‘No one else is doing that’: The New York Times builds loyalty with softer lifestyle content

The New York Times might be known for its nonstop coverage of the Trump saga, but it quietly getting a big readership boost from the more prosaic world of service journalism. It’s been two years since the Times launched its Smarter Living initiative, which gives advice and tips on quotidian things like how to do laundry and how to exfoliate.

Most important to the Times, Smarter Living not just grabs eyeballs but also subscribers by building loyalty. Today, the Smarter Living newsletter has 360,000 subscribers, with an average open rate of over 80 percent, and Smarter Living articles have reached a readership of 22 million people in the past year. This year, 33 percent of the 100 things people saved most on the Times iOS app were original Smarter Living stories, according to the paper.

“It was a gap in our news coverage,” Smarter Living editor Tim Herrera said of the initiative. “So the idea was to make that more robust. There’s a lot of service journalism out there. A lot of it is shitty.”

The Times wouldn’t give specifics about how well Smarter Living coverage gets people to subscribe or renew, but said that overall, the 6 to 10 percent of people who read the guides return to them, while some of the subscriber-only guides published this year under the banner “A Year of Living Better” have had return readership of as high as 11 percent.

Unlike hard news, which some advertisers shy from because it can be controversial, service journalism also is ad-friendly. Smarter Living guides drew 12 sponsors in 2017.

The Times’ digital ad revenue declined 6 percent in the first three months of the year, but subscriptions now account for two-thirds of overall revenue at the Times, and it’s looking to products and programs like Smarter Living to continue that growth.

Smarter Living is a great way for the Times to get new readers with stories that are often pithy and easy to digest on mobile devices without straying from the Times’ voice, and it’s a “good, safe option” for advertisers, said John Wagner, group director of published media at PHD. “I think they realize their reader sometimes wants a break and to give them something a little softer is OK,” he said.

Initially, most of the service journalism the Times published was dusting off older articles and redistributing them.

Herrera said since then, the content has become almost all original. (Not repurposing old articles also avoids the problem of confusing readers.) More than six people work directly on Smarter Living. Around six desks in the newsroom, like travel and real estate, also create their own service articles, sometimes in partnership with the Smarter Living desk.

The Times’ how-to guides and programs also are popular, and it sees those as an area of expansion. But Herrera said where the Times can set itself apart is in coverage that strikes an emotional chord, like a personal piece he wrote about burnout and another about impostor syndrome.

“We’re talking about topics no one else can go after, and we’re doing stories people can’t find anywhere else,” Herrera said.

The Times is also honing its approach in other ways. Herrera said he plans to do more stories that don’t fit the traditional service model and are about what he calls the “psychology of life,” but with a service element, like this article on the value of quitting.

The Times is known for speaking in a particular institutional voice. But the service journalism has expanded the idea of what a Times story is. When the Times early on did a story on how to travel as a solo woman, many readers wrote in that it was patronizing. So the Times took reader feedback and turned it into a follow-up article.

“That is very Timesean, and we’re leaning into that because no one else is doing that,” he said.


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