Today’s Daily Update interview is with Meredith Kopit Levien, the president and CEO of The New York Times Company. Kopit Levien oversees all aspects of The New York Times’ global operations and business strategy (but, as we discuss, plays no direct role in editorial operations). Kopit Levien joined The New York Times Company in 2013 as the head of advertising, became chief revenue officer in 2015, and COO in 2017. Kopit Levien’s tenure is directly correlated with The New York Times Company’s dramatic transformation into a digital powerhouse, with over 10 million subscriptions and plans for many more; in this case, correlation is causation.
I had a chance to talk with Kopit Levien earlier this week about her path to The New York Times Company, what it is like managing an entity where the most important product is out of your control, and a substantial dive into her thinking about bundles, recent acquisitions, and how The New York Times Company can transform from a skyscraper into a neighborhood. While we do touch on issues of partisanship and bias, do note that Kopit Levien is the CEO, not Executive Editor; this interview is about the business of The New York Times Company, not its editorial policies.
On to the interview:
An Interview With The New York Times Company CEO Meredith Kopit Levien
This interview is lightly edited for clarity.
Student Journalism | NYT’s Transformation | Managing Product | Wordle | The Athletic | Bundling | Partisanship and TAM | Ads and Audio | Talent and KPIs
Meredith Kopit Levien, it is nice to meet you in person, I’m very excited about this interview. I actually first thought to reach out when you acquired Wordle, which we’ll get to in a moment, I remain a regular player. But I have to say, as I was reading about this, I always have had a bit of a soft spot for people whose founding stories includes stints at the student newspaper, that certainly was part of my story.
What’s interesting is that you started at The Cavalier Daily at the University of Virginia as a reporter. You said that you love journalism, you love writing, editing, reporting, but then you switched over to the business side, in part because it’s a paid position. I was lucky in this regard, one of the reasons I worked at The Badger Herald instead of The Daily Cardinal at Wisconsin is because they paid the editorial staff, so I could relate. It’s fascinating to look back at that transition and trace the path from there to here, where you’re now the CEO of what I would say most people would agree is the most powerful newspaper in the world.
Meredith Kopit Levien: First of all, thank you for having me, it’s great to be here, it’s always so fun to read you and listen to you, and I’m delighted to be in this conversation. I want to say that I purely moved to advertising at my college newspaper because it paid, and I needed the money, there was no other reason. But maybe it does expose just how long I have loved being around journalism, how much I believe in its importance. I went to the University of Virginia and at the time we had not one but two independent daily newspapers, that was a really big deal. I worked on the paper for most of my time there, I think it was my last year where I switched because I just needed the money. If you’re going to do this, switch to a paid job.
Oh interesting, you were a reporter for a few years and then you did the ad sales thing.
MKL: Yeah, I wrote first.
It’s interesting that if you start out as a reporter it’s like, “Wow, someday I’ll be the managing editor of The New York Times, the editor-in-chief of The New York Times”. Instead, you ended up as the CEO so it’s quite the path.
MKL: Listen, I really believe in the importance of quality journalism, of independent journalism. Whenever I talk about my college newspaper, the first thing I say is “It was independent”, it was really student-run and student-led. It’s been a privilege to get to work in this space that I love and work in support of it. When I’m recruiting people to come work on the business side of The Times I tell them, “The work you’re doing, the mission needs it.” Our ability to advance and continue to invest in the mission really does rely heavily on what we can do economically. I feel really lucky that I’m one of those people who gets to work on something I care a lot about, I think most of the people on the business side at The Times feel that way, and I bet many of the people at The Times worked on their college newspaper.
For sure, that’s without question, several of my colleagues now work for you!
From my perspective, that duality in outlook has been actually really critical to your and The New York Times’ success. Forgive the grandiosity of this comment as far as I’m concerned, but I feel a certain parallelism between your career at The New York Times and mine here at Stratechery, particularly since you joined the company in 2013, which is when I started writing. The New York Times was always one of the companies I wrote about from the beginning, seeing the paper as an avatar for the publishing industry writ large, which I always contended was a leading indicator of all kinds of industries.
What’s been very gratifying for me from an analyst perspective is what I feel that The New York Times has done really well is infuse an understanding of its business model, particularly the shift to subscriptions, into the entire business. Yes, you have ad sales — I do want to ask you more about that in a moment, particularly given your background — but the paper seems to understand that it’s first and foremost a subscription business, and needs to operate accordingly, not just in terms of its business model, but also in the articles and beats that it covers. That seems to have been a real shift, I would say in my time at Stratechery, but I get to say in your time at The Times. What’s it been like to see that shift in mindset from the inside?
MKL: Yeah, it’s been extraordinary to be at a company that has gone through such a substantial transformation. I’ve been here nine years, the steepest arc of transformation happened after the time you’re referring to, I joined in 2013.
Absolutely, I think you were front-and-center for it, that’s why I’m excited to ask you about it.
MKL: I would say that anyone in business — go to a company where that’s happening. It wasn’t just The Times transforming, the whole market, as you know and wrote about for a long time, was really in motion.
Let me say the thing that I think you’re poking at, which is that it was so important at that time that there was this single galvanizing idea that we shared with the company, and to some degree the world in 2015, which was that the business model was simply to make journalism worth paying for. I used to say, “We’ve got a five-word business strategy. Make journalism worth paying for…” and the rest of the sentence was, “…even in the presence of many free, or at the time, mostly free, and then over time, less expensive alternatives”. Everybody at The Times understands what the strategy of the company is — I hope we’ll talk about how we’ve evolved that strategy, I think we’re even more ambitious today — but the idea was you wouldn’t have a business model if you didn’t have a product that was truly valuable to millions and millions of people every single day, and not just valuable, but differentially so. It was not hard to rally the whole company around that idea.
I think it’s a lot more complicated to have a business where you’ve got the people who make the product making the product, and you’ve got the people who make the money focused on something else off to the side, it’s a lot harder to go through a transformation when that’s the case. I think in 2015, which was the year we coalesced around the strategy that it was all about subscription-first and making journalism worth paying for, a big part of why we were able to do that was because the whole company could rally behind that idea.
I’m very curious how this works in practice. Looking back, I was writing about and observing these changes. You had that innovation report that I was like, “This is one of the greatest business pieces I’ve ever read,” in part because it was so crystal clear that we’re not necessarily going to chase the day-to-day news. Obviously, you’re still covering the day-to-day news, but we’re going to make heavy investments into things that people realize is worth paying for. We’re going to make it such a regular cadence that it’s inescapable, you can’t just get your couple free articles a month, you need to be there all the time.
But even moving forward today, you had this comment in your most recent earnings call that really stood out to me. You said, “We are feeling very confident about the levers we have in our hands to drive that engagement, both within news. So if you look at our home page, programming or use of email newsletters, we are really focused on bringing people back to site more regularly and have a lot of confidence that there are plenty of levers there.” Those levers seem to be in editorial levers. What goes on the front page? What goes in a newsletter, et cetera? Who is pulling them? Is it the editorial team, or is it the business team? If it’s the former, how do you structure incentives to push them in the right direction for the underlying business?
MKL: There’s a bunch of good questions in there. Let me make a step back comment and say our current strategy, which is based on that idea of making journalism and now a whole portfolio of products worth paying for, is about becoming the essential subscription for millions and millions of people who want to understand and engage with the world. To be essential means to be of value every single day. When we talk about engaging people, we’re saying, “What’s the thing we can do that’s going to let you know or remind you of the value that’s there for you to partake in?” That’s really what I’m referring to.
I want to be clear that on the question of “Who’s pulling the levers to get those people to come back?” Some of them are journalistic, anything that happens journalistically is happening independent of direct commercial interests. That was true at The Times when I got there nine years ago, that is as true at The New York Times today. But we now have an incredible body of work in the digital product experience that involves journalists and editors and product people and designers and data scientists and engineers and marketing people, product marketers, who together are saying, “A regular update when something happens on a topic that we don’t normally, as an example, have an update on would be a great way to bring people back to site, because we can inform them more about a developing story. The product experience can evolve to help people follow a breaking news story or a developing news story, and know when to keep coming back to the site or to the app to check in on that story.” That kind of work now happens, obviously, with journalists, with reporters, and with editors but it’s also happening and enabled by people from all of the functions that I just described.
What I can say is who decides what goes on the homepage of The New York Times, that is all done by editors. That is independent of any business person’s immediate commercial interest, but there’s an enormous amount of enabling effort to get people to come back and form a habit with The Times. One of the things I always say that’s so great about working at The New York Times is we’re not just trying to engage you and get your attention, we’re trying to engage you in things that are generally nourishing or delightful or really worthwhile. I think that’s part of what makes the place attract such great talent, even on the business side — obviously in the newsroom, and now increasingly also on the business side.
Well, I think this ties into it, but you told The Information when you took over as CEO that The New York Times needed to be a world class digital product and tech company. Is putting in these levers part of that? This idea where, sure, the front page is always an editorial domain, but if you want to deliver someone a customized email, for example, or something along those lines, is that what you’re driving at there?
MKL: We are first and most an extraordinary journalism company. We will always be that. I want to say that without question.
I might’ve only taken half of your comment.
MKL: We need really, really talented product managers and designers and engineers and people from all the functions I just mentioned to work alongside the journalists and recipe makers and puzzle makers and so forth, to determine what’s the best way to surface all the value we’re creating every day to people in a way that compels them to return again and again, or to discover something that they might not otherwise find. A lot of the work is about that. So yeah, I think it’s quite important that The Times has always been a talent destination in journalism. I think increasingly, we are that in all the functions on the business side as well.
I just mentioned those two parts, not the journalism part, which I think we all know goes along with it, but more broadly, from a structural standpoint, The New York Times newsroom is one of the most unusual organizations in the whole business world. I think the analogy that people use is it’s like Feudal Europe with all these different principalities of varying strength. The executive editor’s like the Pope who is theoretically in control, but not completely, and that doesn’t even include the CEO, the CEO is this other layer. I’m curious, especially as you’ve been there for nine years, what have you learned from working alongside this unusual organization that, despite all the weirdness, manages to crank out work in such high quality and volume? How do you think about being a CEO who wants to create great products, yet you have no control over the central product? Do you ever look at other CEOs like, “Wow, you get to control everything. I have this whole big part of the company that’s the most important part, that is out of my control.” What’s that dynamic like?
MKL: Those are two big questions and certainly good ones. Let me take the first one — what have I learned from watching the newsroom? You just gave your view of its unusual nature. What I’ve learned is the value of real independence and real open-mindedness and real curiosity. The other side of what you just described, which is a place where people have very strong opinions, and there’s this like, “Who’s running this?” What that’s really about is everyone in that newsroom at every level has to be deeply curious and able to envision, “Why does this story matter? How should it be told? What is the fairest way? Is this the truth?” I would say what you just described was the cultural manifestation of curiosity and independence in action and at work. I didn’t really quite get that when I got there nine years ago like I get it now, I think that is a huge part of what makes the place awesome.
Well, just to jump into that, how did that curiosity and independence drive interact with that shift we talked about a few minutes ago towards “We need to think about producing stories that drive journalism worth paying for”. Was there any tension in aligning those two pieces?
MKL: I don’t think so. And I want to be clear, our strategy now is, as I described to you, to be the essential subscription for every curious person in the English-speaking world who wants to understand and engage with the world. There’s three pillars to it. One is to continue to build on our lead in news and be the world’s best news destination. Two is to help people engage with their lives and passions. Three is just to put those two things together in a way that makes people come back every day.
The product work that underlies each of those pillars is objective-based work to say, “How is this set of stories or how is this set of games best poised to be of value to you?” How best do we show you the next most important thing that you haven’t already read or done or experienced yet, or the most delightful one or the one you didn’t know that you wanted? I would say I’ve been around a lot of product people now in my time at The Times and I would say objective-based work is work that begins with a thesis. Really good product work begins with a hypothesis, but also real open-mindedness to what you might find on the other side as you pursue that thing, and I think our ability to get better and better at that is a huge part of what makes this all work at The Time, and is really compatible with what I just described in terms of the independent journalism.
So how about that part about when your most important product is one that you don’t control?
MKL: The great privilege of being the CEO of The New York Times is that the work of my work, the work of everybody on the business side, is to see that we can continue to invest in the world’s highest quality journalism at scale for tens of millions, if not more, people to continue to experience for generations to come. The ability to do that requires a really strong, winning business and it is awesome to be able to do that.
I think so much of what we’ve been able to do and accomplish on the business side of The Times in the last nine years has been about getting many, many more people to experience that journalism. At the peak of COVID, one in two adult Americans were coming to The New York Times for information. In the weeks of the 2020 Election, similarly, giant, unprecedented audience, and being on the business side of the organization that can attract that many people because it’s information is that valuable to that large a group of people, who wouldn’t want to do that work?
That’s a good answer. Well, I do want to get into a couple of your recent acquisitions. Let’s start with Wordle, my favorite. From an anecdotal perspective, it seems like a huge success. I would’ve never played Spelling Bee otherwise, I can promise you that, but what’s your perspective on how that’s gone, what your thinking was? How has it worked out and how do you foresee leveraging that into The Times in the long run? Is Wordle an analogy for the way you think about The Times more broadly? Or is it just that you saw this great opportunity that fit with Crosswords or whatever it might be and you jumped on it?
MKL: First, it’s been really fun and it’s going really, really well. We have long believed that we were sitting on a really big opportunity in games. Crosswords has a big and deeply engaged audience. Before we acquired Wordle, we hit a million subscriptions to our games product largely on the strength of Crosswords, but it’s proved to be prolific generator of new games. The Mini has been a big hit. Spelling Bee, which you mentioned you said Wordle introduced you, I’ll come to that, but Spelling Bee has been a really big hit.
Credit to Josh Wardle who really wanted his game to go to a place that would do terrific things with it and credit to our team for seizing on that opportunity as quickly and as well as they did, but Wordle has been so good for a few reasons. First, the one that I think just still blows my mind every day is it’s not just a game people love, it’s a game people play with other people. And everywhere I go, people show me “Here, look at my family WhatsApp where we all share our Wordle scores every morning” or some version of that, and that is just amazing.
Our version is the icon and the name of the WhatsApp Wordle chat is the board of anyone who scored six or failed, and their name and the number. You have to bear the shame until someone else does it.
MKL: Totally! It’s this incredible thing in an important moment in time that really brought people together, that’s the first thing. The second thing that’s just so consistent with our strategy is people play every day, it’s this magical thing. You’re going to come back every day and play if you love it, and the number of people who play every day is giant. Then the third thing is the thing you mentioned, you said Wordle brought you to Spelling Bee.
When we acquired Wordle, the big fear seemed to me, “Oh my gosh, they’re going to put it behind the paywall”. In fact, the real value of Wordle thus far, by far, has been tens of millions of new people coming to The Times — by the way, people who already subscribe to The Times also play Wordle very, very actively, but tens of millions of new people are coming. We have an opportunity constantly now to introduce them to Spelling Bee or The Mini or Vertex or any of our other games, and that is really, really valuable. We’ve reported two quarters now since acquiring Wordle, and what we’ve said each time is it’s been a historic quarter for games.
It was funny last quarter because one of the analysts was accusing you of having highly elevated churn because your average revenue per user was down, and I think your answer was “No it’s because we have so many new games subscribers”.
MKL: Games come in at a lower price and so many people are subscribing, you’re going to have some number of them churn out. That’s just right. It’s going really well, but it fits right into that essential subscription idea, which is in news and beyond news, The New York Times can be valuable to tens of millions of people in their daily lives whatever is happening in the news cycle.
Well, I want to get to your thoughts on bundling in just a moment, but the other acquisition is obviously The Athletic, which I have more complicated feelings about, to be honest. The Athletic was, for a time, this great hope of this new digital subscription model, but ultimately their costs just got out of control, and everyone knows they were acquiring customers who were paying a dollar per year or whatever, it was some crazy thing with lots of Facebook ads, things along those lines. What was the calculation you made to invest the amount that you did in them?
I guess this takes two parts. Number one, why buy instead of build, when you’ve already built things like Cooking and Games? But then number two, I get that you have real revenue synergies, particularly in terms of bundling, which I guess we can start talking about it now, but also advertising where The Athletic did not carry advertising, but it seemed like an awfully steep price. You were paying for what you were going to turn that business into as opposed to what it’s worth on its own. Just walk me through your thought process around that whole thing.
MKL: Yeah, very happy to do that. Let me first say I think the thing that doesn’t get said enough about The Athletic is just how classic a combination news and sports is and how valuable those two things together through many different eras of media have been to the consumer.
I still think if you look at TV, it’s by far the most important combination, more important than ever now.
MKL: Peanut butter and chocolate, news and sports together. And when you have a successful, very important, very powerful brand in news that has an audience of 50 to 100 million people every week, and you say, “And now we’re going to be in sports too”, with an incredible engine of coverage, very comprehensive coverage of teams and leagues, I think it has been underestimated what those two things together can do, that’s the step back point I want to make.
I am as excited, if not more, about The Athletic six months into ownership, seven months into ownership as I was before we acquired it, when we acquired it and I think we acquired it in the right way at the right time. We’ve now had two-thirds of a quarter under our ownership and then a full quarter under our ownership and I’ll say what I’ve said on the two earnings calls we’ve had since we owned them, it’s going at least as well as we expected. We had a thesis and you’re poking at this, that our playbook would be very well applied to The Athletic to bring about growth, and I would say that is going incredibly well. The synergy in what they had built and what we have in terms of our assets set and our knowhow fit together with ease and we really expect that it’s going to be a big, important part of the bundle and long term, you poked at what we paid for it, I’ll say we really believe it’s going to be an important part of our ability to continue to create long term value for our shareholders, and we love what we see so far.
What is that playbook? You said you could bring your playbook to it. What’s the summary of it?
MKL: The Athletic had about a million subscribers when we acquired them and a hard paywall, and I would say unless you subscribed to The Athletic you may not know that it even exists or what it is because of that hard paywall and The Times has had an incredible decade plus of experience now having our journalism very widely available —
Yeah, big funnel.
MKL: Big funnel commercially, but also, we’ve got really wide awareness for our journalism. Our COVID case tracking database crossed a billion views sometime earlier this year. Really wide audience and we’re able to tap into that really wide audience in a way that, as we described at the beginning of the conversation, that helps people form a daily habit and come back again and again, and be more and more engaged by news and interested in news, that’s the kind of playbook I’m talking about. We believe that the knowhow from what we’ve done at The Times is going to apply really well at The Athletic, it already is. We also believe that the two entities together, even beyond just news plus sports, but two different kinds of value propositions that fit together under the same bundle are going to be accretive to each other and to the whole. Again, everything that has played out so far in our first half year of ownership is at least as good as we expected.
I’m curious, does that playbook involve some of the editorial stuff that we talked about before? One of my criticisms of The Athletic as a subscriber from day one is really what we talked about. I think if you’re a subscription product, you need to deliver really compelling pieces that you can’t get anywhere else, and it felt like they started there. In a couple of markets, they have that advantage, but often it’s like a beat writer that’s going to be replaced by AI. Is there going to be a real push in thinking how they do their editorial, who they hire, and all those sorts of things along the lines of what The Times went through over the last decade?
MKL: We would not have acquired The Athletic if we didn’t believe it was a high quality product and that we could continue to build on that quality proposition. I’m very confident that there is so much quality there. A lot of our work, it relates to the things we talked about before, is how do you unlock it? How do you help people get to the best stuff, the most relevant stuff? I’d point to, in particular, The Athletic’s coverage of the NFL and particularly the coverage of the draft and the lead in to the draft and also everything The Athletic does on football. We say football and futbol, both spellings, but particularly their international football coverage is very, very strong.
What I would say, you asked me before, “Why buy, not build?” — they have built an incredible engine of very comprehensive IP production in a space that a lot of people care about, and The Times has done that in another space that a lot of people care about and what it would’ve taken, the time it would’ve taken for us to build that comprehensive an engine, they built something that we thought was really, really good, and an excellent start to a thing we’re all going to advance together, made much more sense than building it ourselves.
What are your thoughts on bundling broadly? This is obviously a frequent topic on Stratechery and more importantly has been a frequent topic for you in your investor presentations and earnings calls, I would say particularly over the last few months since these acquisitions, but you hinted at some of the things, like Wordle having a land-and-expand opportunity. Obviously, The Athletic has its own standalone subscription, but you just recently bundled it in with the all-up one for the New York Times. Just walk me through your thinking about this and how you see it playing out.
MKL: Let me make a kind of step back comment about all this. If you think about when the Times was a newspaper only, that package that came into your house, was a bundle. That added value to lots of different people. And by the way, this is true for daily newspapers everywhere, right? It had value to everyone in your family. Different days, it had different kinds of value and it answered to a lot of needs in your life, and that is the thing that we are trying to build a digital scale for tens of millions of people, if not more.
I also want to step back and say there was a lot of signal that the Times already had a proposition that was pretty wide, even when the Times was a news app and a news website before Cooking, before Games. Today in the core report and before we had these other products, the amount of breadth where the Times has expertise and incredibly valuable insight, information, guidance, service, delight, entertainment, is really, really high.
You take that idea and you say, “We’ve already got that in our news product.” And now we have this handful of other opportunities to bring daily value to people in the form of recipes. The experiment on Cooking was just kind of kicking into gear when I got to the Times nine years ago. We now have more than a million subscriptions to our Cooking product, which is essentially an incredibly good and diverse and rich recipe app, which we believe is in its early stages of growth with a lot of potential. Same on Games, we just talked about that, we think there’s a ton of value there. We acquired Wirecutter, which is largely monetized and up until now as an affiliate business, but we acquired it — it is a product recommendation site, high quality product reviews — we acquired Wirecutter with the idea back then five or six years ago that it too would play kind of a habituating role in people’s lives, and then you add The Athletic to that. So it’s less that we acquired The Athletic and we acquired Wordle, now we can have a bundle, and more that the idea of the bundle and the idea of being essential every day in the lives of millions and millions more people, that was the idea and that is why we acquired The Athletic and that is why we’re expanding our Games product with Wordle.
Where do you see the value of bundling? What’s the balance between increasing your average revenue per user versus a churn-decreasing device?
MKL: I think the bundle is valuable in all the most important ways, and we talk a lot about having a pretty wide addressable market. Our research combined with Reuters survey data tells us there’s something on the order of 135 million people who will pay for news, recipes, games, podcasts, shopping advice, sports information, and that same research suggests to us that half that audience is open to getting one of those things from the New York Times, and more than a third of the audience is open to getting at least two of those things from the New York Times. So we think there’s a real desire out there for Times quality work in lots of spaces, and we think the bundle’s going to help us penetrate the market.
We also think and have real evidence that people who subscribe to the bundle will find and experience even more value and because of that, they’ll retain better. We said earlier in the year that up to that point, bundle subscribers retained like 40% better than subscribers to our news product, so that’s great. And then you pushed on price, we charge more, even in a promotional introductory price, we charge more for the bundle, a little bit more. Over time, we expect to be able to charge substantially more for the bundle because we’re giving so much more value for it. Bundle subscribers today pay more, churn less, stay longer, engage more.
Partisanship and TAM
It’s good stuff for sure. I think it’s interesting you bring up that addressable market point because I think an elephant in the room here is that there’s been this bifurcation on partisan lines that’s particularly happened over over the last six years or so. I’m curious, you reference that 135 million TAM, but it seems like a lot of that addressable market is amongst people who see the Times as hopelessly biased at best, and the enemy at worst.
At the same time, I can kind of make a case that this bifurcation is one of the best things that’s happened at the Times. To the extent that people build their identity around a particular point of view and to the extent that the New York Times is seen as a totem for one of those points of view — I mean, are you even a liberal in good standing if you don’t have a subscription? — it seems to almost open the door to the Times being like a lifestyle brand, even beyond journalism. Does that resonate with you at all as you’ve sort of navigated these last few years?
MKL: I think there’s a really broad audience for what we do, and I could give you countless more examples of big news moments when huge numbers of people come to the Times, and I think Wordle is a great example of just huge numbers of people coming to the Times, whatever their politics. So I think we’ve got a really broad audience opportunity, I think we’ve got a really big actual audience, and I think we’ve got a really broad spectrum of value, so I would say that’s why we believe we can keep penetrating the TAM.
I’ll also say to you that the original idea from Arthur Ochs is that the Times does journalism without fear or favor. I talked earlier about the importance of independence in all of our work, especially in our journalism. It’s one of the six company values, it’s probably the one we talk about most at the place — The Times is not written for people with a particular worldview, it’s written to seek the truth and help people understand the world. I do think because of that, the audience opportunity is wide, very wide and wider than you might suggest. I’ll also say the steepest arc of growth we’ve had so far has come in a highly polarized time, but I’ve had a number of occasions like moments in the nine year journey, particularly in the last four or five years where people have said, “After this thing happens, no one’s going to subscribe to the New York Times anymore” and I’ve yet to see that happen.
Do you feel that’s your mission as CEO? It almost feels unfair because you were there and clearly such a central figure during this insane growth phase, and then now you take over and it feels like you are — maybe I’m putting words to your mouth — but The Times built like one of those new skyscrapers along Central Park, super tall and thin, but to build out the base and make it sort of more structurally sound in the long run. Is that the way you think about your role, particularly coming after this crazy period of time?
MKL: It’s a useful metaphor, it’s not totally off. Let me say first though that being the world’s best news destination and leading in news and the central mission work is always going to be the most important part of the value proposition. I believe even just from where I sit now, it’s going to be the biggest growth driver for a long time to come and probably forever. I think people underestimate that we live in a really complex world, these are really consequential times. Sure, the news cycle and news interest will ebb and flow, but I have yet to see in my lifetime, let alone in my time at the Times, I’ve yet to see the period where it ebbs and doesn’t flow again. I just wouldn’t bet against news and I wouldn’t assume in any way that our strategy is a hedge against news.
What I like about your metaphor though is we don’t just want a building, we want a neighborhood, and we think a neighborhood attracts more people in a lasting way, a great neighborhood, than a building, and is known for more things than just “This is where certain people live”. So we are absolutely focused on having a sufficiently broad value proposition that whatever the news cycle, there are reasons to come to New York Times every day. There was a time last year where I would say the COVID case tracker and Spelling Bee and what to make for Thanksgiving and what happened an hour ago, that’s the value proposition. Many, many, many reasons for many different kinds of people with many different kinds of interests to come.
Ads and Audio
Your background is in ads and you’re a real innovator at Forbes in terms of native advertising, but at the Times, that’s sort of taken, at least publicly, a bit of a backseat with the big subscription push. At the same time, you’ve emphasized that the Times has unique advantages in advertising thanks to all the first party data you have via those subscriptions, the fact you have an upscale audience, et cetera. While the current macroeconomic environment is obviously not favorable to advertising, do you see a really big opportunity with the advent of things like Apple’s App Tracking Transparency, which punishes third party advertising, but doesn’t really affect first party? Is there an opportunity to really accelerate growth in that business in a way that it might be counter to what people might expect?
MKL: I think you’re right to say the macroeconomic pressure is a moment in time, and that is a movie across my career I’ve seen a number of times before, and I think you’re right to point to the privacy environment becoming much more stringent in a way that I think is very good for consumers as being a tailwind for the Times. We have painstakingly built an ad business that we as a growing subscription-first business can feel really proud of, and painstakingly built a business where the ad business runs on the same high octane gas as the subscription business. That is registered, logged in, highly engaged qualified audience who spend a lot of time with our product and where we get a lot of signal in privacy-forward ways, non-intrusive ways about what’s interesting to them.
So I am optimistic that digital advertising at the Times is going to continue to be a growth driver and I’m optimistic that overall advertising at the times is going to continue to be really important profit contributor. When I got there as the head of advertising nine years ago, I was like, “We need an ad business that can stand next to the quality of this consumer product and be where nobody’s embarrassed that this is our ad business.” We don’t get it right every day, but I think we have really built an ad business that is kind of consumer-forward, subscription-forward and derives its value from a great consumer experience. Yeah, I think that’s a growth business, and I think we’re with the wind on it.
Yeah, it makes sense to me. You’ve talked a lot about the importance of audio going forward, which it really fits with another one of my big theses about the way media organizations should think about the Internet. In the analog era, the Times is about text and pictures because the medium was print, you didn’t have much choice in the matter, but now the medium isn’t so much text as it is bits, right? And bits can be anything from video to audio, to text, et cetera. How does that inform the way you’re thinking about these other mediums? And more pertinently to me personally, since I’m super interested in and invested in this, how are you thinking about subscription-only audio or subscription-only video going forward?
MKL: All important questions about where it all goes with audio, and I want to say I think we’re all still in pretty early days with audio, what we’ve learned so far in the, I guess, six years since The Daily was born, which by the way, kind of felt like Wordle. Not quite as big an audience, but The Daily kind of came out of the gate in this really different way where we were like, “Whoa, we have something awesome here that-”
Is it true that it was sort of a temporary project, but then you went ahead and made a multimillion dollar deal for it? So it was like, “No, we’re going to keep doing this sort of thing.”
MKL: I will neither confirm nor deny that! But sometimes great projects can be spawned when you’ve got willing ad partners who are going to fund an experiment that might otherwise go to the back of a roadmap. By the way, The Daily is still an incredibly well-listened to giant show that I think is a beacon in many ways for what “good” looks like in audio journalism, and it has an enormous audience that has held up beyond my wildest expectations.
Well, audio has a real habit aspect to it in my experience. I’ve seen that with the audio products that I do, it’s even more so than text, it’s something you do at a certain time every day.
MKL: That’s right, and that’s like Wordle, and that’s like as a sports fan checking on your team and what it meant in terms of how they performed in the game the night prior, so you’re getting a theme here.
But in audio, specifically, what I’ll say is, in any scenario, I can’t imagine a New York Times that doesn’t have audio journalism that’s incredibly important to our most engaged audience. Today, The Daily and the other shows we make are an important funnel for subscriptions. The steepest arc of growth we’ve had so far coincides also, not just with the moment in the world we talked about before, but also with the growth of The Daily, and I think the idea that The Daily is primarily one story that gets you interested in the other things that are happening, or even to go more deeply in that story, it’s a real driver in our audience engagement funnel. The messages we put in The Daily are really effective at driving people to either to The Times or to buy subscriptions for The Times.
As you know, we acquired Serial Productions and we also acquired, three or four years ago now, a read-aloud audio app called Audm, which gave us a Petri dish for experimentation on just listening generally, and what makes for a really high-quality journalistic or narrative listening experience. I would say we are still very much in the experimentation and building our options phase, I don’t know yet how the story ends, but we really like what we see so far in terms of audience engagement with our audio journalism.
We’ve got a beta in the wild, I can’t remember if you’ve written about it or not, but we’ve got a live test of an audio destination, and we’re seeing what does it mean to bring people to one place where they can listen to a pretty comprehensive audio experience. All of that is meant to help us express that we think audio journalism’s going to be really important in The Times experience and help us sort out what is the best way to see that happens. By the way, in the meantime, audio has monetized really well through advertising, which allows you to experiment even more.
Talent and KPIs
We’re running out of time, I find I have a million questions to ask you, but on that point, there’s a separate angle to this, which is one of the implications of The New York Times only being a newspaper, was that, if your journalists had a big story that was suited to other mediums, they were generally free to sign a deal with a production company, Hollywood, et cetera. However, now that The Times is capable of serving multiple mediums by being a digital-first entity, how are you thinking about capturing and owning those rights?
Maybe another angle on this was there was this crackdown on journalists having their own newsletters — why should they build an alternative business on The Times’ dime? I thought that was a great move on your part — but I’m just curious how you think about and manage this tension between you wanting to be everything to everyone, versus this traditional slot where a newspaper would fill in, and how that works as far as your best journalists are concerned.
MKL: Let me say, The Times would not be The Times if we weren’t the destination for the best journalistic talent there is in large number. Our aim is to be a place where the world’s best, most creative journalists want to come and do the best work of their careers. We’re very, very focused on that, and I think that manifests in a number of ways.
In some cases, it manifests in opportunities for people to have podcasts with us or write newsletters. We have a very focused stable now of 19 subscriber-only newsletters, that’s a cool new thing. Some of those newsletters have always been there, some we created for an experiment to see if we could get people to engage more. By the way, the experiment’s going really, really well. I would say offering our talent the chance to express themselves in a really high-quality way in more than a single medium is part of the equation. I would say being edited by the best people in the world to do those jobs is part of the equation. Having the resources, support, and time to do the best reporting that one could do is a huge part of the equation.
I’ve got this incredible story of a pretty well known reporter who does a lot of enterprise and investigative work at The Times, writing me after an earnings call and saying, “I just want to appreciate the business result, and I want to connect that business result to the fact that I was on X number of continents and Y number of forms of transportation, very expensively, to pursue a story that’s still going on because we’re succeeding as a business.”
So I think there’s a lot, Ben, to what goes into making someone want to work at The New York Times, and we’re very focused on that whole multitude of things. We are, of course, interested in making sure our subscribers and our readers and listeners are able to experience as much of the value of our newsroom on our own platform as possible.
We do have to wrap up, but Mark Thompson had that 10 million subscriber goal that felt so ambitious. You achieved it, or you’re on the verge of achieving it. When you sit here today, what’s your big, wild, crazy goal looking forward? Is it still subscriber base? Is it about retention numbers? Is it building this base? You previously had that very short, five-word, “Journalism worth paying for.”
MKL: Make journalism worth paying for.
You’ve talked about, you want to be the key thing in all these different aspects of people’s lives. Is that still a subscription number? How do you measure that? What is your KPI?
MKL: It’s a great question. I’m going to say Mark had, as CEO, he put out two goals. We actually achieved both of those goals, one after the other, earlier than expected. The first one, which he put out in 2015, was to double our digital revenue by 2020. We got there, I think, in 2019. The second one was, actually, I’ll give you a technical correction, 10 million subscriptions by 2025. We announced, I think in our full-year earnings call this year, that we had crossed that with the acquisition of The Athletic, but even without The Athletic we believe we would’ve got there well in advance of the target.
So we’ve got a next milestone out there now, that next milestone is from 10 million subscriptions to 15 million subscribers by 2027. By the way, subscriber is harder than subscriptions to achieve, which is one person buying multiple things counts as one. That’s the target, but what does this group of leaders at The New York Times want to believe we did three years from now, five years from now, really began to be seen as the essential subscription for everyone who wants to understand and engage with the world, and that we are that because we’re the world’s best news destination. We’re really valuable to people, tens of millions of people, and helping them engage with their lives and passions. The collection of those things together is that much more valuable, and we’ve got an interconnected family of experiences in and beyond news that make many, many more people want to pay and stay.
That makes sense. Is there anything you’re worried about? Is it partisanship? Is that the biggest risk factor? The New York Times, at this point, seems so dominant. You get all the best journalists, everyone wants to go there, and you have this flywheel going, you have a playbook. Where does it go sideways? Is there anything that keeps you up at night?
MKL: Listen, I’m 51 years old, I run a public company, and I’m a mom. Everything keeps me up at night.
MKL: But I will say that what got us to where we are was relentless focus on investing in and building the moat. That moat is high-quality journalism, a really differentiated set of products, and digital product experiences. So I strongly believe we’ll get where we’re going, as long as we can keep building that moat, and that the best way for us to create value as a company is to keep doing that. I think we’re well prepared to do it through whatever uncertainty comes our way.
Thank you so much for taking the time. That actually went longer than most. Like I said, I’ve been writing about what you’ve been doing for as long as I’ve been writing, which perfectly corresponds to your time there, so it was fun to get lots of answers to questions. Thank you for taking the time.
MKL: So fun to talk to you, Ben. Thank you so much for having me.
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