Almost exactly a year ago, on March 17, about two dozen New York Times employees gathered in a conference room not far from where the paper’s journalists were busy putting the next day’s print edition together.
It was a momentous day at 620 Eighth Avenue, one that had been several years in the making, and one that was arguably a watershed moment in the evolution of the media: After more than 15 years of giving its journalism to readers for free on the web, the world’s most influential newspaper was about to start charging for it.
A number of executives gathered with various web developers around the two long tables where the company’s strategy was about to pivot dramatically. There was Martin Nisenholtz, then the Times Company’s senior vice president of digital operations, who would go on to retire nine months later after steering the paper’s digital strategy for 16 years; Marc Frons, then the company’s chief technology officer, who was recently promoted to chief information officer; Denise Warren, the general manager of nytimes.com; Yasmine Namini, senior vice president of marketing and circulation; Paul Smurl, vice president for paid products; David Perpich, a promising young member of the Ochs-Sulzberger clan, which controls the publicly-owned company through a tiered stock ownership structure, who’d been recruited by the paper’s ruling family the previous year after resisting earlier offers to enter the company fold; and others who’d had a hand in the marathon effort to get the paid model off the ground. Times Company chairman Arthur Sulzberger stopped by for awhile to see how things were going.
The mood was anxious at first, and the work mundane, according to people who were in the room. Mostly, it was a bunch of people with their heads buried in their laptops monitoring the launch and making sure everything was running smoothly.
But the operation was fraught with larger questions. Newspapers were going down the tubes. Very few papers had managed to charge readers for content and still keep them coming. And revenue growth in digital advertising was growing at a snail’s pace while print advertising revenue was hemorrhaging. It’s hard to remember that, as little as a year before this day, there was talk in intelligent circles of a future without The New York Times. And that prospect, it was widely held, would mean a future without the kind of journalism the Times represents.
So the paid digital strategy was about survival, really.