New York Times Shifting Resources from 'Every Division' to Mobile

Conversation with Cliff Levy, Editor of NYT Now

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NYT Now.
NYT Now.

NYT Now is The New York Times' lower-priced subscription app. For $7.99 every four weeks, users are given access to certain Times articles that NYT Now editors select. The app also includes a separate feed called "Our Picks," which curates stories from other publications.

The future of NYT Now is uncertain, however. Last month, Times CEO Mark Thompson told Re/code that the company hasn't "sold as many subscriptions as we would have liked" to NYT Now. The Times is "looking at" offering NYT Now for free, he added.

Last year, the Times shuttered a subscription app that curated opinion pieces amid a broader reconsideration of its mobile subscription strategy.

How to make money from mobile readers is a critical concern among publishers. Audiences are pouring into publishers' sites via mobile devices, but the ads they show fetch lower rates and there are fewer of them on the smaller screens. It all adds up to a mobile monetization problem. The Times, for instance, has more than 50% of its traffic coming from mobile, yet mobile contributes just 10% of digital ad revenue.

A couple weeks ago, Ad Age spoke with Clifford Levy, editorial lead at NYT Now, about the app's fate and the importance the Times has placed on mobile. Here's a lightly edited version of Ad Age's conversation with Mr. Levy.

Advertising Age: What's the fate of NYT Now, given what Mark Thompson told Re/code about the company considering a free option?

Cliff Levy: We're actively working on NYT Now 2.0, and we're starting to figure out what the business model is. We should have some news on that fairly shortly.

Ad Age: How long is fairly shortly?

Mr. Levy: It won't be a long time.

Ad Age: Can you share the number of users?

Mr. Levy: I'm not allowed to talk about numbers. All I can say is that the monthly active users has been strong. The thing that we've already said publicly was that the business model was not as successful as we hoped. That's one reason why, as Mark Thompson said, we're considering other options including whether or not to move toward a free model.

Ad Age: How big is your staff?

Mr. Levy: We have about six or seven editors who run the app 24 hours a day, seven days a week. They're really thinking about what is the presentation of The New York Times on the phone and helping push the newsroom to think about the phone. What we've learned from NYT Now is helping us advance the main New York Times app, which is getting a lot more editorial staff shortly. So stay tuned -- there are going to be some major amazing improvements on the main New York Times app.

Ad Age: Are you shifting more resources from inside the company?

Mr. Levy: Yes, the whole company is shifting resources toward mobile at every part of the company. [Times Publisher] Arthur Sulzberger and Mark Thompson and [Times Executive Editor] Dean Baquet are really, really focused on mobile right now. Every division in the company is looking at how they can shift more resources to mobile. In the newsroom we're certainly doing that. There's been a lot of discussion about how we can free up resources, what can we do less of in order to move more people to mobile.

Clifford Levy.
Clifford Levy.

Ad Age's conversation with Mr. Levy went on for much longer as we delved into the Times' mobile strategy, the daily workflow at NYT Now and even why Mr. Levy, a Pulitzer Prize winning veteran reporter, is qualified to lead this mobile unit.

Ad Age: How do you choose which stories from the Times make it onto NYT Now. Is it as simple as good old-fashion news judgment or is there some science to it?

Mr. Levy: We obviously look at analytics and we let the analytics to some extent inform our story selection, but it doesn't dictate or even strongly guide our story selection. It's largely our news judgment and our gut. We're looking for the most compelling and important stories of the moment. When I say compelling, I'm not just referring to hard news, I'm also talking about stories that will provide readers with moments of delight -- a variety of great journalism from the Times.

Ad Age: How do you pick the stories from outside publications that appear in the Our Picks section?

Mr. Levy: We're looking for the stories people are talking about right now. If The Washington Post or The Guardian has a really great story, we'll put that into NYT Now. But, more importantly, we're also looking to surface stories from lesser-known publications.

We also look at NYT Now as the antidote for the fire hose problem. We're all overrun by content on our Facebook feed and our Twitter feed and we're trying to really provide a strong curatorial aesthetic. We're not giving you eight, 10 or 15 stories an hour. We're picking a few things every hour and you know that when you tap into that it's a lot of really good stuff.

So our editors scour the web, looking at what people are tweeting, looking at what stories are getting attention on Google Trends. There are a lot of different inputs we're looking at. One of the best inputs is just looking at the stories that New York Times reporters and editors are sharing on Twitter. It's hugely helpful because they're acting as the first line of curation.

One thing that differentiates Our Picks is it's written in a human, conversational, relaxed voice. It's not like the orthodox New York Times voice. It's more like your friend telling you that here's a bunch of stories you should read. That's something we work really hard on. We want to be conversational. We want to be relaxed.

Ad Age: Can you walk me through the workflow at NYT Now. How does it work on a daily or even hourly basis?

Mr. Levy: We have editors working pretty much around the clock, taking their cues on news judgment from the news desk of the Times, which is overseeing the presentation of stories that go on our homepage. They're ranking the main New York Times stories at the top of the app in large part based on that news judgment, but after the most important three, four, five stories of the day, then they're departing a little bit more. They're often trying to surface other stories from around The New York Times ecosystem that might really be compelling to mobile readers.

The NYT Now audience skews much younger than the general New York Times audience, so we're really trying to focus on what that audience wants. They really love certain kinds of tech stories; they really like certain kinds of style stories. We want to make sure we have that kind of journalism on our app at all times. The editors are presenting them in a way that we hope is very compelling to mobile readers. Right now we're putting together the evening briefing and we're hoping to use a gif as the art, which is something the New York Times has never done on its core platforms.

Ad Age: Have you done it before on NYT Now?

Mr. Levy: We've done it before on occasion at NYT Now, but NYT Now can be a lot more experimental because it's not the main New York Times platform and we can make mistakes.

Ad Age: Can you share a best practice? Is there a type of story that works really well in the morning compared with the afternoon or evening?

Mr. Levy: It's hard news in the morning. The morning briefing does really well with our readers for obvious reasons. It gets you up to speed. As we move toward the evening, the mix changes and we try to put in long reads. The most important things will always be in the app, but towards the evening we try to get more fun stuff in there. On the weekends we definitely focus on getting fun stuff in there. I'm of the belief that at night and on weekends people are often sick of the news. They certainly want to know the really important stories, but the kind of mid-level news they might be interested in in the morning they're tired of by the evening. They want something else.

We're trying something in the newsroom as a whole: How can we think more about our journalism in the context of the device and in the context of the time of day?

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