How The New York Times is growing subscription products beyond news

The newspaper added 180,000 digital-only subscribers during the third quarter

New York Times
Ben Cotton at the World News Media Congress in Zaragoza. Photo Asier Alcorta for Wan-Ifra

While the news product remains the core of The New York Times’ digital subscription success, its growth has brought its own set of challenges. Among them is to keep current subscribers onboard while bringing in new ones, reports Wan-Ifra‘s Brian Veseling.

A key way the company aims to do this is by putting a greater emphasis on its products beyond news, said Ben Cotton, NYT’s head of Subscription Growth during Wan-Ifra’s World News Media Congress.Connect Now

This is not to suggest The Times has any intentions of moving away from news. They don’t, and Cotton made that clear. 

The way we talk about this is, if our products at The New York Times are the solar system, then news is the sun, right in the middle, and the other products are building off of that,” he said.

These additional products are intended to have their own appeal and audiences and may represent significant revenue streams either on their own, or by being bundled with news or other products.

Subscriptions beyond news

This is not a huge change in strategy or anything like that,” Cotton said. “It’s very consistent with the news mission that we have had over the last several decades. But we do think it speaks to an opportunity we see to grow our subscription product beyond the news product and into a number of other areas.”

Take New York Times’s Games, for example, which includes the popular word game Wordle that The Times bought earlier this year, along with their famous, long-running crossword puzzle and several other games designed to keep players coming back regularly.

The Times also has a number of other successful product-lines such as the product review website The Wirecutter and their standalone Cooking product.

Each of these products we see as having a really distinct audience opportunity,” Cotton said. “That’s one of the biggest things we look for when we are looking for something else that could help us grow our subscription portfolio.”

Each of these products fulfills a very specific user need that allows us to see at the core what could be a good subscription product,” he added.

Start small

Likewise, while some of the products are already major successes, Cotton noted that all of them started small and grew over a period of years through testing, learning and iterating based on audience needs.

For example, the NYT’s Games product was launched eight years ago, in 2014, and Cooking was launched initially around the same time and became a subscription product in 2017. 

Cooking was getting started around the time Cotton joined The New York Times, and back then, he said, “it was just a couple of editors, a couple of engineers, and a product manager sitting around a table in one room trying to work on ‘What is the product we can build for the need we see for our users to get access to the thousands and thousands of recipes that we have in our archive, but that we don’t provide any way to access digitally?’ ”

It was built out over a number of years, and it’s only as we proved the need for that product and the value of the product and the ability of the product to help drive the subscription business,” he said.

The Athletic and The Wirecutter each went through the same process if you go back to their earliest days as start-ups, he added.

Investing in content

An important success factor across all of The New York Times’ products, he said, is the need to invest in the best possible content.

I think that’s obvious when you talk about the news product, that the journalism is at the center of it,” Cotton said. “But the Games product would not be a successful subscription product if we had not had a really successful crossword product in print going back decades.”

The same thinking applies to products they’ve bought, such as Wordle, he noted, “that is why we thought they were exciting products to acquire.”

For each of these product experiences, we invest heavily to make sure that we are always using the best possible content in each of these areas that we possibly can,” Cotton added.

A third major factor for success is the user experience, he said. “From a product standpoint, we start with the content at the core of it to figure out what is the experience that the user will have around it.”

Best quarter

This focus on building out products and bundling them is already showing signs of paying off. A few weeks after Cotton’s presentation, The Times released its third quarter financial results, which included those new 180,000 digital-only subscribers mentioned at the start of this story.

As part of the announcement, Meredith Kopit Levien, the company’s president, and CEO, stated: “The biggest story of our third quarter was continued progress on the bundle, with mounting evidence that our strategy is working. It was our best quarter yet for bundle net additions, with a record number of starts and a record percentage of our total starts taking the bundle. As a result of our efforts, we now have more than a million bundle subscribers, well on our way to our next mile marker of 15 million subscribers by 2027.”

First published by Wan-Ifra on 29 November 2022

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