DMA: Editorial logic that turned NYT's 'Trump bump' into a habit

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When a virtual Digital Media Asia opened on Tuesday, it was content as much as technology that drew the attention of the 640 registered delegates from 155 news organisations.

And its effect on subscriptions.

Gary Liu, who chairs WAN-Ifra's APAC committee, was both welcomer and interviewer for one of the event's big drawcards - New York Times managing editor Joe Kahn.

The story of the NYT's success - driving to a record six million subscribers - has been told before, but the contribution of Kahn, a former China correspondent for both the Times and the Wall Street Journal, gave it a local perspective as he logged in from a rainy New York evening.

And Liu commented on the benefits of the "new normal" conference format in enabling the world-class line-up. His reminder that WAN-Ifra's World News Media Congress will return to Asia next year after seven years, with a Taipei venue scheduled, prompts the hope that an attended event will be possible, not one affected by either COVID-19 or growing threats from mainland China.

That situation is just one more reason why readers are looking for reliable news, and Kahn pointed also to the "level of engagement" with the political process following Donald Trump's election success, the global pandemic, domestic unrest, and the backlash against platforms among the "super cycle of news" which had led to engagement with the Times' product.

Perhaps the difference was that they were ready for it, with some years of focusing on digital engagement and investment in live reporting technologies.

Kahn says "everybody got a bump from the unexpected victory and the way (Trump) governed, but we were refining digital by then, and 'more normal' never came.

"It was a new way of being competitive for people's attention," he said.

The Times was ready for live coverage of events such as a dam collapse, the Notre Dame fire, the Hong Kong unrest with which Liu was so familiar, and the Brexit saga - real-time investigating coverage and storytelling.

"There are always big events to ride if you're prepared," he said, pointing to the multiple ways of covering a story, with audio, video, text, multimedia.

"Readers will consume it according to how we present it, unified storytelling, and while we mostly try to get the specialists out of their silos, we need experts all harnessing the same journalistic energy."

The secret being making those journalists flexible enough to work together, with "director pods" deciding how to tell a story best.

Kahn admitted mistakes had been made, with "fits and starts" as far back as 2011, when the publisher still relied on print and advertising businesses, and was reluctant to risk anything that might cut that off. Paywalls were "expansive" and while growth was healthy, it was not until the Trump era that annual growth moved to 20-30 per cent a year, and continued to accelerate.

"We started to improve in the dynamism of the paywall with pricing, registration - starting with free to build the relationship - and newsletters. The underlying principle was not to rush into anything too restrictive, so we tiptoed into those things, rather than risk giving up a potential audience.

"We went slowly and deliberately, and with a lot of testing."

Asked about the need for additional manpower, he said investment and reinvention were needed: "This is not the same legacy business it was ten or even five years ago, but we have been lucky to have pretty resilient profits, and both the family and shareholders were very patient with the process of reinvestment," he said. "Getting into the subscription business is a new set of skills and resources."

Kahn agreed with Liu that being forced to report the challenges of a rising superpower with fewer journalists in China was not good for anyone: "It ought to be possible to agree that it's better to keep people informed, as people in the US need to be, and had been in the past."

On trends in readership, he said a "smaller and smaller proportion of content" was now produced exclusively with print in mind. "We're getting into habit of making a print product from the digital," he said. "It should be as separate as possible, and as downstream as possible."

Catering for younger readers was also an issue requiring special attention. "The younger generation will not consume content in the same way, and have shorter attention spans." Traditional long blocks were less popular, and while younger readers were not hostile to text, they were trying to find way to reveal the underlying information "in the most impactful way".

Short, explanatory bursts were needed, whether it was text or not. "We need to grab them and draw them in, and consistently focus on the best way to bring the purest form of the story," Kahn said.

Digital Media Asia continues today and Thursday, with a programme including a mix of open and semi-private sessions and other contributions including speakers from both Google and Facebook. Tuesday's sessions also included

Washington Post newsroom product director Greg Barber, Tan Lee Chin from Malaysia's Sin Chew Daily, and former Le Parisien chief digital officer Ariane Bernard.

Publisher members took part in a 'power conversation' on building a data culture, expanded when the afternoon sessions resumed, while others told of their experiences with GNI Data Labs, and Paul Verwilt of Belgian publisher Mediahuis reported on the company's expansion across the Netherlands, Ireland and most recently Luxembourg.

The conference continues on Wednesday and Thursday; watch for more reports.

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