How the New York Times convinced readers ‘the truth is worth it’

The internet closed down many local newsrooms—but The New York Times convinced readers to pay for digital journalism. The Times’ transparency, audience trust, and confidence allowed it not just to survive—but to thrive—in the digital age.

Learn how the New York Times dominates America's journalism industry

The past two decades haven’t been kind to the journalism industry. Whether you’re a former subscriber to a small town paper or completely disinterested in the news cycle, you probably know what went down: the internet came along, readers stopped buying newspapers, and newsrooms closed. 

Of course, that’s an abridged version of the story, but it efficiently sums up how the internet disrupted a centuries-old industry. In the past 15 years, over one in five local newspapers have closed. Since the start of the pandemic alone, 60 local newsrooms have shuttered.

Even for a company as revered as the New York Times, adjusting to the digital environment has been tough. After all, their team has had to answer the same question as countless other news outlets: Will people pay for online news content when so many places offer it for free?

The answer, they’ve learned, is a resounding ‘yes.’ In 2017, the Times brought in $500 million of digital revenue, which is more than several leading publications combined. 

But the Times hasn’t fared better than every major competitor by treading water—rather this titan of the journalism industry has seen these numbers soar.  That $500 million 2017 digital revenue is up from $230 million in 2016, and a mere $150 million in 2014. 

How did a news organization multiply its revenue so quickly? One explanation, however simple, is that the Times convinced readers that dependable digital journalism is something worth paying for. Here’s how they did it.

Building audience trust 

Founded in 1851, the Times certainly isn’t a newcomer to the journalism industry. However, the advent of the digital news environment meant the organization would have to source a chunk of revenue from digital subscriptions—or else risk losing millions of readers to internet-savvy competitors. To convince readers to subscribe, the Times made a strong case for its superiority and pinpointed what its audience is willing to pay for: credibility, backed by an army of fact checkers and the best and brightest journalists in the business. 

In fact, the Times’ team has been hard at work spreading the word on their credibility. In 2018, the company rolled out an out-of-home advertising campaign for their flagship podcast, “The Daily.” The campaign included billboard, train, and wallscape ads that featured messages like, “This moment deserves an explanation,” and “This moment deserves to be understood.” Likewise, in episodes of “The Daily,” producers frequently embed audio ads describing the amount of work and diligence needed to produce and fact check each episode. 

While news outlets are often criticized for having biased coverage, these audio and out-of-home ads help build trust in Times reporting. They also suggest that Times coverage is a necessary tool to discern what’s really happening these days. 

Learn why the best return on your marketing dollar comes from copywriting.

Maintaining trust through transparency 

After growing so dramatically, the Times seems to have a strategy to keep those subscribers faithful: radical transparency. Of course, organizations in the journalism industry are always expected to be transparent, but even non-media companies can learn something from the Times’ willingness to disclose what’s going on behind the scenes at the organization. 

For instance, in 2017, the Times published a report that outlines future goals for the newsroom and describes its shortcomings in detail, from a lack of diversity on staff to murky visions within departments. The writers skillfully switch between recognizing the organization’s strengths while acknowledging its weaknesses, making the Times seem both confident and respectable—worthy of your trust but never taking it for granted. Businesses can learn from this tactful P.R. strategy. By being sincere and forthcoming but also focused on future improvement, you’ll endear yourself to customers and prospects alike. 

MarketSmiths Case Study

The hands-down largest transportation network in North America, the Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA) in New York serves over 15 million riders. When the MTA decided to modernize the fare payment system and launch OMNY (One Metro New York)—contactless “tap and go” riding, it encountered an obstacle: how to communicate several options across a ridiculously broad range of languages, reading levels, digital savvy, and more. NY-based web agency Reflexions, on deck to build the new OMNY website, tapped MarketSmiths to write the web copy, introducing New Yorkers to their future of transit: crisply and effectively. As of November, 2019, OMNY rollout has been a massive success, with 6,100 taps on day 1, widespread early adoption, and installation across 472 stations. 

> Read the full case study

Projecting confidence 

If you work in marketing, you know how important it is to build trust with your audience. When your audience trusts your brand, they know you’ll always meet their expectations. As a result, they’ll keep supporting your business, and even help grow it by spreading word to friends, family, and colleagues. 

“The Truth is Worth It,” the Times’ new slogan, shows its marketing team understands this, too. The Times recognizes that readers value truth and transparency, and expect the outlet to deliver on its promise of honest reporting. Projecting confidence also helps reinforce reader trust. After having coverage frequently attacked by pundits, politicians, and extremists, the Times team has responded by firmly standing their ground, admitting error when it occurs, and remaining confident that they’ll always be the best in the industry. 

We know brands work. They build recognition, loyalty, and, most importantly in news, trust. But while many news outlets have attempted to form a brand for themselves, the Times has risen to the top of the heap, becoming the default news source for millions and more memorable than their main competitor, The Washington Post. By being consistently bold—and a little boastful—the Times has attracted a following that’s not unsubscribing anytime soon. 

Want a timeless brand that people value? Reach out to the MarketSmiths Content Strategist team for messaging and content that drives loyalty. 


Anne Paglia

Anne Paglia

After dabbling in journalism, communications, and science publishing, Anne found her way to MarketSmiths. When she’s not writing, this New Jersey native is likely spending time outdoors or expounding on the importance of the Oxford comma.

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