How The New York Times Is Revising Its Digital Playbook

As the digital media landscape has evolved over the past decade, many media companies have had to scramble as CPMs have failed to match up to offline rate cards. Additionally, online audiences have (for the most part) been conditioned to expect free content, a phenomenon that has upended the business model of most legacy publishers.

The New York Times, once beset with significant financial issues, has turned the corner and is now seen as a modern success story. For example, earlier this week the paper posted its latest quarterly results with revenues of $508.4 million, thanks to a 4.5% increase in subscription revenue with a total of 5.3 million total print and digital subscribers as of the end of 2019.

While overall advertising revenue dropped 10.5% year-over-year during the period—CEO Mark Thompson described the Times as a “subscription-first publisher”—plans are afoot to reverse the decline in media spend.

These involves soon-to-launch “first-party data-based advertising solutions” as the Times seeks to create privacy-safe ways to engage with its audiences. The focus on privacy involves tweaks to its programmatic advertising offering, including the publisher closing off its mobile app inventory from open market demand.

The policy decision was put into practice earlier this month with Thompson telling financial analysts it will help bolster ad inventory prices as the company additionally plans to launch more sophisticated audience products for media buyers.

Speaking earlier with Adweek, Allison Murphy, svp of ad innovation at the New York Times, described the title’s mobile app audience as its most valuable, given how many articles those users read, which in turn generates data that it can offer to advertisers.

“So, when we thought about ‘Where do we want to begin with our most premium ad experience?’ it should be for those users,” she said, adding that app users will not be served more than three ads per page on average.

Murphy further explained how the interplay between ad tech and mobile app inventory can often lead to the detriment of the user experience. “There’s still just a lot of elements of ad tech that don’t play nice with app. So, we found that we have more technical bugs, we’ve had more ad quality issues than we saw on other parts of our environment,” she added. “The buying ecosystem programmatically for app [inventory] is not nearly as well developed as for the web.”

Murphy’s team has spent the last two years developing audience models that can then be offered to advertisers as contextual targeting tools. This includes using panel-based data, which is updated twice a month, to construct an algorithm that scores all New York Times articles against 18 different emotions such as “curious” or “optimistic.”

Her team also scores how likely an article is to motivate a reader to take a particular action such as making a charitable donation, embarking on a dietary change or spending a significant amount of money.

Murphy said the publisher hoped to offer advertisers further audience segments (as Thompson mentioned on this week’s earnings call) midway through 2020 , but that reader experience was top of mind.

“As we tell more multimedia stories, it’s quite disruptive to have video, photo, ad, video, photo, ad,” she explained. “We’re trying to think about how we can have the right number of ads in a way that doesn’t disrupt the storytelling.”

Jason Kint, CEO of Digital Content Next, a trade body that represents publishers, told Adweek that it is crucial for publishers to strike a balance between advertising and subscription revenue. “It’s always going to be healthier if you have a direct relationship with your audience and not reliant on one partnership—you don’t want to be reliant on a single distribution platform or search engine.”

The task ahead of The New York Times, and all major publishers that have a seen a recent increase in subscriptions, is how they will continue to capitalize on consumers’ belief in the need to pay for news as the media companies themselves face a tumultuous digital ecosystem that has pitted them against competitors like Facebook and Google for ad dollars.

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