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The New York Times: Making the Case for Journalism Worth Paying For



Chief marketing officer David Rubin on the challenge of persuading voracious readers to pay for news, why getting journalists to buy into the marketing was so important and becoming the Netflix of news

The New York Times: Making the Case for Journalism Worth Paying For

Edisen is a proud supporter of LBB. Over the next few months, as part of the brand insight channel, we’ll be spending time with leading marketers who have successfully transformed their brands.

David Rubin talks to LBB’s Laura Swinton about The New York Times’ marketing battle to prove the value of independent, multi-faceted journalism and its quest to build deep relationships with readers.

LBB> What drew you to the challenge of New York Times in the first place?

David> Back in April 2016, I was leaving Pinterest and deciding what to do next. I was looking at digital startups because I had done that before and I like doing it. Meredith Levien [now CEO] likes to talk about how much convincing it took to get me to come. I think of myself as a mass consumer marketer and I thought that most media roles were more on the advertising side. What I learned at Pinterest was that it’s just hard to justify marketing expense in an ad-driven model. 

Meredith ended up talking about where the Times was in its journey and really convinced me - and I’m trying to decide if I want you to use this language! - that it would be a ‘nonfiction Netflix’, as a business. Maybe it would be as if Netflix, HBO and Spotify had a baby. 

To unpack that a bit: we’re about building digital relationships. We think we help people understand the world, and we do that best. When people seek out our content and look at it on a regular basis and look at multiple pieces at a time, that editorial judgement and the process that our journalists have been through can come through to the reader. When you are using a modern platform feed that’s driven by an AI algorithm, you end up not getting that same level of understanding. The pieces are picked because of what other people chose to look at, not because it’s helping give you a picture of something. Add to that how the Times has started to provide that information in multiple formats: it can be an article, plus audio, plus a data visualisation. All those things help contextualise and round out your understanding of something that can be really hard to understand - whether that’s political machinations or the pandemic or race relations. 

The answer to what drew me here was the underlying challenge of The Times and of journalism like ours. Over 150m people interact with The Times’ journalism every month and, depending on what metric you use, six-to-eight million people pay for it. What other business on earth could survive with those dynamics? 

What drew me here was the idea that we could show people a category that doesn’t exist today: journalism worth paying for. It does exist, but it’s small and that category could be much bigger. 

LBB> It looks like you were fighting a war on two fronts then: there’s the brand challenge, for The New York Times, but you’re also fighting to prove the value in journalism generally.

David> That’s been a big part of my push. Yes, I do think The Times needs to stand out. But in the end, if there are others doing a similar thing to us, investing in first party journalism and building their own platform, I see us much less in competition with them. It’s in the same way that people can get multiple streaming services. The thing we’re trying to help you understand is that you get the quality of journalism you pay for. If you’re not paying for journalism, and you’re not sure you understand what’s going on in the world, you should ask yourself some questions.

LBB> That idea of curation and having a rounded idea of the truth is central to a lot of The New York Times’ campaigns. At the same time, between the pandemic and the US elections, we’ve seen the consequences of algorithms on platforms pushing people apart to very different versions of ‘the truth’. Does it feel like that challenge is growing every year or do you feel like you’re helping people to ‘break free’?

David> Weirdly I think the answer to your ‘either-or’ question might be ‘yes’. I think there are two things happening. It is a daunting challenge, fundamentally. More people should be paying for a quality news subscription than are, certainly as a percentage of people who seek it out and use it. But secondly, we do see that the number of people who say quality news is worth paying for goes up every year, whether they do it or don’t.

Interestingly, younger people are even more likely to say it. I think they’ve gotten used to the idea that the early internet concept that ‘information wants to be free’ is a bit of a fallacy. It leads to a race to the bottom. The number of people in total subscribing to us, and other leading services, continues to go up. Whether it’s fast enough or it isn’t, in the big picture, we’re on the right trajectory. I think that there are lots of encouraging signs that people are beginning to process that you get the quality of anything that you pay for and that applies to news. On the other hand, I think you can also look at it and see it is a daunting challenge. The news category, from that perspective, still looks a lot different to entertainment or music.

LBB> Going back a bit, how did you find the switch going from a platform like Pinterest, which was very open and about user generated content, to something that is curated and works differently? 

David> Before I went to Pinterest, I was at Unilever for 12 and a half years. Imagine a deodorant brand or category where most of the products are free. Imagine if you use 10 deodorants a year and the first six were free and you only got charged for the last four. And imagine if the deodorants charged and others had a logo on their bottle that’s how they made money. Nobody would buy the ones that were charging and everyone would take the free ones, right? 

That is literally our business. 

I think there’s a combination of the two experiences. The thing that I learned at Pinterest is the need to build this deep customer relationship. And in a subscription business that’s critical. With a traditional media advertising business model, total audience is what matters. The individual repeat rate and usage rate and what percentage of person’s life you play a role in is less important. Whereas for The Times today, that’s super important. 

In order for you to get a subscription, you need to feel like you’re using a lot of [the product]. It needs to feel like it’s a big part of your life if you’re going to pay for it every month. Even though you don’t pay for a lot of platforms, they do want you to open their app multiple times a day. The Times ends up being very similar in that way. The difference for us is that the reason that is important is that in order for you to get the level of understanding that you believe is worth paying for, you need to use it a fair amount.

LBB> In terms of that narrative, I’ve watched it unfold in your marketing over five years. I’m really curious about where that narrative started - and back then did you have an idea how it would unfold?

David> We first had the Truth is Hard, which came out in March 2017. Then we had the She Said ad in February 2018, which was about the Harvey Weinstein coverage. The first ad was really about our role, our values, our role in a user’s journey to find the truth and get understanding. 

The second ad was very much about the story of a high level look at the potential impact quality journalism can have. Our journalists are independent journalists, they want to cover the facts as they look. The #MeToo movement happened because of the journalism… not because the journalism intended to make that happen. Those two were very much about our values and what journalism does in the world.

The next campaign, which was at the end of 2018, was The Truth is Worth It. That was much more getting into why you should pay for it, the business relationship. ‘Worth it’ works in two ways.

Life Needs Truth or the Truth is Essential is our most recent campaign. That was very much meant to look at the breadth of The Times. 

LBB> In a previous interview, you spoke about getting the newsroom on board with the marketing campaign. Is that something particular to the news category - journalists being journalists?

David> I don’t think so. I’m a believer in the concept that internal is the new external. I think that, ultimately, how your own employees think about what they’re doing and eventually comes through. That’s basically a version of that word ‘authenticity’. Sure, on a short term basis you can dress things up and change them around, but over a period of time, particularly in the modern world, consumers see through it. They eventually get back to ‘what’s the real truth here’. 

Ultimately, the people who make our products are journalists. I think the thing that’s made our campaign successful internally - and a journalist said this to me - is that we’ve helped our company talk about the journalism. Talking about what we do but struggle to communicate is what good advertising does. We put a language on that. That’s what Droga has helped us with.

I think I may have been referencing the time that Jody Kantor and Megan Twohey were doing their Harvey Weinstein coverage. There’s a photo that they used initially, right as they published the work but they’ve also resurfaced on the anniversary of the work. It’s the two journalists and their editors and they’re all huddled over a computer. They’re about to hit send and they’re checking that everything is where it needs to be. And in the foreground there’s a bunch of their personal effects, and on one of the bags is one of the pins that says ‘The Truth is Hard’. And whoever owned it had added ‘really’ in a sharpie. That’s what I meant - the idea that these Pulitzer Prize winning journalists are using what is effectively an ad slogan to represent how they feel about what they do, that is very mission driven, because it’s a language they appreciate and it resonates. And then they’ve gone even further and amended that where they think it’s insufficient by adding the word ‘really’ in there. As somebody who used to be a deodorant marketer, it’s what we come here for in marketing. In the ad, we’re not shaping journalism - that’s their job, that’s what independent journalism is. Our job is to help create a language for how we talk about it in a marketing context.

LBB> Obviously there’s a literal language put around it - the words - but you’ve also built a visual language around it, that’s quite gritty but also playful in places too.

David> I think it also emanates from journalism. It’s really serious and it often involves things that can be scary and not very hopeful, but anyone who’s read the Times’ Sunday edition for years will tell you that it’s both. There’s a lot of things in the news that are very hopeful, very optimistic and are about an underlying shared belief that in a shared back base we can get to a better place. Again all we’re doing in the campaign is reflecting the promise of journalism and doing that through advertising.

LBB> Looking at where the brand has got to, what do you see as the next steps in that journey? After a year and a half of Covid, we’re in a whole new situation and context, so I’m wondering how that affects things too…

David> What’s interesting is that the context does change but the underlying promise does not, the underlying reason you need the news does not and that’s what we’re trying to bring to life. We’ve had a lot of success, we’re very proud of what we’ve done in marketing and the larger business and the journalism, but big picture, the underlying problem that I described to you at the beginning (that there’s still a lot of people seeking out and reading the news but who don’t believe that they need to pay for it directly) still exists.

LBB> Do you think that problem is going to require collaboration, even with the competition, in order to make that mass shift?

David> I don’t have a super direct answer to that question. What I will say is that there are certain values of independent quality journalism that are shared. Certainly, when we talk about press freedom in terms of the ability to voice something but also on the safety side of that, I think there’s a lot of opportunity to work together and we do. There are journalists that are arrested and deported and silenced, and sometimes physically attacked or even killed. Those things are super important and are places where we can work together. Concerningly it’s getting worse, not better in a lot of parts of the world.

A couple of years ago, on World Press Freedom Day, dozens of publications came together and it was: don’t just read the New York Times, don’t just read the Wall Street Journal, don’t just watch whatever TV news you watch. “Read, Watch and Listen’ was the end tagline. So we’ll look to continue to do those opportunities where they make sense. 

LBB> From a personal perspective, what have been the insights that you’ve gained over this six year period that you’ll take with you into the future?

David> One nice thing about competing in a category where lots of choices are free is the importance of being very sharp in your storytelling and differentiating the value of communicating to our internal team as much as the external team. It starts at home. You have to tell your story in a way that is relevant to them, not just telling your story because you want to. The importance of having your brand, your product and your mission be one authentic thing - this is where the employee fits in. They’re not separate things that you layer on top of each other.

The other thing I’ve seen is that we talk a lot in marketing these days about short terms and long term; direct response and brand; left brain, right brain. I think I’ve seen that these distinctions are often made harder than they are, more definitive than they are. Good brand work can drive short term good, good short term can drive long term. We’ve changed our acquisition work, such that it still performs very, very well but it also creates a brand impression. And our brand impression, we don’t give a hall pass for needing to also help drive business today. This is a very fragile category and we’re a public company and we need to reach our goals, so the ability to do both things together and to have different parts of the marketing toolkit work together is another thing I’ve seen here. It’s a time when so many companies are doing one or the other but not both - or they’re doing both but separating them.

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Edisen Stockholm, Fri, 05 Nov 2021 13:16:29 GMT