'Openness actually draws people into the story': Why The New York Times is now putting its journalists front and center

  • People are showing a willingness to pay for quality journalism, says The New York Times’ head of brand David Rubin, with the paper’s revenue surpassing $US1 billion last year.
  • In an interview with Business Insider’s Tanya Dua, Rubin explained how The Times started to think of itself as a consumer brand.
  • In a break from tradition, The Times’ marketing is no longer just about the news, Rubin said, but also about the people covering it. Those two things are no longer separable, he said.
  • He also credited The Times’ recent marketing successes to the tension and healthy collaboration between its internal team and its agency, and said that it would have no trouble walking away from partners that don’t help drive its business.
  • Check out Business Insider’s full list of the the 25 most innovative CMOs in the world in 2018.

Following is a transcript of the video, which has been edited for clarity.

Tanya Dua:So at a time when the future of publishing and marketing is quite uncertain, you guys seem to be killing it. Your revenue last year from subscriptions was over a billion dollars, and 51% or more of that came from digital subscriptions. How are you doing this?

David Rubin:I mean, fundamentally, we think it’s about having quality journalism you can’t get anywhere else. The New York Times, at our basics, what we’ve tried to do is really think about what is our brand about. What do we stand for? And we think that’s about helping people understand the world, that it’s about not just giving information, but helping people connect the dots and really understand what those things mean, and covering the expanse of their lives and of the world in its entirety. And so we think because we’re doing that really well, people are starting to figure out that they need to pay for quality journalism. It’s a long slog, but we think we’re making good progress, and that’s why we have the largest pay model for journalism, on the planet.

Dua:How much of it is about changing perceptions? You’ve been known as “The Grey Lady” and “The Paper of Record.” But for a lot of younger audiences, those things don’t really mean anything. How much of your job has been to change those perceptions?

Rubin:Absolutely. There’s two main things we need to do in our marketing. One is to help people see that our journalism is not only really good, but much better than anything else you can get, because much of journalism that’s available is free. So we’re not just competing like in most industries, with something that’s a little cheaper, we’re competing with something that doesn’t charge at all. And we have to help people see that difference.

And the second thing we have to do is we’ve gotta make people see us as relevant to them, today. And fortunately, there’s a lot going on at the Times that makes that possible, but it’s not always our public persona, given that we’ve got 160-plus years of imagery, a lot of it from a print-only era. And so we have to sort of figure out how to modernise that, and make people realise that the Times isn’t only a valuable, beloved institution of the past, but really vital to today. And fortunately, people seem to be responding to that. A lot of the audiences that have come to the Times in the last year, year and a half, are young, they’re diverse, they’re all over the planet. A real change from what might be people’s historical perceptions.

Dua:So a lot of that is obviously stellar reporting, exposés on Harvey Weinstein, just to name one of several. But a lot of that has to do with marketing as well, right? What does your day-to-day job look like? And I would think that, for the longest time, there was kind of a church-and-state separation between the newsroom and with what you were supposed to probably be doing with corporate marketing.

With the campaigns that you guys have come up with recently, that seems to be blurring a little bit. You are actually highlighting your reporting, from the “Truth Is Hard” campaign, which had the “He Said, She Said” ad I remember particularly. So tell me more about that. Tell me about that shift in strategy.

Rubin:Well I think historically, we believed that people would read some New York Times journalism, and then our job was to just give them an offer that made them subscribe. And while both of those pieces are important, what we’ve realised is that in a world where there’s lots of options for people, we have to help them understand and connect the dots of the journalism they’re reading, for why this is something that they should pay for on a regular basis.And so the marketing has moved to being, well the only thing we have to market is our journalism. And so that’s what we’re doing, both the journalism and the journalists, and telling why we think what we have is special, and therefore, worth paying for. And it’s not really much more complicated than that.

Fortunately, having been a marketer in a lot of industries and categories, it’s always nice when you have something to market where the point of difference is really clear. And so in this case, it’s really easy to do. We just have to help people see what already exists, but maybe they didn’t care enough to pay attention to. Historically, journalism has always kept the journalist out of the story. You’re taught that the day you go to journalism school. And I think where we’re getting to now, is that it’s ok to tell people about how you got to that conclusion, how you wrote that story, because it’s where people get trust from. Giving that transparency and that clarity is actually, that openness actually draws people into the story, which makes it ok to tell. And so if you look at things like the Daily, which is our podcast, which has been a runaway success, it is about the news but it’s also about the people covering the news. And those two things together are no longer separable.

Dua:There are a couple more examples of that, right? Could you talk a little bit more about that? I think I read somewhere, there was a documentary featuring some of your most prominent journalists, tracking how they actually report their stories and write their stories. Can you give me a few more examples?

Rubin:Yeah, I mean, that one’s actually just a traditional documentary, in the sense that it’s not Times-driven. Showtime is doing a documentary, it’s in the middle of its airings now, it’s on Sundays on Showtime. It’s called “The Fourth Estate.” The decision we made was to allow them access to the New York Times, and to our journalists, particularly our D.C. Bureau, to see how we’re doing our political and our White House coverage.

And our executive editor Dean Baquet talks about how it was a relatively easy decision, because the thinking was if we could show the work that we’re doing, it would make that work more compelling to people. And I think, you can decide when you watch it, but I think it really does highlight that when they make mistakes, whether they’re ever always getting it right or not, these people are earnestly trying to figure out what is the truth and what is really going on, to help our readers understand better what’s going on in the world, and that their motives are the right ones.

Dua:You mentioned being at a number of brands before the New York Times. You were at Pinterest, you were at Unilever. How hard is it to build a brand today?

Rubin:I think it’s really hard, but I’m not sure it’s any harder than it ever was. Ultimately, you’ve got to have a product, you’ve got to have substance. You’ve got a product that really speaks to people, that meets a market need, and then you’ve got to be able to communicate it in a way that that market need is really clear. I think it’s definitely more complicated than it used to be.

It’s an unlimited amount of channels, lots and lots of competition. I mean, look at us, we’re competing with free. Imagine back in my consumer products days, if we gave away the first six deodorant cans, and only charged for the seventh, and all of our competitors never charged. That would just never happen. Imagine if a burger restaurant gave away 20 hamburgers and then said it’s time to pay for it. That’s the business that my industry is in, and it’s obviously quite challenging. However, we seem to be making progress.

Dua:Is it helping that everyone else seems to be also considering getting on board? A lot of other publishers are trying to come up with their own pay walls, including us. Do you think that is indicative of a broader shift, towards which the industry is heading?

Rubin:Yeah, fundamentally it’s about the fact that journalism – quality, really good independent journalism – is expensive. A traditional ad model does not seem to be supporting it for anyone today, so people have to find another place to do it. Fortunately, there’s a user need, a reader need, and a world need, and so I don’t think the industry will go away, but people have to figure out a way to pay for it. And for some publishers, ourselves being at the top of that list, the subscriber-first model seems to be working.

Dua:That’s a good segue into my next question, which is: tell me a little bit more about your New Products and Ventures team. How do you figure out where you should be putting your resources? What’s going to work? Is it depending on what’s worked traditionally, or new areas that you think The New York Times can own?

Rubin:You know, first and foremost, I think, as I said before, the Times is about helping people understand the world, and when we think about the world, we think about geography but we also think about your world. We think about all the things you might care about. So while we’re certainly known for, and very proud of our journalism in what we would call core news – politics but also issues and breaking news – we think we’re unparalleled in that space, we don’t think it’s sufficient for people. Particularly if we want you to pay for a subscription.And so we think it’s important that we cover tips and reviews, and things in culture, and cooking, and games and puzzles. So our New Products and Ventures group is really just a way to sort of take that, that we’ve historically always done, called the features section when we were a print section, and take those kinds of things and provide them in formats where people might be willing to pay for them.

So our cooking app has been a real success, a standout success for us. But what’s interesting is, it’s still about good journalistic process. So unlike other cooking sources where you can get, it’s journalists that do the work, and they take a journalistic look, and a really deep dive, hard look into things, and then provide that back to people in the form of recipes and cooking tips. So we think you get a real difference there than you can get somewhere else. Our crosswords was our first venture in New Products and Ventures, which is now morphing into games at large. Again, it’s about meeting the needs of our readers but in a way that other people don’t offer. We’ve announced that we’re going to have a parenting product, we haven’t said what that looks like yet. But again, you can see where The Times will provide a journalistic mindset and approach to parenting advice and context, which we think will give you something you can’t get somewhere else.

Dua:Tell me a little bit more about your team, and how much of marketing you do in house versus externally. I know Droga5 worked on the campaign with you. What are some aspects that you do internally, and how important do you think it is as a marketer today, to have that balance between internal and external marketing?

Rubin:Yeah, I think, first of all, our marketing in total, at the Times, is kind of split into a group that’s really about revenue generation and about performance marketing, and another group that’s really about the messages that we put out. And those two groups have to work completely in tandem. I think a lot of marketers struggle with that sort of short-term, long-term, and emotional connection, functional connection. So we break them apart but then make them really synergistic together. Within that is an in-house creative shop, and we work with them. They do the bulk of our work. It’s really important because nobody can understand our brand as well as we can, and nobody can move at the speed that the internal shop can, which is particularly important given that we’re making over a thousand pieces of creative a quarter, lots of digital assets, and trying to really help you see, as an individual, why you should subscribe to the Times.

But then for our larger, more thematic work, we tend to work with outside agencies, particularly Droga5, like you mentioned. And we think there’s a couple advantages with that. One is the expertise in platforms like television, which we don’t have a lot of experience with making television advertising, at the Times. But also, more importantly I think, even if we did, it’s the independence. It’s the ability to sort of look at us and help us see ourselves in the way that a reader can, that sometimes it’s hard to do if you’re working inside and you’re thinking about it day to day.

So I think that tension between, and healthy collaboration, between our internal team and our agency, is really the secret sauce. One of the things I’ve seen, and we’ve really stressed at the Times, which I didn’t always have in my other jobs, is also, it’s not so much a “Hey, external agency, here’s a brief. Call me when you’re ready.” But really trying to collaborate together, and push back and forth on each other, which I think makes the work better. And that sort of relationship didn’t really exist before.

Dua:More broadly, I’m speaking in marketing terms, what are some of the biggest issues that concern you today?

Rubin:You mean like in the industry?

Dua:In the industry sense.


Dua:You spoke about transparency before. In a different connotation, that’s a huge concern for marketers.

Rubin:Yeah, absolutely. Look, I think transparency is really important. Obviously the thing that we wrestle a lot with is the push and pull between data and creativity. Ultimately, building brands is about emotional connections. People come to things because they feel they’re relevant to them, and feel they’re speaking to them. But they also make everyday and every-minute assessments of the value. So how do you do both? And how do you get that data, but not be beholden to it?

Obviously privacy is really important, something we’re really attentive to, at the Times. And as a subscription business, meaning that ultimately we’re about long-term relationships, that’s really important to us. How are we building a deep trust-based relationship with our user, but also providing them with what they might be interested in? And so where’s the balance between those things. I think the answer always lies in transparency, and in control for the reader.

Dua:What does your relationship with the duopoly look like, in light of all these things that you just mentioned? You just had a report come out about Facebook sharing user data with 60 companies. And yet, these are, Facebook and Google are companies you work very closely with together, as a partner, as well. How do you balance that relationship, as partners and as companies you’re reporting on?

Rubin:Well the journalistic side is really easy to describe. There’s a place where the traditional wall, as you talked about, continues to exist. We will write a story when there is a story, no matter what our business interests are, no matter who’s asking, it doesn’t matter. When there’s a story, we’re gonna cover it, and we’re gonna cover it fairly, we’re gonna cover it independently. And so that’s kind of easy to talk about.

I think on the broader sort of business relationships, we’re a subscriber-first business. We’ve committed to being that in 2013, and our success has been because of that decision. So what it takes to be a subscriber of a news product, is it needs to be something you’re using regularly, and you need to know you’re using it, and you need to see, it’s not about any one story, it’s about the collection of those stories, right? And we think that we will work with any partner who helps us build that relationship deeply.

It helps us expose the journalism, and the difference of our journalism, to more people, so that they will come back, experience it in its collective form, and want to pay for it. When other platforms have been able to help us do that, we work with them. And when they’re doing things that are not in those interests, we have no trouble walking away, because we’ve got a much clearer sense of what drives our business. And it lets us make really easy decisions.

Dua:So since this is about chief marketing officers, and the like, which matches with your title, my last question to you is: What do you think is the most powerful tool in a marketer’s arsenal today?

Rubin: It’s all about creating an emotional connection, giving people a reason to want to love you. And I think that it’s funny that as our digital tools and our modern marketing tools have really expanded and gotten so much more powerful, it’s still about the fundamental basics of understanding what your brand’s about, knowing your values, and conveying that to people.

Dua:So for you, has that been truth, and versions of it?

Rubin:Yes, although I think it’s important to point out that what we think is the magic of that campaign is, we’re talking about the reader’s journey for the truth. We’re not trying to say, and we don’t think we are saying, that The New York Times thinks it’s the truth or that we’re the only truth, or even that we always get it right. What we do think we’re saying is the truth matters in the world, which we think our readers agree with, and that they are on the journey to find it, and the journalism and the journalistic process are important inputs to that journey. And we think that the fact that we’ve been able to do that, and we’ve got unparalleled journalism that we can talk about, is what’s been our special sauce to drive growth.

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