The New York Times’ Meredith Levien: News is a relationship business

The New York Times hit a milestone in November, crossing the 4 million mark in total subscribers, out of which with 3 million subscriptions are digital-only that contribute to an 18 percent increase in revenue from last year.

Meredith Levien, evp and chief operating officer at The Times, has been leading the efforts for four years now. “I’d love to tell you it’s been easy, but that wouldn’t be true,” she told Digiday.

Levien discussed her vision for 2019, the appeal to marketers and the efforts behind reducing churn.

Answers have been lightly edited for clarity.

Four million subscribers is great, but there are a lot of people getting discounts. What’s the churn, and how do you manage retention?
Thus far, most of our churn reduction has come from better managing the priority moment in a relationship, which is when they onboard with us or when the price is going to go up from the introductory offer, and also managing the technicalities around retention, which is involuntary churn like billing issues. The real workaround churn and acquisition is can you get people to engage and make a daily habit of The New York Times. We’re just at the beginning of our efforts to improve features to our journey and to the product that helps us do it better.

How do you convert someone from an introductory price to a regular subscription?
Engagement. Do they come back and use the product for many days? We have email newsletters that are all about making sure the 4 million stay subscribers and get the next 4 million to make relationships with us so they become subscribers. We also launched an email called Your Weekly Edition, which uses an algorithm to see what you haven’t read during the week that was a popular story. People get a personalized email. And we’re developing a follow feature on the app, where you can personalize the app with the stories you want to follow.

As subscriptions account for an increasing share of the revenue, what does that mean for your advertising business?
We’re running a large digital ad business. It’s not as large as Google’s or Facebook’s, but we’re not competing with them. We’re competing with other companies that make quality content. Advertisers want to be associated with a brand that people love and that produces original content that people can’t get from anywhere else. We have a large audience of deeply engaged people, who have a real relationship with The Times. News is a relationship business. That was lost since the dawn of Facebook News Feed. We’ve all seen the disadvantages of that with the fake-news crisis and the collapse of local journalism. The user should know what they’re consuming is credible, the marketer should know they’re reaching real human beings, and the journalists have enough resources to do their work.

Advertisers are still reluctant to be placed adjacent to news and political content, which impacts the news business. Should marketers be cognizant that their dollars power newsrooms?
Marketers have a lot of power over the quality of entertainment and news that’s available in the current market because they get to decide where they put their dollars. A moral imperative is never a good sales pitch, but brands are being that much more careful and holistic about everything, like where their money goes, who they associate with and what their message is. It’s hard to debate that quality, independent journalism isn’t a good use of people’s time and, therefore, a worthwhile association for brands.

What are the priorities for you in 2019?
We just launched three television spots under our brand campaign called “The truth is worth it.” One of them is a short film about the 18-month investigation into the Trump family taxes and how the reporters did that work for 18 months. The point is we’ll do everything we can through marketing and the product experience to demonstrate the credibility of the journalism, the rigor of reporting, editing and fact-checking and all of the parts that go into journalism as a means of giving people the understanding. We’ll also put more resources into business journalism. The way tech is reshaping every aspect of how the world works and what power looks like is a giant story. Business journalism is at the beginning of a very important renaissance.

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