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The very American approach of the NYT to boost subscriptions


Beyond any doubt, the NYT, or The New York Times, is the newspaper that sets the standard for the industry. With reporters deployed in 174 countries, it brings to its readers first-class journalism.

Yet its numbers do not add up. Yes, its “nearly $500 million in digital revenue not only dwarfs what any print publication has managed online.” It “also far exceeds leading digital-only publishers,” as Wired reports. Its arguably biggest U.S. rival, The Washington Post, is not even in the neighborhood. Even though it is backed up by Jeff Bezos, of Amazon fame and fortune, it only raked in US$60 million in 2016.

“We think that there are many, many, many, many people—millions of people all around the world—who want what The New York Times offers.” These are the words of Dean Baquet, the Times’ executive editor. “And we believe that if we get those people, they will pay, and they will pay greatly.”

So this is the approach the storied newspaper has taken: invest heavily in first-class journalism. Tie in lots of other features. Make yourself indispensable to your readers. And they will have no choice but to sign up. In other words, take the very American approach of just dumping and pumping overwhelming volume. Bombard readers tirelessly.

It will probably work. Almost inevitably. There will be no choice. Otherwise, readers will be doomed to scavenging in the back alleys of the web.

And yet, your correspondent finds it an alien world. Yes, we write online and we only exist online. But this writer learned the ropes in this trade in a newsroom that smelled of ink and lead, amid the din of typewriters and linotypes. Then he handed the papers hot off the presses to the Editor. It had all the aroma and the magic you find in a bakery and that you will never find ordering bread online.

That’s why we sympathize with the words of Arthur Ochs Sulzberger Sr. in 1994. He had stepped down as publisher of the Times two years before but was still the company’s chair. At a speech in Kansas City, Missouri, he referred to what was then called the “information highway.” Your correspondent was not there but can sense Ochs Sulzberger’s crankiness, and relishes it, too. It would be “far from resembling a modern interstate,” he said. According to him, this highway “will more likely approach a roadway in India: chaotic, crowded, and swarming with cows.”

He was right. But with the Internet now worming into every nook of our lives, newspapers have no choice: “It’s my way or the highway.”

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