Gongol.com Archives: February 2022

Brian Gongol

February 2, 2022

Business and Finance The Times sees the signs

It may be going too far to label the New York Times a "lifestyle brand", but the Old Gray Lady is engaged in what is clearly a process of self-definition that has grown beyond "All the news that's fit to print". In the latest move, the Times has reached a deal to acquire the game Wordle, which has become the social sensation of the moment. ■ Games are obviously nothing new to the Times; the Internet in particular seems only to have instigated institutional interest in being seen as a center for word games. But the Times has been publishing crossword puzzles since World War II, and one Times columnist reports that the old internal saying was that "the crossword puzzle pays for the Baghdad bureau". That kind of cross-subsidy is neither new to publishing nor shocking. ■ But what's interesting -- at least for the moment -- is that the Times seems to be alone in its quest to be seen as a reliable source of original, exclusive, and differentiated way-of-life media content. The Wall Street Journal has stuck its toe into leisure reporting and the Washington Post has some games on its website, but neither has pressed in the same way on brand-defining content outside of straight news coverage (especially of financial and political topics, respectively) as the Times has done. ■ What's odd, too, is that American media outlets in other conventional lanes -- television networks, radio groups, magazines, cable channels, and even websites -- have ceded the same turf to the Times without really even trying. It doesn't really mean much of anything for a person to identify as a "CBS News viewer" or a "Yahoo subscriber", and aside from the obvious political connotations that tend to bear with calling oneself an MSNBC or Fox News viewer, there's little that seems to exist to attach people to those larger brand umbrellas. Sure, one can pay for the Disney Bundle, but streaming services don't really have reputations beyond the specific shows or movies they deliver. ■ This all seems odd because even if the Times has an advantage in this area, it's still a work in progress and remains quite new. One writer notes that news subscriptions are much more important to the Times than they were two decades ago, but that revenues not directly related to news are now driving the company's subscription growth. In other words, the Times is reacting to changing circumstances -- but it's neither alone in the economic conditions it faces, nor is there any reason to think it has a right to a monopoly in its lane. ■ Historically, the pattern always seems to have favored at least three major competitors in a mass market -- think of the Big Three automakers in Detroit; the ABC, CBS, and NBC television networks; or the longtime triumvirate of American, United, and Delta in the skies. The stability of a three-sided competitive market isn't permanent; all three of those examples have succumbed to intense pressure from at least one tough rival (Toyota, Fox, and Southwest, respectively). ■ But it would come as no surprise if there were to emerge at least two other Times-like original/exclusive content sources that attempted to establish themselves as competitors in the same broader-than-just-news category -- not because the Times will fall short, but because of the success itself. There's no form of flattery quite like imitation, and it would be a massive mistake to ignore the success of forays like NYT Cooking. ■ Success will likely depend upon having at least some established name to use as a base, especially since that cachet is important to attracting both subscribers and content generators. But that name will have to be at least relatively free of baggage -- even people who don't like the editorial stance of the Times generally recognize it as being mostly mainstream. ■ It would be fair to guess that The Atlantic might take a stab at following the Times model, but it tends to occupy a very similar lane (in terms of where its perspective leans) with the Times. It would be fascinating to see a similarly mainstream institution -- but perhaps with a gently different outlook -- try to become the same kind of content giant. Historically, one might have imagined the Chicago Tribune to be prepared to take up such a spot, but its new owners have chosen to downsize radically rather than think bigger. So, assuming the Times isn't barking up the wrong tree altogether, who will it be?

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