Last Updated on
December 8, 2023

Why the New York Times’ Bet on Mobile Paid Off

A newspaper or publisher has one core objective: to get their stories into the hands of readers.
New technologies have changed the way companies all over the world are doing this, and changing the way we consume content.

In the field of news and publishing, The New York Times is an example of how to see success in the digital age, as their subscription revenue surpassed over $1 Billion in 2017.

While print is still around, there’s no denying that digital is where publishers need to focus their efforts in the present and future.

In the following case study, we’re going to break down The New York Times’ journey from print to digital, and break down the key ways in which they managed to do so. Read on to find out how they did it, and how you can recreate their strategy to see success with your content in the digital age.

From Falling Behind, to Digital Leaders

Not so long ago, the NYT was failing to keep pace with the digital landscape rising up around it and, as such, was struggling to maintain its readership.

After painstaking analysis of its business model in 2014, the NYT admitted its shortcomings in the way it was delivering content to subscribers.

Now, with a refreshed and renewed strategy adopting digital and mobile mediums, it has experienced a sharp turnaround from that decline.

As highlighted by their most recent earnings report, the newspaper now has 3.8 million subscribers; 2.9 million of which are digital-only subscriptions.

The mobile app has also been a huge driver of growth (both in subscriptions and revenue) over the years.

Keep reading to discover how you can replicate the NYT’s digital success in 2018.

A Timeline of The New York Times Going Digital

The New York Times is a publisher with over 150 years under its belt–and, obviously, it’s gone through a lot of changes in that time. In just the last couple decades, however, it’s had to make a dramatic pivot away from print and into the world of digital news.

Although the company was reluctant for some time, it’s now completely adopted a multichannel presence–print, desktop, mobile, and app–and is blowing away the competition in the process.

If you want to know how to succeed with your own news site and mobile app in an ever-growing digital world, then this is a journey to pay close attention to.

1851: The New York Times in Print

The NYT was founded in 1851. Since then, the newspaper has won over 100 Pulitzer Prizes for its journalism and consistently ranks high in terms of circulation numbers around the world.

While the NYT has always experimented with changes in order to keep up with the times and to appease a modern audience–like reducing the number of columns used and publishing color photography–the digital age has shown some major reluctance on its part.

In 2007, in an attempt to save its print edition from declining sales and ad revenue, they physically reduced the size of the newspaper from 13.5 inches to 12. In addition, the company experienced downsizing in order to try to recover the money it was no longer making in sales.

As readership numbers began to fall in the ‘90s and ‘00s–with circulation at less than a million in 2009–the newspaper finally began to take strides to adopt a digital strategy. Though it wasn’t easy.

1996: The New York Times Enters the Digital Space

The New York Times launched a website in 1996, though very little was done in order to align with the changing times for nearly ten years.

New York Times 1996 Website
The New York Times’ website in 1996.

In March of 2005, The New York Times reported that its website had received 555 million page views that month alone.

However, their website was really only considered a “nice to have” amenity up until that point. The NYT needed to ramp up its digital efforts to capitalize on the opportunity in front of them. In 2006, was launched with a new interface along with a mobile web companion.

2008: The New York Times Goes Mobile

In 2008, the NYT mobile app was launched for iPhones and iPod Touches. The first iPhone was only just released a year before in June of 2007. Despite the NYT’s initial reluctance to go digital, it made a smart – and ahead-of-its-time – decision to get its product front and center on a device that now sits in the pockets of between 20% and 40% of the global population.

In 2010, an app launched for iPads, Androids, and Windows smartphones.

At the time of launch, users were able to find articles and download them directly to their devices, which enabled them to read online stories even when not connected to WiFi.

This gave readers the ability to consume NYT content no matter where they were through their mobile app, which is something its desktop and mobile web counterparts were incapable of doing.

All signs today indicate that the mobile app is the preferred news-reading experience for the Times’ subscribers. How do we know this?

Data shows that their mobile app users are 60% more likely to have subscribed within two months than even the most loyal desktop or mobile web users.

This doesn’t mean that they can forget about their other channels. However, the NYT has done an incredible job in making this a go-to platform with:

  • An interface that lends itself well to quicker and easier perusing of stories.
  • A seamless transition from print to web to mobile. All channels fit together well.
  • Subscriber personalization which enables the app to serve more relevant news.
  • A refined push notification system that’s based on segmentation for optimal sharing and consumption of news.

2011: Digital Monetization

In 2009, the NYT decided that its digital presence was going to become the core focus going forward.

With print declining more and more each year, this was a smart decision to make. However, it still wasn’t a large enough revenue generator to turn its business around.

To start, the original monetization strategy revolved solely around advertising. It wasn’t until 2011 that the Times implemented its paywall, which exists to this day.

New York Times Mobile App Strategy
Upon opening the app, users are immediately greeted by the subscription paywall

The pay-to-read subscription model (free up to 20 articles) was implemented as a way to combat the decline of print sales and ad revenue. While subscriptions (for desktop, mobile web, and mobile app) generated the company $100 million by March 2012, the NYT has since dropped the number of free articles allotted each month to 10, to encourage people to subscribe.

New York Times Mobile Paywall
Readers are regularly reminded how many free articles they have left to read each month.

Admitting Past Mistakes

The NYT Innovation Report from 2014 sent shockwaves through the community when it was leaked to the web.

NYT Innovation Report

In the Innovation Report, NYT leadership and staff admitted that their publication was falling behind the curve in a number of ways compared to competitors, mostly in their failure to fully adopt a digital strategy that aligned with its readers’ expectations.

As the report summed up:

“Readers are finding and engaging with our journalism in vastly different ways.
More readers expect us to find them on Twitter and Facebook, and through email and phone alerts.
But the newsroom pays less attention to these platforms, even though they offer our main, and sometimes only, channels to tens of millions of readers. Here, too, we are lagging our competitors.”

This was a difficult admission for a news organization of their magnitude to make, but it was one that itself, their audience, and other publishers thinking about entering the space needed to hear.

The NYT acknowledged that it was actively ignoring what it should have been doing to provide news to its audience in the best possible way, and that laid out the steps they intended to take in order to properly tackle their problems.

They needed to become more innovative and fully embrace the digital age. So, how did the NYT transform their digital position?

The New York Times’ Digital Strategy in the Present Day

Since the innovation report, the NYT have pushed forwards with their digital strategy and transformed the way they generate revenue.

Mark Thompson, the CEO of The New York Times recently spoke with CNBC about the state of the newspaper:

“The key thing for us is that we’re pivoting. Our plan is to go on serving our loyal print subscribers as long as we can.
But meanwhile to build up the digital business, so that we have a successful growing company and a successful news operation long after print is gone.”

According to the CNBC report, the NYT is the first news organization worldwide to surpass 1 million digital-only subscribers.

In addition, overall revenue in 2017 was up 10% from the previous year, netting the NYT $484.1 million. That marks a stark change from their prior losses at the end of the print era.

As it moves full-steam ahead with this winning strategy, its goal is to reach $900 million in revenue by 2020.

The latest annual report breaks down where their audience are accessing content with their multi-channel digital strategy:

  • 136 million website visitors (desktop, laptop, and mobile)
  • Nearly 700,000 print newspapers circulated each weekday (paid and non-paid)
  • Over 1 million print newspapers circulated on Sundays (paid and non-paid)

In terms of how the revenue breaks down, there are:

  • 3.8 million print and digital subscribers
  • 2.9 million digital-only subscribers (a 42% increase from 2016)

Which means $320 million in print advertising sales and $238 million in digital advertising sales.

NYT app native advertising
Native ads  within the app are contained to clean sections that still align with the style of the NYT app

And how did The NYT get to numbers this high?

They pivoted from their original strategy in order to provide their audience with the content they already enjoyed, and provided it on the most accessible channels they could.

In the CNBC interview, Thompson explains why this pivot away from print (which he says was more profitable) and the strengthening of its digital presence was a necessary one.

“Without question we make more money on a print subscriber. But the point about digital is that we believe we can grow many, many more of them. We’ve already got more digital than print subscribers. Digital is growing very rapidly. Ultimately, there will be many times the number of digital subscribers compared to print.”

A comScore report shows that in the past 3 years, mobile news audiences have grown by 66%, and total audience is larger than any other news consumption channel!:

comScore Mobile Audience Trend

If you weren’t quite convinced, the same report also highlights that 96% of millennials now get their news from their smartphone or tablet, rather than from print, or TV like previous generations may have.

If you want your content to reach the modern news reader, you can’t afford to ignore mobile.

Key Strengths of The New York Times’ Mobile Strategy

The mobile app is a huge part of The NYT’s news delivery system and overall strategy, and the majority of their audience want to access the content on mobile rather than on desktop or print.

The statistics show that the mobile app is a channel that’s working exceedingly well for the news publisher.

As Bryan Davis, the Senior Manager of Audience Marketing at the NYT, explains:

“It’s [mobile] a slightly easier reading experience, it’s fast, and viewing and listening in the app is more intuitive.
We know that all these moments are closely tied with subscription propensity.”

Now, let’s break down the factors that led to their app becoming a cornerstone of their current news experience for a NYT reader.

1. A Winning User Experience

All the success the NYT has today comes from more than just having the resources to pivot one’s strategy from print to digital mobile news.

The newspaper is successful because of its prioritization on giving it’s audience a great reading experience, for whatever device they are on.

Davis says their app subscribers are in it for the long haul: “The retention rate for annual app subscribers is the highest of any of our subscription offerings.”

You may be surprised by the relative simplicity of their app, considering how much revenue it generates:

This is the homepage of the mobile app:

New York Times App UX
A simple and clear homepage, including a navigation menu accessible from the upper left hand corner

As I’ve elected to see stories related to sports, business, politics, and more, I’m delivered the most relevant results right away.

The NYT makes this incredibly easy to personalize at various points in the mobile app.

The first is in the native navigation menu where users indicate the main categories they want to see even when WiFi is disconnected:

NYT mobile app UX
Native app menu makes for easy navigation

Users can also set their own Push Notification preferences, and have the ability to segment the notifications by topic, in order to make sure that the notifications they receive are always relevant. The app also allows users to save stories for later – useful for people in a hurry, or on a commute:

NYT mobile app strategy
Saving articles for later means you won’t miss stories you want to read at a later date

When users are logged in, this helps the app to determine which kinds of stories would best be served to the user throughout the rest of the experience.

The NYT has also monetized the mobile app experience, in order to gain additional revenue from their digital channels.

Overall, the NYT has developed a beautiful mobile app experience from its WordPress-powered news site. Even with ads present, the native format means they don’t detract from the reading experience.

It also continues to be a major innovator in the app space, proving that they see the value in the mobile market.

In 2016, its virtual reality-based news app–NYT VR–hit 500,000 downloads and 1.5 million views.

2. A Seamless Multi-Channel Experience

The mobile app itself is not a standalone property for many NYT subscribers. As the annual report showed, 3.8 million subscribers subscribe to a combination of print and digital deliveries while 2.9 subscribe to digital-only news.

The NYT creates a seamless connection between all of places that someone can consume their content, rather than ignore the channels that are generating less revenue or receive fewer reads.

For starters, each of the interfaces–print, desktop, mobile web, and mobile app–are reminiscent of one another. The NYT has not lost its brand in the shift from print to digital and mobile.

They also make sure that the option to subscribe is readily available.

You can see here how the mobile website does three things to establish this connection and encourage someone to subscribe:

The first is by displaying a black sticky bar at the bottom of the page that motivates readers to become subscribers.

NYT Mobile App Growth Strategy
A banner on the lower part of the screen constantly urges users to subscribe

The second is a message located in the middle of the page (which also sometimes shows up at the top). It’s a reminder to unsubscribed readers that their free access to articles is about to end; again, pushing them towards the much-loved mobile app experience.

This is also the case on their desktop website, with the subscribe prompt shown at the bottom of the screen:

New York Times Multi-Channel Strategy
These call-to-actions are present on desktop too

Another element used is the “smart app banners” which appear when you first enter the mobile website prompting users to open the app, if they have it downloaded.

For non-app users, this message will recommend they go to their respective app store and download it.

The NYT are focused on getting their mobile audience to the app, as they have created a superior mobile experience there, and mobile app users are more likely to subscribe than mobile web users.

For app users like myself, this message gives me an easy way to switch from the mobile web to the mobile app I already use.

This type of ongoing encouragement throughout the mobile web experience makes sense.
Mobile devices are projected to drive 79% of total global internet usage in 2018, so it’s important that publishers let readers know that their preferred method of consuming news is available.

If you want to include a subscription model for your mobile app, you’re going to have to approach this the same way. Your audience needs to be able to access content on the platforms they want access to, which means creating a true multi-channel news platform.

With a solid news platform and a commitment to great content, you’ll find it’s easier to sell users on a mobile app subscription–especially if it greatly improves the user experience.

This is the case with the NYT’s app so much so that users, on average, spend 14.7 minutes within the app, as opposed to 5 minutes they spend on the mobile website, per visit.

3. Perfectly Customized Push Notification System

Like mobile itself, The NYT has had a tenuous relationship with push notifications in the past.
Around the early ‘10s, the NYT treated push alerts as another “nice to have” feature.

Even as late as 2015, push notifications weren’t given the proper attention or handling they deserved by the company.

In an episode of Recode Media, Clifford Levy, a NYT editor recalled:

“A year or so ago, push notifications from the New York Times were simply headlines. They were written in a particular voice that was almost like the voice of the print front page… [We] said that that’s not how the lock screen in the phone works. The lock screen is where you get texts, the lock screen is where you get very personal communications. We need to evolve a new voice for push notifications.”

It was this realization that led the NYT to adjust its approach to push notifications. Since investing in their Push Notification strategy, they have built a dedicated team of 11 people to manage the process to ensure that every push notification they send is relevant, timely, and engaging for the recipient.

How Does The New York Times Use Push Notifications?

Push notifications are treated as part of the conversation with readers instead of a thoughtless attempt to grab attention from smartphones.

Their push notifications are:

  • Conversational
  • Engaging
  • Custom-written for the smartphone lock/home screen
  • Personalized for their audience
  • Covering a wide range of news, from small to big announcements – whatever is the most relevant for that reader

Push notifications should never be used as a shallow attempt to draw readers back to a news app yet provide no real value. After all, if you’ve come this far to earn the trust of readers enough to where they download your app and remain subscribed to your push notifications, why compromise all that with pointless messages?

Want to recreate how the New York Times uses Push Notifications in their mobile app? Here’s how:

Upon entering the mobile app for the first time, a user on iOS will be asked whether or not they want to receive push notifications (on Android, app users are automatically opted-in to Push Notifications).

Upon accepting the terms and granting the NYT the power to send text messages to their phone, users begin to receive push notifications like these:

New York Times Mobile App Growth Strategy

If, at any time, they’re unhappy with the quality of push notifications or want to customize their settings even further, they can do so from the notification settings:

New York Times Mobile App Strategy

Seems simple enough, right?

But there’s more to it behind the scenes, and you’ll need to put thought into the execution of this if you want to see success like The NYT has with their Push Notification strategy.

What are the NYT Best Practices for Push Notification Segmentation?

Another point we should dig into is how the NYT effectively segments push notifications to ensure that readers receive relevant notifications.

To start, the team at the Times has to determine what the most important notifications are that everyone should receive. They understand that news and alert fatigue is a possible risk if they send too many, which is why they carefully weigh the pros and cons of sending an alert about the latest sports event, political event, business trends, and so on.

Beyond that, they’ve spent a lot of time figuring out how to personalize push notification delivery for each and every reader. While the readers’ selection of push notification topics is helpful to start, there are other factors that come into play:

Time of day: Will a push notification sent in the middle of a Tuesday workday be seen and, further, will readers have the time to read the story? Perhaps not.

Understanding your subscribers reading habits–on the commute to work, on their lunch breaks, at night after the kids have been put to bed–will help you deliver these notices when they’re bound to be seen in real time.

Urgency: Which stories actually need to be delivered in the moment as “breaking news” and which can be held off until later? Timing is a major factor, especially if you’re hoping to beat the competition to the punch when it comes to time-sensitive stories. This isn’t just a matter of urgency, but of relevance. Breaking news might not be as newsworthy the next day.

Frequency: Similar to how email subscribers are often able to adjust frequencies of messages received, mobile app users can dictate the frequency of push notifications. Giving the person receiving the notifications an element of control will likely help you retain them, as they dictate the terms.

This is important as you want to strike a good balance between sharing enough news and sharing too much. But this preference will be different for each user, which is why customization settings are a must.

Language: As users are able to choose their preferred language, this affects which stories and in which languages they receive them.

This also ensures that you only send stories that can be read by users instead of wasting their time with notifications about ones in languages they don’t understand.

Geography: For users interested in staying atop local news, the content of push notifications is more greatly dictated by where they live.

This means you need to use the data given to you in order to deliver locally relevant news stories (like elections) to users that actually care about them.

Obviously, this isn’t all set in stone and may vary for your publication.

The NYT–and everyone else with a mobile app–needs to pay close attention to message open rates and unsubscribe rates, like you already would with email marketing.

One of the Times’ current goals is to develop a means by which it can track readers further into this journey within the app.

In other words, they believes it’s important to understand what readers are doing with the content after the initial click in order to effectively segment the audience and deliver timely, relevant, and useful information.

Why do they see their push notification tracking as such an important task?

The Times news desk editor Michael Owen told Digiday: “We [The NYT] get a bigger traffic spike from push alerts than we get from anything else.

Clearly, when implementation is done right and you’ve been able to hone your push notification strategy (as The Times has done), you can see huge gains from this in terms of audience engagement and traffic, and for a news publisher it could even be your most valuable channel for engaging app users and subscribers.

It’s worth taking the time to develop an effective push notification strategy that your audience will be happy to receive, and engage with!

A Winning Mobile Strategy

While having a strong website and desktop experience to draw from is crucial, the mobile app promises something more appealing to the majority of their audience. For publishers hoping to attract and retain an audience, your mobile app could prove to be the breeding ground for greater, quicker, and longer-retained subscribers.

In sum, the NYT has developed a great reading experience for its mobile app users with a combination of:

  • A WordPress-hosted publication.
  • A highly intuitive app layout.
  • A multi-channel mentality that enables readers to seamless access content across all devices.
  • Encouragement of new users to personalize their mobile app experience by selecting topics that interest them most.
  • Push notifications that deliver timely and highly relevant news that readers have indicated they want to see.

It’s a simple formula, but it works very well for mobile news app audiences. Curious to see how you can adopt a similar strategy for your own mobile app? Keep reading.

What Tools Do I Need To Recreate The New York Times’ Digital Success?

As a smaller publisher you might be worried that, without the resources of a company the size of the NYT, you can’t possibly have success with a news site or mobile app in the way they have. But, you know what?

You can!

Let’s break it down into the tools you need:

A Website

The New York Times has done amazing things with WordPress, which is an incredibly accessible software. By using a Content Management System like WordPress–which is affordable to begin with–you have a powerful base for your news service to run from, and can grow as your audience grows. WordPress also has a vast rage of plugins that you can use to easily add in functionality to your website.

Hosting Platform

As traffic to your site rises, you’ll need a trusty web hosting platform to efficiently handle it while keeping loading speeds fast. Luckily, there are many affordable managed WordPress hosting options, including Kinsta, WPEngine, BlueHost, and many more that can take care of this for you.

Mobile App

As you’re building your news publication, consider the various types of app you might want to make from it. Native, web, and hybrid are some of the choices available. You might also need to think about the decision between a Progressive Web App vs. a native app. There are different advantages to each kind of app, but a native app will provide you with an app store presence as well as powerful push notifications to engage your audience, and a natural native UX. MobiLoud News is the ideal way to have an app built for your website, and maintained by a team of experienced app developers.

Each app type comes with its own strengths and weaknesses, but we’re partial to the native app considering its speed and usability on both iOS and Android, as well as providing access to a whole new user acquisition channel in the form of the iOS and Google Play App Stores, which make native apps ideal for news publishers who want to get in front of a larger audience.

MobiLoud News - Get your own app on the iOS and Google Play App Stores
MobiLoud News – Get your own app on the iOS and Google Play App Stores

Once you’ve decided what kind of app you want, consider the methods for building it, too:

  • Code your own custom app from-scratch… though it will be a lengthy, labor intensive, and expensive process. There will also be ongoing expenses to maintain it, like hiring an iOS developer, an Android developer, and a project manager.
  • You could use a free DIY app builder, but you need to choose carefully as they may not offer all the functionality that your website currently has and you most likely won’t end up with a native app that will work like your website.
  • You can use a service like MobiLoud News that allows you to have a fully native mobile app built for your publication, and quickly published to both the iOS and Google Play app stores. And because MobiLoud News caters specifically to publishers, it prioritizes features that matter (e.g. push notifications, ad revenue, category tabs, etc.) It’s a great way to access a huge mobile news audience with minimal costs.
  • If you’d rather keep your existing website design and forgo some of the native app features that MobiLoud News provides, another option is to use MobiLoud. This service will turn your existing website into a mobile app, whilst maintaining your website’s unique design.
WordPress mobile app
Control every part of your app straight from WordPress

Advertising Network

For some of you, a subscription paywall like The NYT uses might not be the ideal choice.
Regardless of whether you monetize your mobile app right from the get go, there are other ways to make money from it, such as with native advertising (which the NYT also uses!).

What’s great about an app monetization strategy like in-app advertising is that it doesn’t have to intrude on the user experience–especially when you use native ad formats, like we’ve seen on the New York Times app.

Anyone with a mobile app can use ads to increase the ROI from the app.

You simply need to get started with an affordable and easy-to-implement ad platform. MobiLoud News integrates with the leading ad servers and networks to streamline setup:

  • AdMob: banners, full-screen ads, and native ad placements
  • Facebook Audience Network (FAN): banners, full-screen ads, and native ad placements
  • Google Ad Manager: banners, interstitial ads, and native ad placements
  • MoPub: banners, interstitial ads, and native ad placements
  • HTML/Javascript/iframe ad units: these are yours to customize and embed wherever you would like within your content

Push Notifications

As we’ve seen with the NYT’s story, push notifications have become a huge driver of success for its mobile app.

You can integrate your app with services like OneSignal that enable businesses and mobile apps of all sizes to use push notifications on web and mobile apps (for free!). Once that’s configured, you can easily equip your mobile app with push notifications and engage your audience with the best content for them.

It’s also important to note MobiLoud News’ push segmentation features. This allows you to segment notifications by topic and category, just like the Times does. Your editorial team can hand-select which articles to send push notifications for, and scheduling them for whenever you choose.

Needless to say, there are powerful tools available for every who wants to build a news app and be successful with it.

Wrapping Up

The New York Times is a major enterprise and news publisher that’s provided the world with news for almost two centuries.

As we’ve watched them navigate the transition from print to digital news, there are lessons that publishers of all sizes can use to improve or develop their digital presence.

The first major lesson is that The NYT’s growth and boost in subscribers can easily happen for all publishers. You need to have a strategy that meets your audience’s expectations, and execute on it.

The second major lesson is that you need to be everywhere your readers are in today’s world. This means adopting the right kinds of technology in order to effectively reach your audience, whether this is desktop or mobile, and staying aware of current trends.

The third major lesson is that mobile is here to stay.

Despite The NYT dragging its feet on implementing a digital strategy–especially on mobile–it has since learned this is not a platform to be ignored and is embracing it’s mobile app as a core growth driver and revenue generator for the business.

There’s no secret to how the Times has become so successful in this digital age.

It listened closely to its subscribers, and delivered exactly what it was they wanted and needed. This is something that every publisher–big or small–can do, even without the resources of a company as large as the NYT. A WordPress website (which is the NYT’s Content Management System of choice), managed hosting, mobile app technology, and smart push notification systems are all easily attainable and at affordable costs.

You should be doing everything you can to future-proof your news organization, and provide your audience with a reading experience that they want, and expect.

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