Jerry Rawlings as military leader.

Why people pay to read The New York Times

This is an edited version of a keynote address delivered at the Digital Next conference in Bogota, Colombia on May 4.

When I was in high school in the early 1990s, my family lived in Ghana. At that time, there were only a few hundred thousand telephone lines in the entire country. The waiting list to get a landline was years or even decades long. We happened to live in a house that did not have a telephone, and we had no hope of ever getting one. My most tech-savvy friends back in the United States were getting their first email addresses and chatting over the early internet messaging boards. But I lived in a profound state of disconnection. I wrote airmail letters to my closest friends back home but they took weeks to arrive. Once a year, at Christmas, my family would go to the post office to place a short, expensive call to my grandparents in the United States.

All around me, big news was unfolding. Ghana’s military dictator, a man named Jerry Rawlings, had decided to shuck off his uniform and become a democrat, running for office in a genuinely free and fair election. West African economies were grappling with the miserable rigors of structural adjustment. Post-colonial rulers were losing their authoritarian grip, and a period of brutal, interlocking civil wars in the region was beginning. Seeing these events happening right before my eyes sparked my passion for the news and for journalism. But there was no chance that I would read a piece of New York Times journalism about West Africa during that period, certainly not in real time. Other than the local press, which was hampered by decades of censorship, all we had was the scratchy shortwave of the BBC.

Rawlings as a civilian leader.

I share these memories because I think it is easy for all of us in the news business, in this age of never ending disruption, shrinking news budgets and ever-lower CPM rates, to forget how high the price of a disconnected world was. We tend to focus on what we, as publishers and gatekeepers, have lost. But we forget to celebrate what our customer, the news consumer, has gained. When I returned to Ghana as a correspondent for The New York Times twenty years later, a mobile phone chirped in every pocket. Smartphones, and mobile data connections were just beginning to take hold. Today, there are 31 million mobile phone connections in Ghana, a country with a population of 25 million. My stories about Ghana were widely read by Ghanaians, and that is a remarkable and welcome change.

Source: Pew Research Center.

Of course, the early wonder of the interconnected web, where anyone anywhere could read my stories, quickly gave way to the reality of a mediated, platform-driven world in which anyone, anywhere could publish their own story.

Credit: World Bank.

The transition to this amazing digital world has been tough. In the United States, the ranks of journalists keep shrinking. As I travel around the world for The New York Times, I hear from journalists everywhere about the painful downsizing happening across the industry. This has meant important stories go untold. Costly investigative reporting units pare back their ambition in the face of budget cuts. Expensive trips to conflict zones suddenly seem like a luxury publishers cannot afford, and news organizations everywhere rely more and more on wire services to cover the world. This has reduced the vibrancy and diversity of the journalism we consume, and the world is poorer for it. Above all, local journalism has suffered. Cities that once supported two or more daily newspapers find themselves with one, or none at all.

The print dollars that sustained double digit profit margins for legacy media companies have shriveled into digital pennies.

And as legacy publishers like The New York Times fell behind in the digital arms race, a new crop of publishers arose. The Huffington Post, with its mastery of search engine optimization, got more page views for aggregating my coverage of Nelson Mandela’s funeral than The New York Times did, despite the fact that The Times paid my salary and living costs to be based in South Africa.

Other new competitors, like BuzzFeed, Vox and Mashable, rode the mysterious algorithms of Facebook, spreading viral news stories like wildfire. Venture capitalists poured in money. These new companies bulked up their newsrooms, hiring journalists from places like The New York Times and the Wall Street Journal to build their serious news credibility and began publishing ambitious, deeply reported journalism.

Our business model had been pretty simple. First, you publish high quality journalism. Then you charge people money to read it and you charge companies money to advertise next to it. But suddenly that formula seemed so old fashioned, so antiquated. Native advertising, powered by a fancy content management system or a nifty algorithmic distribution method, was all the rage in the news business. Digital media companies talked about becoming platforms. Old line publishers, including The New York Times, were fighting for their very survival.

But lately, the mood is changing. Digital media upstarts, instead of holding out for billion dollar IPOs, are seeking shelter in big legacy media companies. Germany’s Axel Springer bought Business Insider for $400 million dollars in what has proven to be a high-water mark for digital media acquisitions. Quartz, a popular global business news startup, is said to be on the hunt for a buyer. Mashable, a once-high flying new media startup that had built a sizeable newsroom, was said to put itself on the market. When no buyer came along, the company laid off much of its news staff, including many seasoned journalists, and announced that it is pivoting to video and entertainment.

BuzzFeed, a Silicon Valley favorite, was reported to have missed its revenue target last year, and slashed its forecast for this year, though BuzzFeed disputes this. While it maintains a robust newsroom for now, its center of gravity appears to be shifting from news to entertainment. Questions linger about whether its business model, which relies on creating expensive native advertising campaigns for brands, is scalable.

These days everyone is scrambling to catch up with the landslide to mobile, which has relegated the old model of selling display advertising adjacent to relevant text articles to the dustheap. Everyone seems to hope that video advertising on mobile, with its high CPM rates, will be the next gold rush.

But are those high rates here to stay? The digital advertising business, like the news business, has been disrupted time and again by technology, with each advance allowing advertisers to target their message with ever more ruthless efficiency at the consumers most likely to want what they are selling. Mobile video will be no different.

Besides, the advertising business, especially on mobile, is increasingly in the hands of one company: Facebook. In the last quarter, Facebook made $1.5 billion in profit. Not revenue. Profit. Most of that money came from mobile advertising. Some digital publishers are aiming to slice off a portion of that cash, making content that travels fast on Facebook’s algorithm-driven distribution superhighway. Embedding advertising on Facebook’s formats, like Instant Articles, and live video, is supposed to give publishers a way around pesky problems of our internet age, like ad blocking, but also keeps users in Facebook’s walled garden.

Source: Statista

Facebook’s command over everyone’s attention span, as well as its deft use of your personal data, has turned it into a money-spinning machine. We may well look back and see Facebook as the most consequential development in publishing since the invention of hot type. But Facebook holds most of the cards, and even the smallest changes in how it pushes information out to its billion plus users’ news feeds can make or break a digital publisher.

So where does that leave old fashioned news organizations like The New York Times? Surveying this seemingly terrifying landscape, I am cautiously optimistic. The successful rollout of our paywall in 2011 was crucial in resetting the conversation with readers about the value of the journalism we produce. The Times now has 1.2 million digital subscribers worldwide, with the fastest growth coming from outside the United States. Our total number of print subscribers is shrinking, but slowly. About 600,000 copies circulate on weekdays, and 1.1 million on Sunday.

In 1995 The Times had 1.5 million print subscribers. We currently have 2.5 million subscriptions if you count print and digital subscriptions together. Last year the Times made $400 million in digital revenue, much more than any of our digital competitors. Our native advertising shop, T Brand Studios, is growing fast, taking our advertisers into our newest forms of storytelling, like virtual reality.

The Times has reached another important milestone. We now make more revenue from our subscribers than we do from our advertisers. Late last year the company’s leaders laid out an ambitious goal to double digital revenue to $800 million by 2020. That strategy explicitly stated that The Times considers itself to be a subscription business first and an advertising business built on a loyal, engaged and paying audience. Ninety percent of our digital revenue comes from just 12 percent of our readers.

I find this shift to be incredibly exciting. As someone who cares deeply about independent journalism, I love the idea that our most important financial relationship is with the reader, not the advertiser. It clarifies our mission and helps us make tough choices about how to spend our precious editorial resources.

That close bond with our most loyal readers is the heart of our journalistic and business strategy. Supplying these news consumers with a steady diet of informative, compelling, useful and moving pieces of journalism they cannot find anywhere else is the key to our success. Nothing else matters.

That is why we recently published, in English and in Spanish, a 21,000 word story about a woman learning to live with Alzheimer’s. The article was written by N. R. Kleinfield, known to his colleagues as Sonny. Sonny is not one of those hot young talents we’ve hired lately, adept at the latest form of digital storytelling on platforms like Snapchat and Vine. He joined The New York Times as a reporter in 1977, two years after I was born. He is the writer The Times turned to on Sept. 11 to try to make sense of the unfolding tragedy. His story that day opened with a simple declaration of horrific fact: “It kept getting worse.”

Sonny spent 20 months with a woman named Geri Taylor, documenting her experience with Alzheimer’s disease from not long after her diagnosis. It is an utterly unique work of immersive journalism. It is not the kind of the thing you’d expect to go viral. Yet it found a huge readership almost immediately. More than half of the readers came to the story on their mobile phone, which appears to have been no deterrent to spending a long time reading deep into an emotionally wrenching tale. The comments from readers, especially those with loved ones who had suffered from Alzheimers, were deeply moving.

“Thank you for the poetry in the writing and the bravery and dignity of this piece,” wrote a reader named Phyllis Tims, whose father had died after a long battle with Alzheimer’s.

Ms. Tims commented on Sonny’s story on Facebook, that dreaded platform. Is Facebook going to eat the news business alive? After all, it has made huge piles of money selling advertising, something that used to be our business.

Justin Smith, chief executive of the publishing arm of Bloomberg, said last week that news companies were left “feeding on the scraps,” of Facebook’s advertising business. I understand his frustration. Facebook fills its news feed, where it sells its ads, with articles it does not pay for but cost news companies billions of dollars to create.

But I take a different view. News companies can cry over the past, or we can embrace the new world. Facebook is a fact of modern life, and isn’t going anywhere. But for smart news organizations that create truly unique content, Facebook is a valuable platform for the same reasons it is valuable to any other business: it helps us find and connect with our most likely customers. In the case of The New York Times, that means loyal readers who will eventually become paying subscribers.

When my team created New York Times en Español, we used Facebook, along with data science and topic modeling, to sift through the millions of people in the Spanish-speaking world and find those who would most likely be interested in the unique, high quality journalism The New York Times produces every day. We used Facebook to push stories out to potential readers, to get people to sign up for our Spanish-language newsletter, Boletín, and to drive traffic to our home page. Just as it does for so many other businesses, Facebook helped us find our true fans.

This is why I am so enthusiastic about The New York Times’ potential to build a vast, deeply engaged audience around the world. The emergence of the smartphone and fast mobile data connections means that news consumption habits are changing, giving us an opportunity to introduce ourselves to a whole new world of news consumers. Social platforms, especially Facebook, allow us to target our journalism to those most likely to want to pay for it. I believe that we are better off as Facebook’s happy customer than as its outgunned competitor in a David and Goliath fight for advertising dollars.

Yes, Facebook will try mightily to keep news consumers inside its platforms, via features like Instant Articles. Our job is to create experiences that will draw our most loyal users back, again and again, to our own products. So far, we seem to be succeeding at this. We will never be as big or financially successful as Facebook, but I believe we can run a thriving media company that can afford a lavishly funded news operation, as well as return value to our shareholders.

To prepare for this new era, in which The New York Times is a subscription-based business first and foremost, we have slimmed down to focus on our core mission of doing great journalism. The New York Times is a much smaller company than it was a decade ago, but our newsroom (approximately 1,300 journalists) is as big as it has ever been. We have doubled down on our strategy of covering the world, for the world, with 75 correspondents around the world, working in 30 international bureaus (and 20 more in the U.S.).

With news hubs in Hong Kong, London and New York, The New York Times seeks to be a truly global news organization, spanning all time zones to serve news consumers the most relevant, resonant and timely journalism possible, wherever they live. As we recently announced, The New York Times plans to invest $50 million over the next three years to expand its reach across the globe. That is a big commitment at a moment when many traditional news organizations are scaling back their global ambitions.

Photo by Tyler Hicks of The New York Times, part of the 2016 Pulitzer-winning photo package on the European migrant crisis.

Above all, we are doubling down on quality journalism. The Times had 2 winners and 10 finalists for the Pulitzer prize this year — more finalists than any other news organization. Three of those finalists came from our Metropolitan desk, which covers New York City. One finalist was an investigation of brutality in New York State prisons. Another was an investigation of abuses of workers at nail salons. The last was a wonderful story written by none other than Sonny Kleinfeld, about a man named George Bell, a New Yorker who lived, and died, alone. That doesn’t sound like a viral hit, but the story connected with millions of readers. When we translated the story into Spanish, it was a hit all over again, this time in Latin America.

Pulitzer celebration in the The New York Times newsroom. Photo by Hiroko Masuike/The New York Times.

Why would a news organization that has global ambitions spend so much time and effort and money covering New York City in such an ambitious way?

The answer is simple. Our identity, as a news organization, is high quality journalism you cannot find anywhere else. Companies have a word for this identity: it is called your brand. Brand has become a bit of a sneering, dirty word in certain media circles. But we ignore at our own peril the fact that we, too, are a brand.

Companies like Apple spend endless amounts of time, effort and money honing their message to their customers about why their products are valuable, and why someone should choose an Apple device over a Samsung one. We need to answer this question: Why should a news consumer lean forward to consume, and pay for, your journalism when so much is available for less money, or worse, for free?

We need to get much better at telling our own story. We journalists hope the work speaks for itself. But in a cacophonous world, where stories whiz by on Twitter and Facebook, we need to tell our readers that we are special. That our stories have value. Think of the saga of a man who dies alone or the struggles of woman who has Alzheimer’s. The story of the former child soldier of the FARC struggling to adjust to life after war. The story of an ambulance driver in Liberia, fighting the Ebola epidemic street by street. The story of young women held as a sex slaves by ISIS. These are stories with deep, enduring value. Unique, resonant, impactful journalism is our brand. It always has been, and always will be.