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April 29, 2017

New York Times Shuts Down NYT Now Mobile App; Millennials A "Pscyhographic"

NYT Now, once the bright offspring of a nascent Paywalls 2.0 movement, is ending its short life. That not-unexpected move tells us how much the New York Times – and the market – has changed in the brief 28 months since its 2014 launch.

Back then, CEO Mark Thompson’s still-new regime at the Times actively sought a next wave of reader-paid products. Thompson saw NYT Now, NYT Opinion and NYT Cooking as three good forays into next-wave subscription products. Each aimed to find paying readers beyond those who had signed on for full Times digital access.

 

First published at Politico Media

Follow Newsonomics on Twitter @kdoctor

 

That plan didn’t work.

NYT Opinion closed first, failing to find enough payers or audience. Cooking, now commanding eight million monthly unique visitors, is adding new, targeted ad revenue, and in mid-July added its first new reader-revenue source, Blue Apron-like Meal Kits by NYT Cooking.

NYT Now – intended as a low-cost ($2 per week) Millennials-targeting, smartphone-native news product lasted a year as a paid product, before going free. We believe it generated a disappointing 15,000 to 20,000 separate paid subscriptions.

Yet, most at the Times itself consider the NYT Now venture to have been a resounding success – and their logic has a basis in reality. It’s an unusual tale of rapid product innovation and product–pricing adjustment.

Talking to three Times executives about the closure Tuesday, I noted that the NYT Now experiment seemed a smart exercise in a legacy company adapting the Silicon Valley “fail fast” mantra of product development.

“Less than failing fast, it was an opportunity to move fast,” said Kinsey Wilson, the Times EVP of product and technology, who inherited the product when he came to the Times in late 2014.

Language aside, the Times’ learning from its Millennials foray has been dramatic, and has helped to move the subscription needle after all – but with the Times’ “core” subscription product, not a niche one.

Meredith Kopit Levien, the Times’ chief revenue officer, explains: “We were looking to attack a different part of the demand curve and there was a thesis around having separate products … . We realized the ability to drive acceleration in the core consumer business. [There is] a higher-priced, real momentum in that business.” Indeed, The Times overall digital subscription business has seen increasing growth in recent quarters [“Behind today’s Times numbers: reader revenue”].

In short, the Times fine-tuned its main digital subscription selling machine – and we can expect another simplifying fine-tuning next year – and is getting a good flow of those Millennial-aged subscribers to its main subscription offerings. And those are worth more than two dollars a week per sign-up.

The Times’ 2015 internal study of NYT Now audience showed 45% of it in the Millennial (18-34-year-old) category. At that point, 35% of the Times core mobile apps users (both smartphone and tablet) could be counted as Millennials.

This year, says Kinsey Wilson, “50% of our core mobile app users (phone and tablet) were 18-34 years old according to Comscore Mobile Metrix.”
As it closes shop on NYT Now in September, the Times has learned that the app has been heavily used by those who are existing core New York Times digital subscribers. That’s one big reason the Times feels comfortable shutting down NYT Now. In total, 42,000 New York Times subscribers use NYT Now; fully 90,000 of them, or 39,000 subscribers, also use the Times’ core mobile app. Of those, more than 70 percent read the Times at least four days a month a month via the core app.

Curiously, that’s a pattern found by a parallel news app, The Economist’s Espresso. It, too, aimed to find new audiences for Economist. It’s been successful, The Economist tells me. That success, like the Times’ experience, is based more in retention of current subscribers than in acquiring new ones.

Add it up and there’s a fair amount of overlap between NYT Now and NYT core readers.

NYT Now had become a vestigial product and evolution is quickly taking care of it. Yet, the Times still must “discover” more Millennial readers, and for that, it is working Facebook and other social platforms.

All the numbers make a case for the announcement, but more important is the product strategy that enabled it.

When I first talked with then-starting-up NYT Now editor Cliff Levy two years ago, we talked about how he wanted to port over the casual sensibility of the local New York Today product – a morning newsletter with an online version that is updated through the day – to NYT Now.

Levy and the Times’ multiple newsroom, design, tech and marketing teams were successful, beyond what any intelligent observer of the slow-to-change Times might have expected. As I laid out in March – “Newsonomics: The New York Times Re-invents Page One — and It’s Better Than Print Ever Was” – the Times did more than loosen up. It redefined itself for this digital time, and in doing so has created a model.

Many of the innovations readers enjoy in the Times mobile app first saw light at NYT Now. Levy ticks them off: “There’s the briefings, the morning and evening briefings. Visually oriented journalism including animations on the home screen, far bigger and more vibrant photos, bulleted text to allow you to scan the news much more readily.”

The Times made much better use of the breadth of its 250 published stories a day, offering greater variety and showing off its growing storytelling abilities. The NYT Now experience gave the “main” Times permission to maintain Timesian rules, while joining the modern age.

“The tone and the sensibility” are “a little bit more relaxed, just a little bit more conversational while still being kind of rooted in the New York Times traditions and values,” said Levy, who last year was promoted to an assistant editor position on the masthead overseeing “the presentation of [the Times’] report on all platforms.”

Levy speaks to the bigger question: How does this product learning inform the next step of Times progress, as it continues to struggle with its revenue  [“Is this the bottom for The New York Times?”]

“We’re much more comfortable with experimenting in the core itself. That is a very big cultural change, not in the newsroom of the Times but I think you can argue across the entire organization.”

Certainly, in 2016, almost all digital media are going after the Millennial audience [“The Millennial Moment”]. They have to, given that at 82 million people it’s the largest generational cohort ever. Legacy media like the Times – which can count Millennials as 31% of its overall U.S. audience – now compete with the Voxs and Vices for that audience [“Which media companies are winning the battle for Millennials?”]. All companies’ base their Millennials strategies on their understanding of the market, but that’s a moving target.

As Levien puts it, “Literally behavior is changing in real time. I think some of the assumptions about being a different product to attract a younger audience have changed.”

The Times has moved from a demographic worldview to a psychographic world view. Its New York Times-targeting persona is secret internal algorithm, but we can all kind of describe that person.

In this NYT Now to NYT core journey, we can see a couple of thoughts of the digital news media moment. Products built to take advantage of modern storytelling can work well for both younger and older audiences. Hipness may be overrated; exclusive, high-quality content well-told may be underrated.

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