Five things The New York Times has done in pursuit of a sustainable business model, according to its president and CEO

“The world needs great journalism, but great journalism needs a great business model,” with a quote from media analyst Ben Thompson, Meredith Kopit Levien, president and CEO of The New York Times Company, began her keynote presentation at the 25th International Symposium on Online Journalism (ISOJ).

Woman in blue shirt

Meredith Kopit Levien, president & CEO, The New York Times Company, presents on the second day of the 25th anniversary of ISOJ on April 13, 2024. (Patricia Lim/Knight Center)

Kopit Levien has spent most of her career working on the sustainability of quality journalism. For her, the secret to a good business model “is about making a product that is so good that people in very large numbers seek it out and they come to it regularly, they make room for it in their lives, and they do that on a daily basis.”

Kopit Levien in her eagerness to summarize the work The New York Times has been doing in creating a sustainable business model presented the following five themes:

Make something worth paying for

In an era where information was expected to flow for free over the Internet, The New York Times went for something very different: a subscription model.

“We believe that our journalism, our work, was so valuable that people would ultimately pay for it even in the presence of free alternatives and I’ll say we didn’t just think that for The New York Times. We thought that for quality independent journalism everywhere,” Kopit Levien said.

According to her, the company’s philosophy has always been to prioritize journalism, so the first dollar that comes into The New York Times always goes toward improving the quality of the journalism they do.

Make the hard business calls and give them time to play out

All of The New York Times’ decisions in recent years have been made with the following four premises in mind: digital-first, subscription first, destination (direct relationships) and multiple complementary revenue streams.

According to data provided by Kopit Levien, 65% of the company’s revenue currently comes from digital, surpassing the percentage of the revenue from print, which is about 30%.

In addition, three-quarters of The New York Times’ revenue comes from subscribers, who now exceed 10 million.

Don’t let tradition stifle innovation 

Within The New York Times there are several traditions. One is that when a reporter produces a story, which goes on the front page of the newspaper for the first time, they receive a plaque from the printer with page A1 to commemorate the occasion.

With digital advancement, this tradition has evolved and today reporters receive a commemorative plaque called a Trifecta when their story dominates the front page of the website, newsletter and podcast.

Meanwhile, other traditions such as the famous inverted pyramid have been broken down to discover new ways and formats of storytelling.

To change the business, change the way we work

The New York Times’ business operation is more like that of large platforms such as Spotify or Netflix, as Kopit Levien explains. As a result, the company has far more staff across all digital product functions, and journalism is seen as a deeply cross-functional team sport.

“When I got to the New York Times, it was very difficult to do digital product work. We had many competing interests. Most of our business people were in straightforwardly commercial functions, they sold subscriptions, they marketed them, they sold advertising, they marketed it…” the executive said.

“We were competing with the world’s largest and most powerful tech platforms for user engagement,” she added.

Lead with ambition

For The New York Times to lead with ambition is important because journalism and the work that reporters do matters.

Woman standing and man sitting

Meredith Kopit Levien, president & CEO, The New York Times Company and chair Evan Smith, co-founder, The Texas Tribune, and senior advisor, Emerson Collective on the second day of the 25th anniversary of ISOJ on April 13, 2024. (Patricia Lim/Knight Center)

“I can’t think of anything that matters more [than journalism], in terms of a business, to society and democracy,” Kopit Levien said.

The goal is to achieve as many or more subscribers as large streaming platforms like Netflix.

“Our idea for The New York Times is to be the essential subscription for every curious person who wants to understand and engage with the world,” the executive added.

The presentation ended with a Q&A session moderated by Evan Smith, co-founder of The Texas Tribune and senior advisor to Emerson Collective, where they were able to discuss the tumultuous times the industry is living through and the importance of putting journalism at the center of the business.

“6,000 people, 5,900 people to be specific, work at The New York Times. Everyone is there because of the mission, everyone is there because we want more independent journalism,” concluded Kopit Levien.

ISOJ is a global online journalism conference organized by the Knight Center for Journalism in the Americas at the University of Texas at Austin. In 2024, it is celebrating 25 years of bringing together journalists, media executives and scholars to discuss the impact of the digital revolution on journalism.

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