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InContext / An inside look at the business of digital content

Axios and The New York Times explore new business models

June 15, 2017 | By Ron Miller—Independent Technology Journalist @ron_miller

The New York Times and Axios couldn’t be more different. The former is a venerable print newspaper founded in 1851 and finds itself in the midst of a digital transformation. The latter was born digital, launching online just last year.

While it breaks more than its fair share of news, The Times is well known for its detailed deep-dives on a variety of subjects from politics and business to cooking, sports, and book reviews. Axios, on the other hand, is the very essence of brevity concentrating on business, politics, and tech. Their stories quickly deliver the basics and let you move on with your busy life . (Though recently it has also branched out into media and science reporting.)

Yet for all these seeming differences, the two publications may have more in common than not. When it comes down to it, both want to earn consumers’ trust and loyalty by delivering quality journalism every day. And both are working on new models for delivering the news in a profitable digital package, however that manifests itself.

At this year’s TechCrunch Disrupt in New York City, Mark Thompson CEO of the Times and Mike Allen, cofounder and executive editor at Axios appeared onstage in separate interviews, and what they had to say offered a fascinating window into the changing face of the journalism business.

Short and Satisfying

Every journalist learns the ABCs –  accuracy, brevity, clarity. Axios takes this seriously but, according to Allen, their focus starts with the brevity. “Traditional newspapers served their purpose in their day, but as we got busier, it was harder to make time to read,” he said. “The idea of Axios is how can we efficiently use your time and catch you up quickly.”

Discussing The Times’ transformation into a more digitally-centric property, Thompson admitted that mistakes were made along the way. But he feels confident that they have a much stronger digital offering today. He explained that in the 70s and 80s, the newspaper expanded into multiple different sections including lifestyles, food, fashion, and people came to think of The Times brand as representing much more than news and opinion.

However, he said “I think one of the missteps in a way was in digital—that the Times got typecast again to be just being about news, where in fact it’s about culture, travel, food and so on and so forth. We’re trying to [return to] the idea of a media provider who can help you with many aspects of your life, as well as giving you the best journalism in the world and a range of opinion,” he said.

A Trusted Source

Regardless of whether you are succinct or verbose, stick to the news or offer broader insights, you need to earn readers’ trust to take a share of their valuable time. And, as we move into an era of social media sharing and an ever-growing number of news sources competing for attention, earning and maintaining trust is increasingly difficult.

Allen points out that in previous generations there were a limited number of news sources, (including The New York Times). In those days, people tended to believe what these sources proffered as news. However, with ever proliferating “news” sources, increasingly disintermediated from the source itself through social media distribution, figuring out what’s true and what’s not has become challenging.

“Now, people – very understandably – don’t know what to believe, whom to trust.” So at Axios, he said “we hope to be a safe place where you can come. And it doesn’t matter where you are on the [political] spectrum, you are going to be able to very quickly see what reality is.”

Thompson sees delivering quality journalism as the natural path to building a loyal audience. Even though some readers may disagree with the message on a given day, the objective is to maintain The New York Times reputation as a trusted source.

“Being true to ourselves and our mission is the best way to build loyalty [with] our subscribers over time. And we have a passionate relationship with our subscribers. Even when they threaten to leave, evidence suggests they are back very soon,” Thompson said.

Building the Strategy

Regardless of the age of these two publications, they are working very hard to create digital products with long-term viability. As Thompson points out, a successful digital strategy needs to be an integration of content strategy and audience engagement.

“In a way, if you can get your audience engagement right, the actual business of turning an engaged audience into money is a very downstream, and in some ways, less difficult, less critical task,” he said. “The real task is getting people’s passionate engagement with the brand, with the  content, and caring about you enough that they are willing to pay.”

Allen says that means avoiding what they call the ‘crap trap.’  “The crap trap is: If you’re just going for clicks, just going for a mass audience, you get pushed down. We are very focused on reaching people who are serious news consumers. These people who to know about something because they are curious and it helps them in their business and professions. That’s what we think about when we post something. We want to make sure it’s worthy of your time,” Allen explained.

Both of these publications are fighting for the same thing: trust, time, and attention. While their approaches may differ, their goals—and many of their underlying tenants—are remarkably similar.

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