Janet Robinson recently stepped down from her position as chief executive officer of the New York Times, and while there haven’t been any official announcements about why she left, the Wall Street Journal says that Robinson’s lack of knowledge and/or performance on the digital side was a contributing factor. Obviously, the Times and its board — including the Sulzberger family, who control the stock — probably have their own ideas about what the newspaper company needs to do in order to succeed in the new digital era, but I thought I would put together a few suggestions in case they are looking for some help.
It’s worth noting that things don’t look quite as dire for the Grey Lady as they did just a couple of years ago: due to ongoing declines in circulation and advertising revenue — and therefore cash flow — the paper had to borrow $250 million from Mexican billionaire Carlos Slim Helu (at a whopping 14-percent interest rate) in 2009 to keep its financial health from deteriorating further. It has since repaid those loans, and taken other steps to improve its finances — including the launch of its “metered” paywall and the sale of some assets such as a chain of local papers that is on the block.
The paywall just isn’t cutting it as a strategy
At the same time, however, even those positive moves haven’t been enough to put the New York Times on anything like a growth path. The paywall has signed up about 400,000 users (if you include the ones that are getting their subscriptions paid for by a sponsor), but the revenue from the wall isn’t even going to compensate the Times for losses in print advertising, let alone provide a positive boost. And even former online growth engine About.com is ailing, thanks to Google’s tweaking of its algorithm as a way of de-emphasizing results from “content farms.”
A full analysis of what the NYT needs to do in order to become a digital success story should obviously take into account a whole range of factors that I am probably ignoring (please feel free to add them in the comments), but here are a few broad strokes that I think a new CEO would have to — or at least should — implement at the paper:
- Scale back the paywall: As mentioned, the NYT wall is bringing in some revenue, which is good, but it’s probably not going to grow much beyond the levels it has reached already. As I’ve argued before, it’s also fundamentally backward-looking, in that it is aimed primarily at shoring up print revenue (as is boosting the cover price, which the NYT is also doing). The new CEO shouldn’t kill it, but shouldn’t focus on it either.
- Go digital first: Assuming the new Times CEO isn’t John Paton, who just became the CEO of Media News Group, he or she should take a cue from Paton’s approach at the Journal-Register Co. and make digital first a reality. That means putting digital people in charge, and focusing on the web first and the paper second. Steve Buttry of Digital First Media has a good overview of what this means in practice — and some writers at the NYT like Brian Stelter are already doing this.
- Invest in apps and events: Although there are a lot of issues around content-based apps (including the fact that Apple takes 30 percent of the revenue), there is a case to be made for launching apps that are based around specific topics — and possibly even specific people. Why not give fans of foreign correspondent Nick Kristof an app that gives them access to all of his content, and maybe special offers that require them to contribute information (or even payment)? The NYT should also take a cue from The Atlantic and the Texas Tribune and have more real-life events, including some built around personal brands such as Kristof.
- Launch an e-book imprint: The NYT released an e-book about the WikiLeaks saga earlier this year, but it shouldn’t just be dipping its toes into this area. As other newspapers have shown, e-books based on news events can be popular — even when they are based on work the paper has already published — and the NYT could easily have a dozen or more by now, around every major news story from Iraq to Japan. They would sell, and other authors would want to be part of it.
- Buy something like Flipboard: What could the NYT buy that would make a difference to the company in the same way that About.com did when it was acquired for $410 million back in 2005? Flipboard fits the bill: It would be expensive, since its last round of funding valued the company at about $200 million, but the Times could learn a lot from the platform — in the same way that CNN is trying to learn from Zite, which it acquired earlier this year. Like About.com in its day, Flipboard is part of a sea change in the way that people consume information.
According to some reports, including one from the paper itself, the New York Times is considering looking outside the newspaper for its new CEO, and may choose someone from the digital technology field rather than a traditional newspaper executive. That could be the beginning of some fresh thinking for the paper — and it could certainly use some, as media strategist Ken Doctor notes in a post of his own on the NYT’s future. Whether the choices a new CEO makes include any of my suggestions remains to be seen, but I hope so. I won’t even ask for any reimbursement, just a little credit :-)