Taking advantage of the print format with attractive supplements
Although the sharp increase in subscribers is mainly due to the online edition, the print version of "The New York Times", at nearly 900,000 copies, is still immensely important. The "NYT" continues to surprise its readers with exciting sections, such as the monthly "The New York Times for Kids".
To learn more about the combined print and online model used by the New York Times, "Panorama" spoke with Todd Socia. He is the Senior Vice President – Print Products & Services and has more than 25 years' experience in the newspaper industry.
The printed edition of “The New York Times” has 5 million readers daily.
"Panorama": Tell us a bit about yourself and what led you to your current position.
Todd Socia: My father, grandfather, and uncles all worked in the newspaper industry, so I grew up listening to their stories and challenges of the day at every family and holiday dinner. As a teenager, my earliest jobs were working for my father at the "Flint Journal" doing everything from sweeping floors, cleaning printing presses, hand inserting fsi’s (freestanding inserts) in the packaging department, to loading and unloading newsprint. With my familial connection and fascination with the production process, I knew I wanted to pursue a career in the newspaper industry.
Upon completing high school, I studied at the Rochester Institute of Technology (RIT) and pursued a degree in Newspaper Operations Management, one of the only newspaper centric operations degrees in the world at the time. While at RIT, I was fortunate to serve two summer internships with Advance Publications at the "Staten Island Advance" (New York), where over the course of the two summers I was exposed to every business department of the paper.
After graduation, I accepted a position with Advance Publications as Assistant Production Director at the "Times Picayune" in New Orleans, LA. I spent 4 ½ years there, then accepted a position on the supply/sales side of the business with Western Lithotech, a company that manufactured printing plates, chemicals, and automated plate processing equipment for the newspaper industry.
During my time there, I held several sales-related positions, with my last leading the Newspaper Division as Vice President of Sales. In 2005, after approximately 16 years at Western Lithotech, I accepted a position at "The New York Times" as Managing Director of National Production. Over the past 15 years, I’ve held several positions of increasing responsibility, leading to my current position as Senior Vice President – Print Products & Services.
Going back to when you started your career in the newspaper industry – what were the big industry topics of the day in 1985?
On the operations side of the industry in the mid 1980’s, one of the bigger topics was the competitive need to print more in color and improve the overall print quality of the product. In the late 1970’s and early 80’s, most US newspapers were still printing mostly black and white pages, had limited color capacity on their printing presses, and if they ran color it was mostly spot color with marginal quality. When "USA Today" launched in 1982, they showed the industry that a newspaper could produce high quality four-color process photos and advertisements on printing presses. Over the course of the mid 1980’s to the 1990’s, most major US newspapers invested in new offset printing presses, often in new mailrooms, to be able to offer their advertisers and subscribers a more colorful and higher quality printed product.
Fast forward to 2020, what are the hottest topics affecting the newspaper industry today?
Speaking from the print side of the business, the hot topic right now is the massive industry consolidation that’s occurring, with GateHouse’s purchase of Gannett being the biggest example recently.
Two of the largest American newspaper companies have merged in a deal due to the industry's decline in printed editions. GateHouse Media purchased "USA Today" publisher Gannett. The newly formed company now has more than 260 daily papers along with over 300 weeklies. What do you have to say about this concentration?
Seeking to gain scale efficiencies and cut costs, the large chains are buying up smaller publishers and folding them into their operations. We expect to see fewer and fewer, but larger and larger print publishers in the future. And many of them will be controlled by hedge funds – a major change from prior decades. Another related print topic is the financial hardship that many of the smaller print publishers are experiencing. Print publishing is a scale business and as print advertising drops dramatically and subscribers shift to digital platforms, the economics of the business become more and more difficult for smaller publishers. Nearly one in four U.S. newspapers have closed since 2004 and many others have been forced to drastically cut staff, cut content, and reduce how often they appear in order to survive. This is obviously of great concern to everyone since the decline of these local papers robs many communities of their only source of trusted, quality, local news.
How do things stand with the number of your subscribers? Between print and digital have you seen a rise in overall subscriptions during the past five years?
We’ve seen tremendous growth in overall subscriptions during the last five years. Though our print subscriptions have slowly been declining, our digital growth has more than made up the difference. We have added more than 1 million net digital subscriptions in 2019 – that is the highest number since we launched our pay model in 2011. We now have more than 5 million total subscriptions. This includes 3.4 million subscriptions on news, over 300,000 on recipes ("NYT Cooking") and 600,000 on crossword puzzles ("NYT Crossword"), as well as almost 900,000 print subscriptions – a figure that remains very robust. Our goal is to reach 10 million total subscribers by 2025.
What’s the ratio of print and digital and how is the "NYT" ranked in relation to other large newspaper titles in the U.S.?
Our print subscriptions are now around 20% of our total subscriptions. We are currently the third largest U.S. daily newspaper and the largest printed Sunday newspaper. In digital, we’re the largest news provider in the world, with 3.4 million subscriptions.
What can you tell me about the demographics of your print readers?
We currently have over 5 million print readers – this number has actually grown over the past year. Our readers are younger than you would think. Though they span the ages, more than one-third are below the age of 35. They’re affluent and highly educated – they have an average annual income of $90,000 and over a quarter have a degree, which is more than double the national average.
What do you think of the following claim that appears to be unchanged despite the shift to digital distribution: For the serious consumer of news, in print, the "NYT" has few competitors; online, they have an infinite number of competitors.
Online we definitely face more competitors than we do in print given the nature of the format. In print, we compete most heavily with other national papers and to some degree, the local/regional papers. In either format, however, we see many publishers out there doing great work – such as "The Washington Post" for politics, the "Wall Street Journal" for business, the BBC for international affairs, or the "New Yorker" for culture. We view this competition as good – more quality news organizations are better for everyone. But we are also very proud of our news organization and the important and impactful work that they do. For example, it was our original reporting that helped spark the #MeToo movement, prompted reform at the technology platforms, was used in the Senate vote to end atrocities in Yemen, and even helped to free an eleven-year-old Thai girl from a child marriage.
By shifting focus online, do you see an increased international reach? What’s the status of the printed newspaper in the markets you serve abroad?
Given the size and complexity of the news cycle, we expect the demand for quality journalism to continue to grow around the world. We view our role as complementing the local media by covering major global news topics – such as the environment – but also offering readers a deeper look at the U.S. news – something many international readers come to us for. As a result, we see international markets as a significant growth opportunity. We don’t publicly share our international print numbers, but I can say that we see the growth opportunity as coming from digital. We had 51,000 digital subscribers outside the U.S. at the end of 2012. This number had grown to 525,000 by the third quarter of 2019 – a ten-fold increase. We’ve now set ourselves the ambitious goal of at least quadrupling this number to 2 million or more by 2025.
Is there anything you'd like to add as we conclude our interview?
There is no doubt that print as an industry is in decline. Like many other businesses, we are transforming to compete in the age of digital and mass broadband availability. With this shift, one point continues to define "The New York Times" and encompass the value of its mission. The following can be found on www.NYTCo.com:
"All of us at the company – whether we gather news, explain why our journalism is worth paying for, defend our First Amendment rights or participate in the ballet of printing and delivering the newspaper to a million doorsteps – know that the integrity of our journalism comes first."
The ongoing redefinition of media communication will continue to evolve. Will printed newspapers ever go away? Tough to say what will be the norm in 25 years. We do know the newspapers that prosper will generate revenue as electronic conduits and portals for information and entertainment in various forms. But for the foreseeable future, many people will continue to welcome the print edition of "The New York Times" on their doorsteps.