Leaks. National security. All things Trump. In 2017, these fraught issues seem to define The New York Times. So, consider. What's been, over time, one of the most searched terms on the Times' site?
It's "chicken," said Ben French, Times vice president of product development division Beta.
Worry about the North Koreans lobbing a nuke over the Pacific, or Trumpcare's impact or global warming's devastating changes on life on earth? Sure, but what's for dinner?
Americans consume 8 billion chickens a year, and their chicken queries do more than tell us our quotidian cares. In fact, the understanding of those queries now heralds the next big phase of the digital subscription strategy for the New York Times (NYT) .
About midyear, the Times will launch its next big paid product: Cooking.
That three-year-old free app and site has pulled in a large digital audience of 10 million monthly. Now, true to its subscription-first business strategy, the Times will convert the product from an audience-building free model to a harvest-reader-revenue model, with Cooking becoming freemium. Unlike the digital news subscription, this pay model won't be a metered one, allowing readers some number of free articles (generally 10 per month for the Times) of their choice before having to pay up.
Some of Cooking's 17,000 recipes and articles still will be freely available, but most will not -- and readers will have to pay to enjoy a time-saving "Your Recipe Box" feature.
Consider the move the next big step toward the Times' 2020 plan, which calls for the doubling of digital revenue compared with 2015. The Times hit the paywall lottery with Donald Trump's election. It has won the Trump Bump bowl, adding about an average of 100,000 new subscribers a month since the election.
The company can now count more than 3 million subscribers in digital and print -- almost twice as many as it had in the halcyon predigital days. Today, readers pay 60% of the freight for producing Times journalism, but the company aims toward a 70% goal. The recent subscription surge is just prologue, as late last year, Times CEO Mark Thompson publicly set the new stretch goal: 10 million subscribers.
While the Times moves ahead with its $50 million global investment, with new area-specific products debuting in both Latin America and Australia and more to come, it would be a mistake to look at that 10 million figure and think "news subscriptions." News subscriptions will anchor the Times, certainly, but it's the wider arc of products aimed at the unique Times reader demographic and psyche that may well provide a big engine of paid reader growth in the next five years.
In recent weeks, Thompson has begun to go public with a paid Cooking product plan, mentioning it here and there. Deep Times watchers may recall that the Cooking product, touted heavily as a handy iPad-based kitchen helper, was intended to become a paid product when the Times launched it three years ago. It debuted with cousins NYT Now and NYT Opinion.
The low-priced, millennial-oriented NYT Now mustered an enthusiastic readership, but alas too few subscribers, and was eventually shuttered, while NYT Opinion closed soon after debuting. Given those results, the Times decided to keep Cooking free.
It's grown and grown -- as a free app and site. Growing steadily to its current monthly unique audience of 10 million, the Times has decided it's time to make Cooking its third paid product, following its news subscription and crossword subscription successes.
Cooking's readership, or usership, generates oodles of data, well beyond problematic poultry. Within that data: The Times believes Cooking's heaviest users will pay for access.
That use is the key to the strategy.
"We're focused on creating basically services for our readers, and they're services that address non-news needs," French said recently at the Times offices. "The New York Times has existed for more than 160 years, we're going to tell you what the news is, we're going to tell you your place in the world, but we've also always helped you lead a better life.
"We always served that up, but it was a lot of times served up within the context of the news experience. So here's a story about President Trump, here's a story about Syria, here's a story about a food trend you should be aware of, and by the way, here's a recipe at the bottom of that, which is very different. That's like, 'Help me lay around on a couch with the newspaper spread around me and understand the world.'
"But the experience of digital media is much more intent, more in tune. I have a problem right now, and I expect this device to deliver me the answer to that problem. So, I want to lean forward, I want to make a decision about what I'm going to watch, about what I'm going to eat, how I'm going to kill the next five minutes, you name it, and thankfully The New York Times has a lot of great assets and equity in these relevant places.
"Everybody's got to eat tonight, which is why I was so passionate about cooking when we started it and still passionate about it today."
In passion -- and, ultimately, utility -- the Times aims to find lots more reader revenue.
French's Beta team of 50 builds those passion-seeking products and increasingly bases its work on data. The Cooking data tells the Times how the utilitarian features of Cooking are used. While the content of the Times' recipes, at 17,000 and growing, is core, its readers' abilities to store (in "Your Recipe Box") and to import (from other recipe sites) that spell c-o-n-v-e-n-i-e-n-c-e. In the Blue Apron age of 30-minute meals, convenience as much as -- if not more than -- the content itself may make the buy/no buy decision for target customers.
(The Times, in fact, sees the home delivered meals market as a minor revenue source. Last summer, it launched a "multiyear collaboration" with Chef'd. Amanda Rottier, who directs the Cooking product, said, "It's performing as well as we expected, and it's giving us confidence that we can find other ways to extend our brand and find ancillary revenue streams.")
Let's return to chicken. "People searched", French said, "because our recipes weren't indexed; our recipes were not sortable by cuisine or by meal time or by how many people you were cooking for or how much time you had. You couldn't save them to a place that would allow you to organize them in a way that was logical to you."
That functionality now serves as the foundation of Cooking. And, yes, French said, "chicken is (not surprisingly) the most popular site search term on NYT Cooking. Salmon and Pasta are the next most popular."
In addition, the Times had steadily added Cooking Guides, which promise, "Master the basics: our guides offer recipes, videos, techniques and tips for novices and advanced cooks." These, too, focus on utility -- and learning. In addition, they showcase the Times' food journalists, such as Sam Sifton, Florence Fabricant, Eric Asimov and Melissa Clark.
Then there's the notion of archives, which will become more of a paid feature. It is the treasure trove of evergreen recipes that offers real (monetary) value. That's a lesson with big implications for the Times and news publishers -- when and if they can bring technology to bear on contextualizing their voluminous archives.
The Times tested numerous price points. Expect the new Cooking to be offered at a sub-$10 monthly price, with a substantial annual discount.
Cooking, then, builds on the learnings of the Times' second subscription product: crosswords.
The Times already has proved to itself that it works. Now the company counts 285,000 paid crossword subscriptions. Priced at $39.95 annually or $6.95 monthly, digital news or All-Access subscribers get half off on the additional crossword subscription. Retooled and relaunched three years ago, the Times sees a good, continuing ramp with crossword commitments, just as it has seen with news subscriptions.
Intriguingly, it's not simply Times news readers who have taken to Cooking.
"Two-plus years in, the audience size and engagement continues to grow, and we are emboldened by the fact that a large portion of it is unique to Cooking, not just an extension of the greater Times readership," Rottier said.
The big takeaway here: Digital subscriptions seem to have less a ceiling than observers had believed.
In fact, the Times hopes it is developing a pipeline of further subscription products. One of them is Watching, a guide to figuring out what to watch in the "platinum age of TV," as "Fresh Air" critic David Bianculli has dubbed it. Watching launched as a free app/site in October. It's now in the audience-building stage, but the Times plans to position it as a platform for paid services at some point.
Will Beta Keep the Times Alpha?
What's the deeper strategy behind this leaks-and-leeks subscription plan? ("Lovely Leeks" is indeed one of Cooking's featured collections.)
Listen to French, a five-year Times veteran, talk about the market position the publisher wants to claim, and you see how devilishly simple it is in concept. And how hard it is to execute as a product and business plan.
"What we've seen with Cooking and with Watching and I guess with crosswords as well is that there are [numerous] players in the space. Many of them who will help you organize your cooking life or your watching life or whatever.
"In that camp are the Evernotes of the world. There's a ton of iOS apps that will allow you to make effectively a watch list.
"Then in the other end of the world, you have a ton of publishers who write about these things and write about them really well. And some of them who are really leaning into that user need of, 'Help me figure this stuff out'. So, in this camp you have the all-in apps, or the Vultures of the world, and [we have] massive respect for those publishers.
"But what we're really trying to do is find out how do we deliver on both of these at the same time. So it's not just that Cooking is a great place to discover the world's best recipes, it's also the place you can store those recipes, put them into collections, hopefully make personalized recommendations to you, and even allow you to save recipes from other websites."
That's a lot of moving pieces. Clearly, the Times commands a great audience, with wide interests. Further, it can call on its legacy here: It was one of the country's first dailies to add a slew of high-quality feature sections, both Sunday and daily. Legendary Times top editor Abe Rosenthal led that push back in print almost a half century ago, and the strategy then kick-started a business renaissance. Readers' engagement time with the newspaper increased; new home, fashion, travel and arts advertisers filled the pages.
What's old is new. The Times, having recently established a new digital news hegemony, now seeks to do the same in digital "features." Of course, digital features offer multiplicities of interactivity -- and potential personalization -- that pure old dumb print never could.
Personalization's been one largely unrealized holy grail of the web since at least the innovation of My Yahoo at the end of the last millennium.
Remember the big idea: one to many, the old mass print idea would be replaced with many to one, the ultimate personalization down to the individual.
"Everybody's a snowflake," French said. Speaking about the Watching experimentation, he said, "[It depends] on which services you subscribe to, depending on your preference in terms of where you watch, determined by how many people live in your house and what their preferences are, and determined by what do you like to watch.
"So if you like to watch live sports, it's going to make you immediately very different than me. And as a product person, it means we have to sort through this notion of personalization, which is like literally the worst word ever because it means almost nothing. And how you deliver on that promise as The New York Times is a unique challenge."
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