The Gray Lady Goes Online
Despite the shifting tides, The Gray Lady, as the paper was often called, continues to hold a prominent place in America's news landscape.
The publisher first started a website in 1996, but it arguably wasn't until 2011 that its major transformation got underway, with the introduction of a device we all increasingly run into: a paywall. Initially that paywall allowed readers a generous 20 articles per month for free before requiring a subscription.
In its first year, the paper managed to secure 400,000 paying digital subscribers, a promising start. But, it took the company four more years to reach 900,000 subscribers. Even more concerning, the new paywall led readers to seek news elsewhere, resulting in a drastic drop in website traffic, going from 160 million monthly visitors in mid-2011 to 80 million in 2013.
From then on, the New York Times made pivotal changes to bolster its online presence and accelerate its digital footprint and revenue. The company leaned into digitally-native advertising, revamped its app, acquired the consumer site Wirecutter, launched a dedicated cooking app, experimented with digital-only projects like the online crossword and repositioned the company as an online-first publication with a newspaper, rather than a newspaper with a website.
Slowly but surely, it worked.
Last year, 42% of the company's $2.3 billion revenue came from readers who exclusively paid for online NYT content, with the added benefit of shifting the focus from advertising to subscription-based revenue — which is more predictable. Indeed, ad revenue has steadily declined at the NYT, now accounting for only 23% of the business, down from 50% in 2010.
Pay for news?
The NYT's ability to convince people to actually cough up for its content is unique — finding an audience for its left-leaning coverage in an era of heightened political polarization. As of the latest count the company boasts 9 million digital paying subscribers, more than any other English-focused news publisher. The Athletic, which the NYT acquired for $550m in 2022, would stand alone in third place on the top 10 list were it still a separate entity.