Q&A: Sam Felix, Director of Audience + Platforms @ The New York Times

This week, The Idea caught up with Sam Felix to discuss how The Times thinks about reaching new audiences, how it evaluates new and different platforms, and how it adjusts to changes in the tech-universe.

Tell us about your role and what you do.

I focus on the company-wide strategy, partnerships and relationships with key tech partners — focusing a majority of my time on Google, Apple, Facebook, Snapchat, etc. — and figuring out how and to what extent we should be working with these platforms.

My job is to think deeply about how The Times’ journalism is reflected off-platform and monetized and to make sure there’s a clear value to us participating in the platform, whether that be direct revenue or a strong audience value.

We spend most of our time focusing on projects, big and small, that help connect The Times to these sometimes hard to understand, hard to reach audiences off-platform and look for ways to drive them back to our O&O (owned and operated). So the types of projects we tend to work on and lead are things like Subscribe with Google, AMP, Apple News, Snapchat Discover.

How does your team fit within the larger organization?

We’re in a pretty unique position within the company — we work across most of the departments to help spread a consistent strategy for the platforms. We’re technically part of the marketing organization, but physically sit in the newsroom.

We of course have no influence over the coverage and really maintain an appropriate separation from the journalists, but it’s very clear and central to our work that we partner closely with the newsroom audience team and the newsroom thinkers to ensure that we’re building audiences off-platform that reflect our overall strategy.

Can you talk more about The Times’ overall strategy? How do you evaluate new or emerging platforms?

When we’re thinking about new platforms, we are vigilant about our strategy. We look at these new opportunities and these new platforms through different lenses: Can the platform help us demonstrate the breadth of our report to a new audience that we don’t otherwise reach? Does the platform help drive this audience back to our O&O?

We believe that the best way to experience The Times’ journalism is on our properties, and so our goal is to bring users back to our properties, fully immersing them in the journalism, with the goal of developing a relationship and a daily habit with our readers.

We also ask ourselves: does this platform give us a new way of thinking about storytelling — so things like Snapchat Discover — in a way that we might not otherwise do on our properties.

One example is Reddit. Obviously Reddit is not new, it’s actually been around for a very long time, but they are sort of emerging for us, in a way. When we look at how we engage with Reddit and what sort of investment we put into it, one of the things that was most attractive to us was leveraging AMAs as a way to expose this very engaged Times audience to our journalists and answer questions about how the report is made, pulling back the curtain on The New York Times.

Again, something we can’t always do as easily, especially for a new audience on our platforms, and so we can leverage these partners to help us really tell more of The New York Times’ story.

Thinking about some of the big changes that have happened within the last year regarding Google and Facebook, have they had any impact on how you approach or think about these platforms?

These changes have definitely impacted how we optimize on a daily basis, but I wouldn’t say that they’ve dramatically, or very much at all, changed our strategy for how we approach Google and Facebook holistically. Facebook’s been making these types of changes, big and small, to the algorithm for at least a year, if not more.

We’ve certainly tracked the changes and we monitor how they impact our distribution mix and try to respond in our programming strategy, but we are not reliant on Facebook traffic to generate audience, so it doesn’t impact our business in a material way or our ability to reach our readers.

At the same time, we’ve definitely seen the shift towards search and Google, or the shift back to Google. We have a very strong partnership with Google and make it a priority to work very closely with them on things like Subscribe with Google — to not only take advantage of the resurgence of search, but also to ensure that we are providing the best possible subscriber experience for our readers, no matter where they choose to meet us.

We also want to do what we can to help Google create products and experiences within its platform that support the news business so that we don’t find ourselves in the land of too many pivots.

We’re constantly keeping an eye on what’s happening on each of those platforms, but trying to be thoughtful and cautious in our approach overall.

You mentioned part of your strategy is to ultimately drive users back to your O&O. How does Google AMP fit into that strategy?

We were an early partner with Google on AMP and took a very measured approach the last couple years to understanding the format, the experience, and working with Google to enhance the story page.

We did a lot of testing around the impacts on audience as well as advertising, and in that time, worked with Google, watched how the industry had shifted, and eventually become more comfortable with the format. And so we recently made the decision to convert most of our articles, save for some that the AMP format doesn’t quite support yet, into AMP pages.

So far it’s continued to enhance performance and have a positive impact on our audience within the Google ecosystem. We took our time and we weren’t one of the first ones to jump all in on AMP, because it is important that the AMP page that is presented to the reader is a positive experience that we believe is equal to, or at least nearly as great as, what we hope we’re able to provide on our web pages.

We also wanted to make sure, and this is why Subscribe with Google has been great, that we’re able to align our business model consistently across AMP and our website and various other touch points.

So technically it is served from a Google server, but Google’s done a lot of work to make it come as close to being a part of our own universe as possible.

How are you thinking about news aggregation app like Apple News and Flipboard? How do aggregate apps like that fit into the NYT’s strategy?

Well, we are cautious. We think about these platforms as an opportunity to reach readers who are more interested in a browsing experience, specifically browsing a wide universe of publishers in a short amount of time — so these are the skimmers who want their top news fast from many outlets.

By having a presence on these platforms, we’re able to expose our journalism to these readers and try to look for and cultivate opportunities to bring them back to our platform and pull them more deeply into the report.

For example, we’ve had a lot of success driving newsletter signups on Apple News. So even though that audience lives exclusively off-platform, it does drive a lot of reach, though it doesn’t come into our analytics in the same way as say Google or direct traffic. So traffic, in this case, has a slightly different meaning.

But because we are finding that that user base is coming back to us within the Apple News ecosystem and is then taking the next steps to sign up for a newsletter, that demonstrates some real value to us and tells us that it does play a role in the subscriber journey.

Is there a cool project you’ve been working on recently? Is there anything you’ve learned or hope to learn from it?

At the beginning of each year, we reevaluate what our position is with each of the major platforms and how we want to situate The Times within this larger tech-universe. So we’re in the midst of all of that 2019 planning and reviewing the landscape of all of the major tech platforms.

It’s a project in flight, but it’s been a really fascinating body of work this year given everything that’s happened in 2018 — with all of the platforms and the big questions we have to think about when it comes to privacy, trust, aggregation, bundling subscriptions, and what it means when a platform might be doing something that feels directly competitive to our business model, or on the surface feels really helpful to getting journalism to big audiences, but might not ultimately help us actually achieve that goal in the long run.

It’s a big thought experiment, but something I think all publishers should be spending a big chunk of time doing often as these platforms update and change and regulation starts to get into the conversation.

What’s the most interesting thing you’ve seen recently from a media outlet other than your own?

I’m still a big fan of Axios. I love everything they’re doing. I’ve been continually impressed with their ability to leverage their newsletter strategy into a segmented audience strategy where they can build clear, almost communities around each of these subject lines.

They’re developing a direct relationship with their readers. Being in a reader’s inbox is probably one of the closest relationships you can have, so I thought it was a great move when they acquired Sports Internet to flesh out their sports vertical.

I’m really excited to see what they do with that and what else they expand into and hope they can continue to be as engaging in their approach for these new verticals.