Commentary

Digital Growth of 'New York Times' Will Stand as Sulzberger's Lasting Legacy

The retirementof Arthur O. Sulzberger Jr. at The New York Times Co. is an occasion to evaluate his tenure as head of the world's most influential news publisher. Its transformation into a digital platform with growing reading revenue will stand as his most important legacy, one that every newspaper seeks to emulate.

The company this week announced that Sulzberger will leave the company at the end of year, passing the managerial torch to his son, A.G. Sulzerger, who has been publisher since 2018.

When the elder Sulzberger was publisher, he launched the NYTimes.com in 1996 and introduced the digital pay model in 2011.

The newspaper wasn't the first to introduce digital pay, but that step has proven to be the most consequential in the past 10 years. During that period, digital advertising platforms like Google, Facebook and more recently, Amazon, steadily increased their share of the digital ad market with a combination of technical savvy and unrivaled consumer data.

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That digital dominance has become a contentious political issue as news publishers worldwide fret that a centuries-old, ad-supported business model faces extinction. Bailouts, subsidies and other measures to keep publishers afloat have been proposed, but ultimately, publishers need to be self-sustaining.

Increasingly, that means creating incentives for readers to pay for a digital subscription. In that respect, the NYT has shown impressive growth from about 324,000 digital-only subscribers in 2011 to about 5.7 million at the end of the second quarter, making reader revenue a key source of growth.

With ad sales plunging 29% to $67.8 million during the worst days of the pandemic, subscription revenue growth of 8.4% to $293 million was a major bright spot. The company's goal is to reach 10 million total subscribers by 2025 from about 6.5 million currently.

That development is important in making the news publisher less dependent on advertisers, diversifying its revenue among a broader group of customers. Aligning its business to serve individual consumers is an important development in making the newspaper more editorially independent, too. In that respect, Sulzberger's leadership of The New York Times will have a long-lasting effect on the company and its global influence.

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