Taking the digital route

Stephen Dunbar-Johnson - publisher of the International Herald Tribune - explains how the move to put the title under Paywall has actually pushed his readership higher
Online push Social media is a major driver of business for the IHT, according to Stephen Dunbar-Johnson
By Sara Anabtawi
Sun 10 Jun 2012 11:49 AM

The International Herald Tribune (IHT) - the global edition of the New York Times - has always been known for its strong readership numbers and high-level journalism, be it commentary, opinion or analysis - a task that requires hefty investment.

Just a little over a year ago, the newspaper decided to take a different road; a monetised one. That should come as no surprise, particularly as IHT, like any broadsheet, requires new streams of revenue to maintain itself as a top-notch newspaper.

As a result, the paywall was introduced; a system that prevents internet users from accessing webpage content without a paid subscription. But, in IHT’s case, it was metered, meaning there was more room for flexibility with readers.

Stephen Dunbar-Johnson, the publisher of the newspaper, explains: “Rather than putting up a wall, so that when you came to the site, you were confronted by ‘you now have to pay’, we allowed access for the first 20 articles for free.

“We did not want to put a wall up straight away. We felt that if we did that, in all probability, people would be reluctant to pay and the audience numbers would fall dramatically,” he adds.

While paywalls may attract new revenue streams from subscribers, the move risks a dramatic drop in readers, which in turn results in potentially diminished advertising revenue. So does the concept work in practice?

“The question is: how do you maintain enough audience that is going to allow you to continue to attract advertising and at the same time, find a new stream of revenue from digital subscribers? We felt, after a lot of thought and work in building an e-commerce platform, that having this metered model was the best way of doing it,” says Dunbar-Johnson.

More than a year in, he confirms that the strategy has worked well for the company, especially as they have not witnessed a drop in audience or traffic: “We can still show advertisers significant traffic coming into the site - same as before.”

To be precise, Dunbar-Johnson says, as the last New York Times earnings results showed, that the IHT has around 475,000 paying digital subscribers: “We have managed to not just maintain our advertising on the website, but it is growing and continues to grow. We had anticipated a decline in audience, and that has not materialised at all.”

Yet another surprising factor that has accompanied IHT’s new monetised route is the growth of numbers in print - not only digital.

“One of the things we had not really imagined is that print would go up as well. What is happening is that some people, who used to subscribe to the [print edition] of the New York Times, have stopped because they were getting it all for free on the website,” explains Dunbar-Johnson, adding: “But, when we turned it around, they realised that they quickly burnt through their 20 free [digital] articles and because they need the news, they will now pay for it.”

In fact, he quickly states that they had around 850,000 print subscribers prior to the implementation of the pay model. Now, it is in excess of 900,000.

The pay model has gradually been creeping its way into the world of news. The Wall Street Journal has had a paywall since 1997, and more recently, the Los Angeles Times launched its wall in February 2012.

The question remains: should the pay model be followed by all newspapers in the future?

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“I think yes, but let me talk about us. The New York Times Media Group, and the IHT is part of that, is really expensive. To have top-quality journalism, to have high-quality reporters in the field and to maintain that quality is very expensive,” says Dunbar-Johnson.

“Maintaining a bureau in Kabul is very expensive and maintaining a bureau in Baghdad is also expensive. So, investing in quality journalism is an expensive business, and [we need to be able] to sustain that in the future…” he says, adding:  “We have to find new revenue sources, because the old model, which was based on print advertising, is broken. And, there will not be enough revenue flowing into print to sustain the quality of journalism we do.”

In effect, Dunbar-Johnson says, consumers are moving in a different direction, and are trying to get their news from every possible platform.

“We are a news company delivering our content on every platform. The New York Times has been evangelical in a sense, as it was very early in investing heavily on the web and in embracing an integrated newsroom, bringing the print and the digital sides together,” he says, adding: “It has paid off, because it is a fantastically rich website, and the fact the people are willing to pay money to have access to it is a testament to that.”

In short, the metered model has helped IHT’s revenues and has enticed a good number of subscribers. But, to sustain those readership levels, the company is continuously working on adding new features and improving its feel.

“We are always adding new things to subscribers. A lot of thought went into how we bundle packages together: print, with the iPad application, with the iPhone application, and as far as the website is concerned, there is a constant look at improving it every day,” says Dunbar-Johnson.

Right now, the IHT is focusing on four areas of investment for improvement; social media, mobile, video and globalisation - all of which, in one way or another, help with revenues.

Social media is already considered incredibly important and it is a major driver of business for the newspaper: “Just to give you an example, an article for the New York Times and the IHT is tweeted every four seconds, so we are linked to every four seconds by Twitter and that is a major driver of traffic to the site, which we can then monetise,” explains Dunbar-Johnson.

“Last time I checked, Nick Kristof, one of our columnists, has around 1.2 million followers on Twitter. That is an important community of people. If he posts one of his stories on Twitter, a significant number of his followers will click on the link, which will add traffic to the site,” he says.

“As for mobile, the IHT wants to work on every device in different and positive ways. We want to make sure to add value on every device, to deliver our content in ways that people want it, as they are travelling around the world.”

Looking into video, though, Dunbar-Johnson says: “We believe that we have a big opportunity in video. We think that our brand will get better at generating high-quality video content, which will appear on the site, offer more value for our readers, and offer more opportunity to monetise on the site.”

He also believes that the IHT can expand and globalise further: “We are currently the global anchor for the New York Times, but we also believe that we can drill into certain markets and do lots of interesting things that can help us develop our business.”

With maximised efforts to increase interactivity in the technological realm, is it possible to ever go completely global?

“I do not see that happening in the foreseeable future, but I do not discount it either. It will be based on economics and the business model. Is the audience big enough for just pure digital? Print is going to have value for some time, particularly in this part of the world… I think it still has got a lot of legs in it,” says Dunbar-Johnson.

“I have been in the print business for quite a long time, so there is still this nostalgia about it. People of my generation still think that the feel of print is great. I am a big consumer of apps on the iPad, but if I am given a choice of an app or the old fashioned print version, I would navigate the print, but my kids probably wouldn’t,” he adds.

“In fact, there can be some advantages in that for us. Print is expensive, paper is expensive, we need contracts with printing plants, and we need to distribute from these plants — that all costs a lot of money,” he says, adding: “So, if we did not have any of those costs, because the market is big enough digitally, that would allow us to reinvest a lot of that money into the thing that matters the most, the content.”

Brushing his nostalgia aside, Dunbar-Johnson says that in the end, if readers do not want it in print, then it simply does not make sense in print.

In this ambiguous fast-changing world, only time will tell.

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