‘Unstoppable innovator’: The meteoric rise of Meredith Kopit Levien, the next New York Times CEO
On a Sunday evening about a decade ago, David Bradley took the 10 p.m. Acela train from Washington to New York, finding himself sitting across from his former employee, the ad executive Meredith Kopit Levien.
The then-majority owner of the Atlantic, Bradley exchanged pleasantries with Levien, and they both got to work on their laptops as other passengers dozed off. “After a while, I began hoping Meredith would quit her work so that I’d feel I could drop my own and read a novel. But she worked on, and I worked on,” Bradley said. Around 1:00 a.m. Bradley bailed, but Levien continued working while travelers pulled down their luggage as the train arrived. “Had I not seen her many times since, I might assume that, in some Amtrak rail yard, there sits a car from the 2000s with one person on board, still on WiFi.”
Today, Levien is still on WiFi — but in one of the toughest and highest-profile roles in media: in September she will become the president and chief executive of the New York Times.
Talk to just about anyone in the media industry and you will hear a similar story about Levien’s work ethic. (“I don’t know when she sleeps. She must, but it’s a mystery to everyone,” said Mike Perlis, her former boss at Forbes). Her contemporaries gush about her personable nature and business savvy, but also note her ambition and ability to reinvent herself as the media business has changed. A traditional ad executive by background and pioneer of the sponsored content era, she pivoted to subscriptions and was the victor of a power shake-up that saw her emerge as the leader of the Times’ product and technology unit, too.
At 49, Levien is the youngest person to reach the paper’s CEO job, and her rise at the Times has been astonishingly swift. In 2013, she was hired away from Forbes to lead the Times’ ad business, where she oversaw a turnaround and managed to introduce a native advertising studio to an old-school news company. She was promoted in 2015 to chief revenue officer, which added the subscription business to her portfolio. Then, in an executive reshuffling in 2017, Levien was promoted to chief operating officer, consolidating power on the business side and establishing herself as the clear internal candidate to be named as the next CEO. In July, that’s exactly what happened.
“She has successfully led much of our company’s most important work — from reimagining our advertising business to driving our historic subscription growth to fostering a culture of product innovation,” announced Times publisher A.G. Sulzberger. The board of directors decided “there was really no one else,” outgoing CEO Mark Thompson told his own paper.
Levien declined to be interviewed for this story, but called the new job “the honor of a lifetime” in a statement. She takes over the position at an auspicious time for the newspaper. In the second quarter, the paper for the first time generated more revenue from digital than print, and the addition of 669,000 net new digital subscribers marked the biggest quarter ever for subscription growth. Advertising, on the other hand, fell off a cliff: down 43.9%, in large part thanks to coronavirus.
Thompson departs with a legacy of transforming a languid, print-focused newspaper into a healthy digital news operation, growing the company’s subscription base and championing important journalism in the face of President Trump’s regular taunting description of the company as failing. The Times passed $800 million in digital revenue last year, a goal Thompson had pledged to reach by this year. When he took over eight years ago, it was far from clear that the paper would emerge from his tenure as a modern digital operation that was still family-controlled.
Levien, on the other hand, is inheriting a paper on a high note with plenty of cash on hand for new investments to further solidify its editorial dominance. But the challenges are there. The desolate advertising market has presented a catastrophe for publishers across the media landscape. The possible end of the Trump era could leave the Times and other publishers without the energizing sense of purpose they had for the past four years, an urgent news moment which lured in new subscribers. At some point, the skyrocketing subscriber business could hit a ceiling or investors could demand better margin growth.
Being the chief executive of the New York Times will never be simple, but Levien’s many fans in media say that if there’s one person who can maintain the newspaper’s momentum, it’s her.
Levien first began reading the Times as a high schooler in Richmond, Virginia, thanks to her parents’ Sunday edition subscription, she told Digiday for a profile in 2015. A journalism lover in college, she joined the staff of the University of Virginia student newspaper, the Cavalier Daily, first as a reporter and later as an ad seller (since it was a paid position). “I loved writing, I loved editing, I loved reporting,” Levien told the Cavalier Daily in an interview in July.
After graduating from UVA, Levien moved to New York (she married Jason Levien, co-owner of Major League Soccer team D.C. United, and the couple have one son). Levien began her career at the Bradley-owned consulting firm the Advisory Board, traveling the country to bring in medical centers and health systems as members, Bradley said. “She was, as well, a rocket ship launched vertically up through the ranks of the company,” he said, adding that Levien was among the youngest elected to the company’s version of partnership.
The Advisory Board eventually went public, and Bradley refashioned himself as a media executive when he purchased the storied, money-losing Atlantic magazine. He hired Levien as ad director and later encouraged her to move over to 02138, a short-lived title he purchased that was geared toward Harvard alumni. Asking Levien to rescue 02138 was the cruelest thing Bradley ever did to her, he said. “For almost all of us who touched that magazine, the experience was a disaster. It must have been my fault.”
In 2008, Levien joined Forbes to run the luxury women’s magazine Forbes Life. As Digiday later reported, Levien proved herself by remaking the business, shuttering the print magazine to emphasize digital and launching an events series that would become Forbes’ Women’s Conference. She became chief revenue officer of the larger Forbes brand, where she helped put the business back in the black thanks to programmatic advertising and “Brandvoice,” Forbes’ controversial sponsored content unit.
Through Brandvoice, Levien helped to usher in a new era of “native advertising” into the media business, which was a novel concept at the time. The unit allowed advertisers to fashion their own content on Forbes’ property and faced vocal criticism from a journalism community that views the line between editorial and business as sacrosanct. For Forbes, the result was a rejuvenated business and ultimate sale. For Levien, Brandvoice won her plenty of fans in the ad world.
“She has been an unstoppable innovator who, while at Forbes, was at the forefront of using editorial content with audiences to warm them to brands, build trust and create long-term relationships,” said Meredith Verdone, the chief marketing officer at Bank of America.
Perlis, the former Forbes CEO, credited Levien with setting clear goals for the revenue side and establishing loyalty on her team. “Forbes was generally a pretty platooned place, and there was a hierarchy and knowledge was exchanged very judiciously in the ranks. Meredith turned that upside down,” he said.
When the Times came calling, Levien was at first unsure whether she wanted to join a publisher whose best years were seemingly behind it. Perlis, for his part, tried to convince Levien to stay at Forbes, but he could tell the process was far along. “Even though I was battling away, the little amber light was shining that this was going to be a manifest destiny for her,” he said.
Right on time
When Levien joined the Times in 2013, its digital outlook was, by the paper’s own admission, a complete mess. An internal 96-page “Innovation Report” painted a dire picture, describing a news outlet that had failed to keep up with the competition. In the ad department, Levien engineered a more coherent combination of print and digital sales, orchestrated a major staff overhaul, and moved the company to DoubleClick for Publishers.
She also brought with her the native advertising playbook from Forbes. Initially, some at the paper were hostile to the idea, including then-executive editor Jill Abramson (who was replaced with Dean Baquet the day before the Innovation Report leaked to BuzzFeed). When Levien introduced a new “Paid Posts” program, then-publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr. wrote a note assuring staffers that, although native advertising is “relatively new and can be controversial,” it was key to helping “restore digital advertising revenue to growth.”
“She came in with the conviction and the proof from her experience at Forbes that digital sales was going in two different directions: one was branded content and the other was programmatic,” said Michael Zimbalist, formerly an ad executive at the Times and now the chief strategy and innovation officer at the Philadelphia Inquirer. “Neither of those products or product strategies were particularly well embraced when she came to the Times, so it was not an easy task to get the full-throated support of the whole organization to go in those directions, but she did that.”
In relatively short order, staffers at the Times got used to the work from T Brand Studio, the paper’s name for its sponsored content arm. A few projects, like a sponsored story for Netflix on “Orange is the New Black,” were even outright well-received within the newsroom. (Though Levien did have to apologize for once boasting at a 4As event that some of the Times’ native ads outperformed news stories).
Zimbalist said that Levien had a sense for what might anger the editorial side, and once pulled a published sponsored post for an alcohol brand because she felt it veered too closely to the framing of another series of stories done by the Opinion department. Levien communicated the mistake to the editorial side, and the post was quickly reworked. “The client was happy, but it just showed the lightning quick reaction,” Zimbalist said.
Levien pushed her sales department to close big holistic deals across different parts of the paper. “She does her homework more than anyone I know, and is adept at making connections that enable marketers like me to see inside the paper and imagine what’s possible,” said Linda Boff, the CMO of GE. Boff said that GE did some of her “favorite campaigns ever” with the Times, including an audio-based project with NYT Magazine and a campaign that placed virtual reality goggles in the Sunday paper (which Digiday reported at the time was in the $1 million range).
The path forward
By 2015, executives at the Times understood that the advertising business was no longer the future of the paper. Google and Facebook were swallowing up the ad market. What the Times had to its advantage was a huge name brand and top-notch journalists. The strategy, made clear in a memorandum called Our Path Forward, was to lean into subscriber growth. Levien was promoted to chief revenue officer, making subscription revenue her responsibility as well, an area in which she was previously unfamiliar. When she managed to help grow that part of the business, too, insiders started believing she was the potential internal successor to Thompson.
The only issue, sources said, was that she still didn’t have quite enough in her portfolio. The Times at that point had three major units: news, revenue, and product, the final of which was led by Kinsey Wilson. A key figure on the Times’ digital rejuvenation, Wilson had been the bridge between the business side and the news side. He helped fix clunky digital products and streamline the paper’s tech infrastructure from a half dozen tech stacks to a more uniform system.
What happened next depends on who you ask inside the Times, an organization perennially obsessed with palace intrigue. Descriptions range from “coup” to “organizational change.” Either way, in 2017, Levien was named chief operating officer. Wilson left the company.
“I didn’t view it as a power struggle,” Wilson said. “In fact I’ve never worked with a senior team that was as talented, collegial and closely aligned as the one I was part of at The Times. Having spent a career driving digital transformation inside big, complex media organizations, I’m a realist about the need for constant organizational assessment and change. It comes with the territory.”
With Wilson’s exit, Levien added product, design, and technology to her portfolio, setting her up to be Thompson’s natural successor. In the years since, the Times’ digital products like NYT Cooking and its Crossword app have become increasingly important drivers for digital revenue. (Of the 669,000 total net subscriber additions last quarter, 176,000 came from Cooking, Crossword, or audio products).
Indeed, audio is also a key area of focus for the Times (and also for Levien, who listens to podcasts at 1.5x speed or 2x if she is in a hurry). Last month, the company announced it had acquired the production company behind the hit podcast “Serial.” The Times’ “Daily” podcast, hosted by Michael Barbaro, has also become a huge hit in recent years, with about 3 million daily downloads.
In perhaps another example of Levien’s influence behind the scenes, the Times has its ad department to thank for the Daily. While the editorial side was still deciding on how to continue Barbaro’s campaign podcast after the 2016 election, Times salespeople went ahead and closed a multi-million dollar campaign with BMW — with a sponsorship of a daily news podcast as the lynchpin.
Thus far, Times newsroom staffers spread out across the world (and on Zoom) have received the news of Levien’s elevation well. The editorial staffers that have interacted with her tend to like her. She says the right things in staff meetings and legitimately cares about journalism. And they like that a young woman is now in charge.
Company insiders do not expect much to change. Levien told Axios that the company’s strategy is “broadly working” and “any change from here is a question of emphasis.” The goal, however, is to reach 10 million digital subscribers by 2025, up from around 6 million now.
It’s an ambitious target, but David Bradley, at least, is confident. “As certain as the earth orbits the sun, Meredith will be a success as CEO.”
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