, formerly director‐general of the British Broadcasting
Corporation, as CEO at the end of 2012 marked the beginning of a profound strategic shift. In
May 2014, a working party chaired by A.G. Sulzberger issued a report titled “Innovation,” which
provided a searing and penetrating analysis of the NYT's weaknesses in adapting to the new
world of digital media.3 The report created a firestorm both within the NYT and in the newspaper
industry more widely and was the trigger for a total overhaul of the company's strategy.
In 2017, the NYT had its “best revenue growth in many years, driven by strong digital
subscription revenues, which increased by over $100 million year‐over‐year.”4 The turnaround
was reflected in the NYT's share price, which more than doubled in the two years leading up to
March 2018 (see Figure 1).
FIGURE 1 New York Times Company share price January 2000–March 2018
However, as A.G. Sulzberger prepared for his first annual shareholders' meeting as board
chairman, he wondered about the sustainability of the NYT's upturn in performance. Had the
NYT finally cracked the problem of how to reconcile its traditional commitment to quality
journalism with the requirements of the digital age, or did the massive rise in the number of
digital subscriptions simple reflect the “Trump bump”—the quest for unbiased, authoritative
journalism in a time when the current US President was challenging the norms of objectivity and
The US Newspaper Industry
The US newspaper industry—like that of most other countries—had been in decline for over two
decades. The reason was competition from online media, both for news readership and for
advertising. Although print newspapers had diversified into online news provision, they had
encountered powerful competition in this field from other suppliers of digital news content—
including online newspapers such as the Huffington Post, Daily Beast, and BuzzFeed—as well
as TV news suppliers with their own websites (ABC, CNN, and Fox), and online news
aggregators such as Google News and LexisNexis. Table 1 shows the leading US news websites.
The ability of all news websites to generate advertising revenues was constrained by the
dominance of Google and Facebook over online advertising and by the powerful mobile platform
owners—notably Apple and Google (Android). As a result, the decline in print readership
(Figure 2) translated into an even steeper decline in advertising revenues for printed newspapers
(Figure 3), which was only partly compensated for by the shift from print to digital advertising
TABLE 1Leading US news websites by number of unique visitors for 2017 (in
The New York Times
FIGURE 2 Average daily circulation of newspapers in the US, 1940–2017
Source: Pew Research Center and industry sources.
FIGURE 3 Annual revenues of US newspapers, 1970–2017 ($ millions)
Source: Pew Research Center and company accounts.
FIGURE 4 Digital advertising revenue as a percentage of total US newspaper advertising, 2009–
Source: Pew Research Center and industry sources.
The shift from print to online readership favored both national and international newspapers at
the expense of the vast majority of US newspapers, which served local markets—individual
cities and metropolitan regions. Only three newspapers could claim to be national (or even
international) in their distribution: USA Today, the Wall Street Journal, and the New York
Times. Table 2 shows the print circulations of the largest US newspapers.
TABLE 2Print circulation of leading US newspapers
Source: Alliance for Audited Media.
Wall Street Journal
New York Times
Los Angeles Times
New York Post
New York Daily News
Minneapolis Star Tribune
Cleveland Plain Dealer
Tampa Bay Times
For newspapers to survive, they needed to reduce costs to match their shrinking revenues.
Independent news gathering had been the major casualty—newsroom staffs had been cut
drastically and most newspapers relied upon agencies such as Reuters, Associated Press, and
Agence France‐Presse for their news content. Alternatively, newspapers could seek out a
billionaire “sugar daddy”: following Jeff Bezos's purchase of the Washington Post, Warren
Buffet bought the Omaha World‐Herald, and Patrick Soon acquired the Los Angeles Times.
Decline and Refocusing
Between 1996 and the end of 2017, strategic leadership of the NYT was exercised by its
chairman, Arthur Sulzberger Jr. At the heart of his strategy was a commitment to delivering the
highest standards of journalism, while recognizing that the Times could not restrict itself to print:
“[A] decade from now and a century from now, the New York Times will still be the leader in its
field of quality journalism, regardless of how it is distributed. These plans entail our moving
from a strategy focused on the specific products we produce to one built around our audience—a
quality audience strategy. Our goal is to know our audience better than anyone else; to meet
their informational and transactional needs—by ourselves where we can; in partnership with
others when necessary; and to serve them in print and digitally, continuously and on‐demand.”5
This strategy required focusing upon a single title: the New York Times. Between 2007 and 2013,
NYT sold nine local television stations, its WQXR radio station, the Regional Media Group of
16 local newspapers, and the Boston Globe, which was sold for 93% less than the $1.1 billion the
NYT had paid for it in 1993. The Paris‐published International Herald Tribune became the
global edition of the New York Times.
This focusing upon the Times reflected the unique status of the newspaper in terms of its national
and international distribution and unrivalled reputation for journalism. Times’ journalists had
earned more than twice as many Pulitzer prizes as any other newspaper. Its columnists, including
Nicholas Kristof, Thomas Friedman, Maureen Dowd, and Nobel‐Prize‐winning economist Paul
Krugman, were leading commentators on current issues.
Meanwhile, the NYT's revenues continued the decline that had commenced in 2005 when
revenues had peaked at $3.4 billion. Reduced print sales of newspapers were one factor, but a
much bigger one was the collapse of advertising revenues. Table 3 shows the NYT's revenues.
Cost economies were sought through eliminating duplication (e.g., moving to a single printing
plant), closing loss‐making businesses, outsourcing a wide range of functions, and eliminating
jobs. Table 4 shows overall financial performance.
TABLE 3The New York Times Company's revenues, 2009–2017
2017 2016 2015 2014 2013 2012 2011 2010 2009
1676 1555 1579 1589 1577 1595 2323 2394 2440
712 1222 1300 1336
aAdvertising revenues were 57% print and 43% digital in 2017. In 2014, the corresponding
proportions were 73% and 27%.
bCompany renamed as “subscription revenues.” Subscription revenues (previously called
“circulation revenues”) are revenues from subscriptions to print and digital products and single‐
copy and bulk sales of print products (which represent approximately 10% of these revenues).
cPrincipally syndication revenues.
TABLE 4New York Times Company, Inc.: Selected financial data for 2010–2017
Source: New York Times Company, Inc. 10‐K reports.
2017 2016 2015 2014 2013 2012 2011 2010
1676 1555 1579 1589 1577 1595 2323 2393
1488 1411 1393 1484 1412 1441 2093 2137
2017 2016 2015 2014 2013 2012 2011 2010
Interest expense, net
Post‐tax income from continuing
Post‐tax income from discontinued
Property, plant, and equipment
2100 2185 2418 2566 2573 2807 2883 3286
Total debt and lease obligations
Operating margin (%)
Current assets to current liabilities
Employees (full‐time equivalent)
3789 3710 3560 3588 3529 5363 7273 7414
Searching for an Online Business Model
The NYT was quick to recognize the potential—and the threat—of the Internet. The
NYTimes.com website launched in 1996 focused upon adapting content from the print edition
for Web display. It was free to access and aimed to attract paid advertising.
In 1999, New York Times Digital was established to manage the websites of the Times, Globe,
and International Herald Tribune and to launch other online initiatives. It was an independent
business unit within NYT in the belief that, if NYT was to be a serious player in cyberspace, it
needed to have the people, systems, and culture of a dot.com start‐up rather than of a century‐old
Despite success in attracting online visitors, digital advertising revenues were disappointing, and
executives increasingly recognized the need to charge users. The first online subscription,
launched in 2005, was Times Select, which charged an annual $49.95 fee for premium content
and access to online archives. It generated a mere $10 million a year and was discontinued in
2007. Then in March 2011, NYT introduced its “metered access” model, which allowed Web
visitors free access to a limited number of articles each month, after which a paid subscription
was required. By the end of 2011, there were 390,000 paid digital subscribers to subscription
packages and, by the end of 2014, there were 910,000 digital‐only subscribers.
Although digital advertising revenues grew—by 2014, digital accounted for 27% of NYT's
advertising revenues—this growth failed to offset declining revenues from print advertising.
Moreover, despite huge improvements in the content and accessibility of NYTimes.com, it was
the digital‐only upstarts that were leaders in innovation and user features.
Some industry observers saw the hybrid model—print and digital editions—as doomed to
failure. Rick Wartzman, Director of the Drucker Institute, argued: “Dead‐tree editions must
immediately yield to all‐internet operations. The presses need to stop forever, with the delivery
trucks shunted off to the scrapyard.” He pointed to the Huffington Post (owned by AOL) as the
model for an online newspaper.6 Eric Schmidt, chairman of Google, suggested that users would
only be willing to pay for unique content, as most news was available from multiple online
sources. For online newspapers to generate adequate advertising revenues, they needed to offer
targeted advertising linked to customized content—for this, Google was an essential partner for
the newspaper companies.7
The 2014 Innovation Report
One of the main initiatives of the incoming CEO, Mark Thompson, was to initiate a fundamental
rethink of NYT's digital strategy. In May 2014, a committee headed by A.G. Sulzberger
delivered a report entitled “Innovation” that provided a wrenching diagnosis of NYT's
weaknesses in “the art and science of getting our journalism to readers.”
Among the many challenges the report identified were as follows:
Creating a fully digital newsroom. With Jeff Bezos funding advanced technological development
at the Washington Post, BuzzFeed and Yahoo increasing their investments in news gathering
and delivery, and new entrants such as Flipboard and First Look Media entering the business—
NYT was being left behind. The report noted: “The newsroom has historically reacted
defensively by watering down or blocking changes, prompting a phrase that echoes almost daily
around the business side: ‘The newsroom would never allow that.’”8
Fewer and fewer readers were accessing the Times through the NYTimes.com home page. The
NYT needed to take its journalism to the reader: at NYT “the story is done when you hit publish.
At the Huffington Post, the article begins its life when you hit publish.”9 Taking NYT journalism
to readers' “digital doorsteps” would require eliminating the NYT's traditional division between
the news side and the business side of the newspaper.
Exploiting the archive: “We have an archive of 14,723,933 articles extending back to 1851 that
can be resurfaced in useful or timely ways. Yet we rarely think to mine our archive, largely
because we are so focused on news and new features.”10
Experimentation—especially in finding new ways of packaging existing content that would be
conducive to sharing on social networks.
Personalization: “using technology to ensure that the right stories are reaching the right readers
in the right places and the right times. For example, letting you know when you are walking past
a restaurant we have just reviewed.”11
User‐generated content. The Times' audience is its “most underutilized resource. We can count
the world's best‐informed and most influential people among our readers. And we have a
platform to which many of them would be willing and honored to contribute.”12
The report was intended for a handful of senior managers; however, the leak of the report
to BuzzFeed triggered an explosion of anguish and debate within the company. Harvard's
Nieman Lab reported: “One [NYT employee] admitted crying while reading it because it
surfaced so many issues about Times culture that digital types have been struggling to overcome
for years.”13 For A.G. Sulzberger the leak was “… a moment of panic … suddenly it felt like our
dirty laundry was being aired.” Yet, within days, the report had become a rallying cry: “You
couldn't read that report and think that the status quo was an option.”14
The Innovation Report was a prelude to a flurry of top management and organizational changes.
A week after the distribution of the report, the executive editor of the Times, Jill Abramson, was
fired. She was replaced by the Times' managing editor Dean Baquet. One factor in her dismissal
was her perceived opposition to the greater integration of the news and business sides of the
NYT—a key objective of CEO Thompson, but contrary to the long tradition of the independence
of the Times' journalism. As A.G. Sulzberger later explained: “… the most important thing is to
have real strong protections around the editorial independence of our newsroom,” but the
separation of the news and the business sides of the newspaper had created a barrier to change.
“We regarded the members of our technology team and product team as being on the business
side … the folks who were building our website weren't able to talk to the people who were
filling the website with great journalism each day.”15
Jill Abramson's dismissal was followed by the elimination of about 100 positions in the
company's newsroom: “the most extraordinary collection of talent, of human knowledge, that has
ever left the New York Times in a single day,” according to reporter David Dunlap.16 Under Dean
Baquet, the newsroom leadership was reorganized around four deputy editors. The major
emphasis was on promoting and bringing in talent that could propel the Times' digital efforts—
especially within mobile communication. Essential to this effort was the integration of
journalism and technology. According to Clifford Levy, who won two Pulitzers at
the Times before being promoted to the assistant managing editor overseeing digital platforms:
“Working hour by hour, day by day, with software developers and designers and product
managers—to me that was a real revolution, a kind of epiphany… This is standard operating
procedure in Silicon Valley, but it was radical here.”17
Our Path Forward
Having established a consensus around the imperative of a digital future for the Times, it was
easier to articulate a longer‐term strategy for the company. In October 2015, the top management
team released “Our Path Forward,” a public document intended “to share our challenges, our
progress and our plans for moving forward.”18 At the foundation of the NYT's strategy was the
principle of “offering content and products worth paying for,” which put quality journalism at
the heart of NYT's strategy and established that NYT's basic revenue model was user fees. If
producing quality content was the dominant priority, it needed to be financed. To do this, the
company set the goal of doubling its digital revenues over the next five years to more than $800
million—which in turn meant more than doubling the number of digital readers, most of whom
would be accessing news content on their phones and mobile devices.
Expanding the number of users and building a revenue‐generating relationship with users
required the following:
“We will continue to lead the industry in creating the best original journalism and
storytelling.” This involved not only maintaining NYT's corps of journalists but also infusing them
with the technical and design skills needed to deploy new storytelling tools. Initiatives included
increased emphasis on visuals, including videos, and increased customi ...