Have Money? Arthur Sulzberger Wants A Deeper Relationship

Whatever relationship you already have with NYTimes.com, if you aren’t paying for access, it’s not deep enough. At least, that’s part of the message implied in Arthur Sulzberger, Jr.’s prepared remarks for this week’s annual shareholders meeting. “Creating an online business model with the goal of yielding larger financial returns is critically important” but this offers the New York Times Co. (NYSE: NYT) “a real opportunity to reconsider the relationship we have with our users and how they engage with us. At the core of our thinking is the necessity of increasing engagement. This is about having our users generally spend more of their valuable time with us, either on our site or on other sites that are integrating our content. It is about enhancing the emotional connection that our users have with us.”

It’s true. People who pay for access probably will feel more connected but the Times is also counting on the reverse to make the metered model work when it debuts early next year. Three kinds of people are likely to pay:

— those with business needs that can’t be met elsewhere for whatever reason;
— those who value it as a constant news and information enough to pay;
— and those who already feel a deep enough connection with NYTimes.com to want to support it.

Those last two categories can blend. That’s really the kind of connection Sulzberger is talking about — the people who see particular value in the kind of journalism the Times can do and want to see it survive. The Times also needs most of the non-payers to stick around (especially the affluent users so prized by advertisers), so it has to keep that connective tissue in place. And Sulzberger’s comments go beyond paying customers, print, online and mobile.

One way of doing that is with what Sulzberger calls “compelling storytelling.” But the info highway is littered with carcasses of sites that knew how to tell compelling stories and still failed to thrive. That’s where technology comes in for the Times: “To accomplish all this, we continue to take the necessary steps to become a more technology-centered organization, developing new products that speak to the desire for community, personalization and greater access to quality information.”

That includes an emphasis on mobile. CEO Janet Robinson told shareholders 23 percent of the paper’s mobile readers also read it online and in print; the majority use mobile in addition to at least one or the other. Overall, the NYT‘s mobile users tend to be more engaged with news sites, make greater use of apps (both paid and free), and, says Robinson, use their devices for commercial activities like shopping, trip planning and bill paying “in far greater proportions that the typical mobile user.” The mix of engagement with news and interaction with devices turns readers into users — and into potential buyers of mobile access to news, even if they don’t see a need to pay online.

Yes, it’s all very touchy-feely-buzzy, packaged to show forward movement to investors. That doesn’t make the notion of engagement any less valid or increasing it any less necessary.