Asking the New York Times: “What would it look like for the Times to truly focus on improving the state of local news?”

From a post by Joshua Benton on headlined “An open letter to the CEO of The New York Times”:

…thanks to some smart strategy, great journalism, and Donald John Trump, The New York Times in 2020 is stronger than ever. Its newsroom is bigger than it’s ever been. It has more subscribers than it’s ever had. Its stock price is in shouting distance of a new all-time high. It’s expanding into other forms of media from a position of strength, not fear or wary obligation. It’s flexing its muscles at Silicon Valley. It’s even making buzzy acquisitions, and it has hundreds of millions in cash lying around if it wants to make any more.

In other words, you have lots of options ahead of you. Can we be the ones to figure out paid audio? How much can we expand into TV and movies? Should we keep trying to unlock major growth from new languages and international expansion? Is advertising cratering quickly enough to rethink our future plans for print? Should our 1,700-journalist newsroom keep growing — and if so, into what areas and with what skills? And you should be able to address all of these questions with a longer-term view than your recent predecessors often could, occupied as they were with selling off assets, managing buyouts, or trying to return to growth.

But let me suggest one other strategic item that I hope you’ll put very high up on your agenda. The New York Times has to do more to help save local news in the United States.

The relative sense of calm and stability at the Times is held at approximately zero local newspapers. Even the smart ones, with relatively successful digital subscription models and locally engaged ownership — Boston, Minneapolis, Charleston — don’t have the Times’ confidence that future ad declines can be managed without a loss to the journalism and to the product.

The papers that are independently owned often don’t have the resources to build the digital infrastructure — analyzing audience behavior, optimizing subscription strategy, building complex interactives — that are table stakes for many of the big national and international news brands. And the papers owned by chains are increasingly chum for hedge funds more interested in marrow-sucking than business-building. . . .

So what would it look like for the Times to truly focus on improving the state of local news? I’m sure there are plenty of good ideas in the minds of Timesfolk. But here are a few potential areas of exploration.

Shared data. Most local news publishers have terrible data about their online audiences, which makes ad targeting at any level beyond “people interested in news about this city” difficult. The Times has invested a lot of time and resources into developing a robust set of first-party data that will let advertisers target any of 45 distinct audience segments, and those slices are only going to get thinner and more numerous.

Could you find a way to extend that data umbrella to high-quality local news organizations? In theory, that could increase both the quality of your targeting data (by connecting it with local behavior) and provide an assist to publishers whose work you consider valuable — and who, if we’re being honest, are more like your compatriots than your competitors.

Shared ad inventory. When it comes to local advertising, local outlets do their own thing. But when it comes to national ads, they’re often left auctioning off excess inventory to remnant ad networks that offer neither a great experience for users or lots of money for publishers. Would Times national advertisers sometimes be interested in accessing a much larger market of quality newspaper readers? The average reader of The Dallas Morning News, the Miami Herald, or The Seattle Times is attractive to advertisers in many of the same ways a Times reader is.

Shared subscriptions. Digital subscriptions are proving to be a winner-take-all kind of business. About half of all digital news subs in the United States go to either you guys or The Washington Post. The New York Times has more digital subscribers than all local American newspapers combined. The Post used to be interested in tying together local and national subs, offering free access to as an extra benefit to people who subscribed to their local daily. Their strategy shifted, but there has to be a way to connect the two geographies at which people tend to consume news.

Shared tech stack. This is the direction the Post’s strategy shifted toward: Arc Publishing has turned much of the Post’s backend technology into a SaaS product that covers content management, video streaming, A/B testing, subscription processing, ad tech, and more. It’s grown into a nice business for the Post. Maybe you guys are just fine with the Post extending its tendrils into the world’s publishing infrastructure — but hey, aren’t you supposed to be rivals or something? It’s not too hard to imagine Arc becoming the basis for a more thoroughly monetized network, with Jeff Bezos’ Post at the head.

Shared content. This is tricky, of course, since the river of Times content is the core asset that makes the rest of the business work. And local news outlets want to defend their geographic fiefdoms, which are in many cases their strongest argument for existence.

But how can you make the experience of being a subscriber to the local daily better if you’re also a New York Times subscriber — and vice versa? Could publishers who promote Times stories on their platforms get some sort of credit — a cut of ad revenue, or of a portion of the subscription revenue pool — for directing their readers’ attention your way? Would The Morning have a higher open rate if it also included some top stories from a Times partner in a reader’s city or state? An earlier iteration of the Times had paid content deals with regional nonprofit news outlets in Texas, California, and Chicago. That effort fell victim to budget cuts and too much emphasis on print, but 2020 is a very different world.

It’s increasingly clear that most people, if they’re willing to pay for digital news at all, are only willing to pay for one subscription. That’s been great for the Times, since it is by a wide margin the most likely to win that single spot. But can you find a way to share some of that value with the beleaguered souls reporting local news?. . .

But the main thing I’m asking here is for The New York Times to actively think of increasing the health of local news as a core part of its mission.

Speak Your Mind