Getting paying subscribers is the new obsession of publishing companies. The New York Times is famous for its Pulitzer-winning news coverage, but it’s the how-to pieces that are among the best performers when it comes to signing up new subscribers.
The Times has had service journalism as part of its bundle since at least the ’70s, but it’s taking a more systematic approach to it today as part of an effort to double its digital revenue. One way it’s doing that is through a new Smarter Living initiative and its set of interactive features called Guides.
The Times is on track to publish 35 Guides this year, covering everything from how to clean your home to putting on makeup to completing a workout in nine minutes. It hopes to do another 50 next year, incorporating more video. The Guides started three years ago with Cooking and Well, the Times’ personal health desk, and have been extended to other features desks, including business, travel and climate.
Evergreen, service journalism is the workhorse of a newsroom because it can be promoted repeatedly and drive continual readership. The Guides often are the Times’ most popular articles of the day, and they are twice as likely to get repeat visits as regular news articles. As much as Trump coverage may have driven readership and subscriptions for the Times and other news publishers, service journalism can play a counterprogramming role when people get burned out from the news. Viewership of Guides from January to September is up 170 percent year over year, according to the Times, which wouldn’t give raw numbers.
“The news cycle is relentless, and people are always looking for other ways to escape,” said Karron Skog, editorial director for Smarter Living. “The Times is expanding to say, ‘Come to us for everything.’”
Traditionalists have bristled at the Times’ efforts to move into service journalism over the years, but the Guides crew argues that there’s no tension between news and service; the same people who want to read the latest on Niger might also want to know how to make the perfect pie crust. They say that today’s service effort isn’t replacing anything the Times does; it’s just more coordinated than it’s been in the past.
“There’s grumblings, but there’s grumblings when we started feature sections in the ’70s,” Skog said. “I think there’s room in the Times for all kinds of coverage. The heart of what we do is news, investigative journalism. Different things appeal to different readers at different times of day.”
That’s not to say expanding service journalism isn’t tricky. The Times has to make its service something people can’t already get elsewhere, and do it without alienating readers who expect a more traditional news package. So the Times’ approach is to apply the same reporting rigor it brings to the rest of its reporting.
“It’s new territory in some ways,” said Sara Bremen Rabstenek, senior product manager at Smarter Living. “Topics they cover can appeal to new readers and push the boundaries of what is Timesean. So we can think about, what can a Timesean makeup guide look like? It’s managing the expectations that our current readers have with what new audiences expect from other media outlets. We want to apply the same depth of coverage to topics that might not seem Timesean at first but are really important.”
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