The New York Times’ global ambitions face tough challenges

For the New York Times to meet the ambitious target of doubling its digital business in the next five years, it must become a global media company.

That’s no easy task, even for a brand that commands such global recognition and respect as the New York Times. The challenges the Times faces are many. Europe alone has 44 countries and more than a few languages. The global ad market is highly fragmented. And, of course, the Times faces stiff competition from entrenched rivals.

To tackle this, the Times is creating more country-specific editions to woo more readers and paying subscribers. A New York Times Spanish edition was unveiled in February to target Latin America and all other Spanish-speaking countries. It has also launched a weekly Canadian newsletter: Canada Today that is being tested with a base of 5,000 people. And more non-English-language products are afoot — fruits of the $50 million (£40 million) put aside for international digital expansion in April. An Australian newsletter is now being considered, and the Times recently rolled out push alerts for U.K. readers.

“We have an ambition to develop and generate more international subscriptions, and we want to invest in customizing the web and app products for readers around the world,” said Jean-Christophe Demarta, The New York Times’ svp of global advertising. “Currently, someone in Tokyo sees the same product as someone in Sydney. Although our news is very international facing, you could also argue the product is very American, so we need to make adjustments.”

The 150-year-old brand’s global reputation in Europe is excellent. But like any news business expanding internationally, it’s typically limited to expats or professionals for whom a U.S. angle is relevant — a challenge it will need to overcome to grow, according to Douglas McCabe, CEO of Enders Analysis.

“The international edition does not yet transcend those limitations,” he said. “Clearly, events such as the forthcoming U.S. election will make the NYT, and other U.S. media, more relevant to more people, but on an ongoing basis, its appeal and necessity will be relatively niche.”

The Times has a decent digital audience base to build from, particularly in English-speaking countries like the U.K., where it has 5 million monthly online readers (1.5 million on desktop, 3.5 million on mobile), according to comScore. The U.K. news market is extremely crowded, which makes differentiation hard for the New York Times. The Guardian has 24 million monthly readers, 17 million of whom are on mobile and 7 million on desktop, and The Telegraph has 21.3 million, 14 million of whom are on mobile, according to comScore. The U.K. also has its own paywall publisher called The Times, owned by News UK, and known internationally as the Times of London.

“They don’t have a good U.K. sales presence. In fact, I wouldn’t know who to call to buy space,” said Tim Pearce, head of digital investment for Dentsu Aegis Network’s media buying arm Amplifi.

That’s why Demarta is expanding his team. He’s in the final stages of hiring two vice presidents, one for Europe and one for Asia. Currently, The Times has 140 overseas staff, 60 of whom are sales people across Paris, London, Dubai, and Hong Kong. Paris has the most advertising staff with 20 people and is still growing. London is the second biggest with 16 people, soon to be 20, according to the publisher. There are seven in Hong Kong. It also has 45 third-party sales representatives across markets where it doesn’t have bureaus like India. 

“The biggest challenge in all this is speed,” said Demarta. “We’re doing all the right things: We have better products, the newsroom is doing an amazing job, we’re going to adapt our digital products to make them even more relevant to readers around the world. And we’ll do more virtual reality and branded content. But there’s a lot there, and to be doing it all around the world is challenging.”

Like in the U.S., the key to the Times abroad is generating direct revenue through subscriptions in addition to advertising. In the U.K., the most basic subscription is unlimited access to and the smartphone and tablet apps, for an extremely low 25p (32 cents) a week for the first four weeks, then £1.06 ($1.38) a week for the first year, and £2.13 ($2.76) a week after that. It has 2.4 million total paid subscriptions across 193 countries, but only 15 percent of its subscriptions revenue is from overseas. There’s room for more.

Historically, the Times has pitched itself to advertisers overseas as a global product. But that’s a tough sell when up against major local competitors who already dominate domestic ad budgets. Now the Times is adopting a more country-specific advertising sales strategy. This will see it pitch local, rather than global, targeted campaigns to agencies.

Group M-owned Essence works a lot with the Times in the U.S., but in the U.K., the Guardian and Telegraph are its partners of choice for digital and branded content, and it’s unlikely to change that unless the Times can prove it has a new kind of audience to offer that can’t already be reached with bigger domestic players.

“As a rule, we focus on planning with local market media suppliers — those that are writing content that’s relevant to those specific audiences,” said Essence’s head of mobile Liam Pook. “The EMEA market is incredibly complex and fragmented. It’s arguably more straightforward to go the other way because in the U.S. there aren’t the language barriers, and media buyers can work with the top-three media suppliers alone, and they will get huge reach across the U.S. EMEA and APAC aren’t single markets, and there’s a much larger spread of media competitors.”

One key differentiator: in-house creative shop T Brand Studio, which launched in London a year ago with four staff on the ground. At the time, U.K. agencies welcomed the launch although hinted that the four staff smacked of “tokenism.” But the studio has made progress despite fierce local competition, running campaigns for brands like UBS, Muzo, and Longines.

“T Brand studios produces excellent quality, editorial is first class, and they have a huge range of sectors that are world class: news, lifestyle, fashion, business and travel,” said David Goodall, managing partner of international at Havas Media.

And T Brand Studio is growing. It will soon have nine staff in London and will launch in Asia by the end of the year. As for where exactly, it’s a toss-up between Hong Kong and Singapore, according to Demarta. “It could be both,” he added. “We feel the need to have real marketing specialists working closely where our clients are.”

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