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How The New York Times brings the audience inside with Times Insider

Francesca Donner ()

It appears that the high profile spat between The New York Times and President-elect Donald Trump has actually been good news for the paper’s bottom line.

The Associated Press reported that one week after Election Day, the Times had signed up a further 41,000 subscribers; and The NYT, which also runs a metered paywall, now boast 1.3 million digital subscribers. For those subscribers who want to get even closer to the team behind the paper the NYT offers a membership scheme - Times Insider. And more recently, CNBC reported that subscription growth at The Times has soared tenfold.

The Times Insider programme offers a series of enticements, from live events with NYT journalists through to additional content, and has inspired several high profile newspapers across the globe to offer their own schemes.

Here Francesca Donner, Director of the NYT’s Times Insider, who will be speaking at DIS 2017, explains the rationale behind the paper’s approach to membership, what it actually offers its readers and why different papers are adopting different approaches to membership.

About DIS:

Digital Innovators’ Summit 2017 takes place from 19-21 March (main Summit on 20 and 21 March) in Berlin, Germany. Now in its 10th year, DIS is a premium event attracting more than 600 top-level delegates from 30+ countries.

See more at innovators-summit.com

How important is the subscription model to the New York Times now?

The subscription model is hugely important! Print advertising is facing real pressure at The Times (as it is across the industry), so it’s crucial we continue to focus our efforts on our digital advertising and our digital consumer businesses. 

Subscriptions are also a logical place for us to focus: We launched our digital subscription business more than five years ago and it has been growing steadily since then. In our most recent quarter, we saw significant gains, with a net increase of 116,000 subscriptions to our news products, far more than any quarter since the pay model launched in 2011 … not to mention an unprecedented uptick in digital subscriptions since the U.S. presidential election on Nov. 8.

What is the story behind the Times Insider? What exactly does it offer the reader?

Times Insider - originally Times Premier - was created for long-tenured Times subscribers who wanted to forge a deep connection with The Times. Through research, we found these readers wanted to connect with our brand, our work and, above all, our journalists.

We bring the idea to life by creating a really high-touch experience for Insiders - to be sure, this is a work in progress - and we do this in a number of different ways: It might be a first-person account that takes readers behind the scenes of a hard-to-report story; a diary entry from a journalist reporting from a conflict zone; an explanation of how we got a seemingly “impossible” photo.

We bring readers into the conversation by hosting podcasts -- Inside The Times - that go deep into the decisions we make and the work we do every day. We also host live events - both digital and in person.

At the end of the day, we’re trying to open a window onto the journalism, the people and the ideas that make The Times The Times.

Are you surprised by how slow some newspapers have been to push membership schemes?

I’m not sure newspapers have been *that* slow to push membership schemes.

As print ad revenue has declined and publishers have puzzled over the problem of how to monetise digital content, newspapers - many of which, remember, don’t have a digital subscription model - have turned to membership programmes as an untapped source of revenue. But membership programmes are certainly not the obvious - or indeed the only - solution. Put another way, it’s not a given that a membership programme will be the logical next step for every publisher.

With membership programmes there is no one size fits all. Media organisations need to decide what kind of programme they want, who they’re targeting, what the goals are (say, retention or engagement or revenue) whether they have the audience to sustain a programme, and so on. And of course, doing any of those things requires a big commitment. So I wouldn’t say that media companies have been slow … perhaps just cautious. 

Have you learnt anything interesting from your rivals – i.e. The Guardian, WSJ, London Times - and their membership activities?

Sure! There are so many programmes doing interesting things in different ways. Times+ (London Times) was one of the leaders in this space. WSJ+ followed close behind with a membership programme that comes “free” with your WSJ subscription. The Guardian’s programme focused on events. 

Slate Plus goes after its most loyal fans with bonus content. And sites like Jessica Lessin’s The Information are all but locked down unless you are a member.

Other membership programmes communicate the idea - as public radio does here in the U.S. - that you opt in for membership because “it’s the right thing to do.”

I don’t think any one media outlet has found the silver bullet, but you can tell that lots of folks are trying to puzzle what works for their publication and their readership. 

How successful has the podcast been? Are podcasts in general becoming increasingly important to The Times?

We’re really pleased with our podcast. It’s called “Inside The Times,” and the idea is to go deep with reporters and editors on current news topics we’re writing about in The Times. A few examples: A deep look at reporting on torture and a conversation about the tone and writing style we use at The Times. We also do a once-a-week mini podcast with Times columnist and former opinion-page editor Andrew Rosenthal called “Good, Bad, Mad” in which he details what he’s happy about, sad about and mad about. It’s fun and thought provoking. Here’s a recent one.

The idea here is to reach readers in a different way - there’s something very intimate and personal about hearing someone’s voice right in your ear, which I think helps to lower the wall between The Times and its readers.

What type of live events do you run? How successful have they been?

For now, we host at least one live, in-person event per month at The Times headquarters in New York City. We try to rotate through a range of topics - politics in the lead-up to the election, gun control vs. gun rights in the United States. We’ve had Nicholas Kristof, one of our most prominent columnists, discuss his international reporting experiences. And we’ve had our executive editor Dean Baquet interviewed by media columnist Jim Rutenberg.

We make it a point to keep these events very Times-focused: good events are a dime a dozen in New York City, but not anyone can feature the panellists we have access to. If you’re a really ardent Times reader, getting to meet Kristof or Baquet or any number of reporters on the frontlines feels quite special.

We also host digital events - like live chats and conversations. The big difference, of course, is that they’re scalable for Insiders all over the country. 

What do you see are the main challenges in running a membership scheme?

Well I can’t speak for all membership schemes, since we’re all trying to do such different things. But I think the key challenge for Times Insider is to create something very personal and high touch. We want readers to feel close to The Times. We want them to get to know us. How do we do that when our readers are scattered across the US and the world? That’s the challenge.

DIS 2017 logo (10th) ()

Many of the themes Francesca discusses in this article will feature prominently at the 2017 Digital Innovators’ Summit in Berlin. For more information, click here.

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