The New York Times needs to rethink its strategy — untargeted mini paywalls aren’t the answer

The New York Times announced on Wednesday morning that the paper is cutting 100 newsroom jobs — about 7.5 percent of the current editorial headcount — and is also killing its NYT Opinion app, just six months after it launched. On top of that, the uptake for the paper’s NYT Now app appears to be underwhelming. The two apps were supposed to help fill the gap created by the slowing growth of the paper’s overall paywall, which has started to flatten out.

The fact that NYT Opinion and NYT Now are not setting the world on fire with their rapid growth rates isn’t a big surprise: when the newspaper first announced this strategy, I was skeptical of how well those apps would be received, because they seemed expensive relative to what they were offering — a warmed-over collection of NYT opinions and a round-up of daily headlines.

It’s not so much that this type of content isn’t worth something, it’s the method by which the NYT tried to generate that value, exacerbated by the price points that it chose. Is a collection of Times opinion columns worth $6 a month as a standalone app? Apparently not — or at least, not to enough people.

From my point of view, there are two related problems with the NYT’s strategy: one is that it is trying to slice its existing content into smaller and smaller pieces, and that runs headlong into the law of diminishing returns, since each piece will generate less and less value because it appeals to fewer people. The second is that it is relying on tiny paywalls — and largely untargeted ones at that — to take up the slack created by the slowdown in its big, one-size-fits-all paywall.

Monetize relationships, not content

To me, the metered subscription plan only made sense as a kind of sandbag defense against a vanishing print readership — and even then it was arguably a small part of what should have been a much larger digital strategy. But the NYT doesn’t seem to have much of a broader digital strategy, apart from coming up with tiny app-related paywalls.

If you look at media entities that have successfully made a transition to digital, such as Atlantic Media, what do you see? They have made big bets on events, on native advertising and in some cases on targeted subscription products.

The New York Times has so far poured all of its energies into the last of those three things, and most of it has gone towards a completely un-targeted subscription product: namely, a paywall around everything. NYT Opinion was an attempt to get more targeted, but it appears to have mis-fired — in part because the internet already has an excess of opinion, and the vast majority of it comes free of charge.

According to a recent report, the paper’s native advertising efforts are actually starting to pay off, but they are still small. And while it does do events, it hasn’t really ramped up that part of its business beyond a DealBook-related conference or a one-off marketing event here or there.

As I’ve described before, I think one way the Times could generate some additional income — and social buzz — around its content is to make better use of the individual brands it has, like Nick Kristof or CJ Chivers or everybody’s favorite punching bag, Tom Friedman. Don’t lump them all into one undifferentiated app; find ways to connect them with their community of readers and then monetize that relationship in as many ways as possible — events, apps, native ads or whatever.

And that, in the end, is why I think it’s so important that New York Times writers and editors spend more time on social platforms like Twitter: they need to connect with existing readers and also find new ones.