The recent high-profile departures at theNew York Timesof editorial page editor James Bennet andopinionwriter Bari Weiss have left some on the business side of the news industry scratching their heads.Both exited amid ideological turmoil that Weissdetailedin a letter of resignationtothe Timesspublisher A.G. Sulzberger, describing the hostile work environment she endured at the hands of fellow editors and staffers. They were wholly intolerant, she said, of her role as acentrist at the paper. Bennet, said Weiss, had led the effort after President Trumps election in 2016 to bring in voices that would not otherwise appear in theTimes.
But what of Sulzberger, whose prime duty is toNew York Timesshareholders and therefore to the papers bottom line? How does the top executive justify alienating swathes ofTimes customers and potentialsubscriberswho may be sympathetic to, or even merely curious about, ideas beyond what Weiss described as our 4,000th op-ed arguing that Donald Trump is a unique danger to the country and the world?
Theoverlookedtruth is that there is considerable financial incentive for theTimesto limit the scope of discussion.This business angle may foretell what to expect from theTimesgoing forward.
Its a product of how the business of news has evolved in recent years. Advertising revenue has been hurtling downhill for some time and the COVID-19 pandemic has accelerated that decline. In the first quarter of this year, the Timess ad revenue fell 15.2 percent year-over year. In May,theTimesannouncedthat it expects advertising revenue in the second quarter to fall even more dramatically, bybetween 50 and 55 percent.
And yet the companys stock price continues to climb. It is now priced in the $46per sharerange. Its all time high of $52per share, set in 2002, is within reach. This steady climb marks a remarkable recovery from a low of about $4per sharein 2009.
These strong numbers are a product of theTimesssuccessful digital subscription business, which hasgrownrapidlyin recent years. Last year, the publisher announced the goal of reaching 10 million subscribers by the end of 2025. In February the paper announced it had hit the halfway mark a year early. In the first quarter of this year theTimes added an impressive 587,000 new digital subscribers, bringing its total subscriber base to more than six million, some 85 percent of which are online-only.
In the past, when advertising was the main driver of revenue, the goal was to reach the widest possible audience. Now, though, the business model demands the paper focus on catering to a narrow but passionate segment of the readership base. Thatsegmentincreasingly accounts for the bulk of theTimess income and it prefers a narrow, left-wing editorial line.
A 2017 study of datafrom hundreds of major media sites conducted by Piano, a leading provider of metered paywalls for the news industry,foundthat for most media outlets the bulk of digital subscription revenue isdriven by a small percentage between 2 and 12 percent of readers. Piano calls them super-fans, super-users, direct and dedicated, the invested, and loyalists.
Being able to serve and monetize this relatively small part of the audience now makes all the difference between success and failure,the study concludes.
WhiletheTimessloyal subscriber base grows, its overall readership is growing even faster.The rapid increase in subscriber numbers means that, if anything, an even smaller percentage of the audience is driving the bulk of the revenue, says Mark Thompson, CEO of theTimes.
This relatively small base of loyalists, who are so fundamental to theTimess business model, stand largely on the left of the political spectrum.
TheTimess public editor, Liz Spayd,addressedthe questionof the papers political leanings in a 2016 column. She was unsuccessful in uncovering the official proprietary numbers on the ideological breakdown of theTimess subscriber base, butnotedthat on most days, conservatives occupy just a few back-row seats in this giant liberal echo chamber.
Should the paper write off conservatives and make a hard play for the left and perhaps center left, Spayd asked, or has that already happened?
Spaydnotesa 2014 Pew Research surveywhich found that 65 percent ofTimesreadersleaned to the left, and only 12 percent leaned to the right. Considering the heightened polarization in media today, its likely that those numbers now skew even further left, and that the loyalist subscribers are drawn from that audience. Spayd was on to something.Herjob at theTimeswas subsequently eliminated.
The phenomenon of leftward drift and loyalists came starkly to light after President Trumps election in 2016, which triggered a new surge in subscriptions. In 2017, Times executive editor Dean Baquet acknowledged in a CNN interview the impact Trump has on revenue. Every time he tweets, it drives subscriptions wildly, Baquet said. In 2018, the Financial Times reportedthat theTimeswas still riding the high of the so-called Trump Bump.
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The President often belittles the paper as the failingNew York Times. The Timesoften returns fire.TheVox columnistJeff Guodescribed this approachas a great way to pile even more liberals onto the Timess subscriber bandwagon.
In recent years Thompsonhastried to push back against the contention that subscriptions are driven by opposition to Trump, citing diversification among subscribers geographically and also in terms of race and ethnicity. But he has provided no evidence of any political diversification.
Inherresignation letter,Bari Weissconfirms that stories arechosen and told in a way to satisfy the narrowest of audiences.Sulzbergers apparent comfort with the departures of Weiss and Bennet affirms why this is the case.FortheNew York Times, what Weisscallsself-censorship has been good for business. As long as the stock price and paid subscriber numbers keep rising, expect that newspapers ideological transformation to proceed apace.
Dovid Efune is editor-in-chief and CEO of theAlgemeiner, the international Jewish newspaper.
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