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Becoming The New York Times

Becoming The New York Times
When the Grey Lady meets the Internet, a lot happens. See for yourself.

The legendary publisher and media giant have seen it all – Men walking on Moon, Cap. E. J. Smith sinking with Titanic, the Civil Rights Movement, and more. Though the publisher began its run with a newspaper, it won over the digital-only publications by a landslide. The publisher’s traditional roots succored the digital spin-off and now, NYTimes.com is the most valuable part of the whole company.

Apparently, it’s hard to even imagine The New York Times without its online presence. Here’s what we found compelling while working on the piece – NYTimes.com will push you to take calculated risks – on both editorial and monetization fronts.

Without any further ado, let’s dive into the story of The New York Times.

Discretion: We’ll cite the parent company of the NYTimes.com while disclosing the revenue data sometimes. And, we have to extrapolate occasionally to complete the article and derive inferences. We tend to cite all the data with their respective sources unless the original source isn’t found online.

How it all started?

“The market is booming for newspapers on the World Wide Web”

– John F. Kelsey III, co-founder, The Kelsey Group, Inc.

The official NYTimes.com made it online on Jan 22, 1996. If you’re new here, we’ve already talked about the state of online newspapers back in the day here and here. Long story short, online newspapers were struggling to justify the investments they’ve made on websites. The Financial Times, for instance, employed “Net Team” to keep itself alive on the Internet.

Because of the fall of newspapers online, Don Logan, President of Time, Inc., called Internet as “The Great Black Hole”. We could go on and on. But you get the picture.

Still, The New York Times decided to see what it takes. The rest, as they say, is history.

How many visitors the NYTimes.com have had?

NYTimes 1998 Stats

NYTimes.com had around 250,000 users per day (Src), just after two years of its online foray. That’s 3x more than the Guardian. Apparently, it’s a huge feat. According to another source, NYTimes had more than one million registered users in 1998 (Src).

It seems undoable, but the publisher’s conscientious move rationalize the numbers. Yeah, most tend to oversee how The New York Times tested itself by opting to be a part of America Online. The newspaper giant launched @times in 1996, to 4 million subscribers of America Online.

Without a surprise, it worked. We believe AOL was a perfect ground for NYTimes to warm up and get ready to venture out.  

Where they are today?

The market cap of The New York Times* is $4.90 billion at the time of writing the post.

*Here we refer to the parent company The New York Times, which holds several other media assets excluding NYTimes.com.

NYTimes traffic and revenue in 2018

If you think that’s broad, the Times disclosed that the digital advertising rose 8.6 percent, to $259 million last year. The total readers hit an all-time high of 136 million. Most importantly, the publisher managed to convince 3.6 million people to pay for its digital content (Src). When the media industry struggled to cut down losses and sustain their digital revenue, the Times added 265,000 subscribers in the last quarter. That being said, NYTimes.com faced its own problems and dealt with joint venture losses.

What’s more impressive?

The Times won an astonishing 60 Pulitzer Prizes, nearly doubling the paper’s Pulitzer count. Increasing subscribers and Pulitzer prices mutually help each other. They’re deliberately tied to each other, not serendipitously.

Becoming The New York Times

Ciao, Grey Lady

1996 – 2000

We’ve just shown you how The New York Times went from thousands to millions. Obviously, there need to be a lot of strategies, decisions, ups, and downs. Let’s start where the Times started.

Start Small, Go Big

As we mentioned earlier, NYTimes.com has been taking calculated risks right from the start. The first example is how the publisher released a beta version after its short-presence on America Online.

NYTimes.com Beta

Yeah, NYTimes.com beta was released on the Internet, half-a-year before the actual launch. It gave the headroom for the print publisher to try-out the Internet. To be frank, the Times doesn’t have to be so cautious. Considering it’s legacy and print readership at the time (it was the country’s biggest-circulation all-week paper with a weekday circulation of 1,071,120), it could’ve directly jumped into the online newspaper industry.

But, the Times decided to keep it slow and steady, at the start. The same ideology continues to help the publisher succeed in most of its bets.

Data-driven Approach

While all the other legacy newspapers stayed without any paywalls and restrictions, the Times pulled it off with walls.

No one can access the website for free. Either the publisher asked the first-time users to register and browse certain parts of the website for free or register and pay to have unlimited access to NYTimes.com content.

The Times collected data including country, zip code, household income, industry, job title, and The New York Times newspaper usage. In the beginning, newspapers typically invested in the online expedition with the goal of reaching people worldwide.

National newspapers couldn’t go international, besides the number of readers gets saturated in some time. They considered online as a new way to get the reach. In simple, they practiced reaching first, monetization next approach.

On the other hand, the Times thought of its online website as a different version of the newspaper. Also, it doesn’t want readers to bounce off as there are other news sites competing to get as much attention as possible.

So, it took a balanced data-driven approach. Get the data of the users and then, personalize the content and pitch to move them to the paying-readers cohort.

Did it work?

See for yourself.

NYT Stock Price 1996 - 2000


Ad Revenue - NYTimes Early Days

You might be thinking, how we’re attributing the revenue increase to NYTimes.com. Well, we aren’t. There are studies to back up our statement. Top websites (like NYTimes.com) were making impressive revenue in the late 1990s (Src).

Cohort of WebsitesValue per


Combined Annual Revenues

for sites in this cohort

Top 10,000 sites1 cent$19 billion
Next million sites3 cents$27 billion
Next ten million sites

(numbered 2-11 million from the top)

10 cents$234 billion
Next ten million sites

(numbered 12-21 million from the top)

$1$1 trillion
Last 79 million sites00

Sidenote: However, we would like to note that the revenue increase can’t be because of NYTimes.com alone. The New York Times had other online media properties, which probably ended up adding a small percentage of advertising revenue.

Now, it’s time to reach

Today, what media publishers do to get readers?

They’ll go to social networks and paid content syndication services. But when you run a website in the 1990s, there aren’t any social networks or paid traffic services to get the readers. Even the search engines weren’t that popular*.

*In 1998, when Google launched it was serving 10,000 queries each day. Now, it’s over 3.5 billion per day.

The Times learned to spread its presence by capitalizing on then used online platforms.


The publisher wants to be everywhere – handheld devices and desktops. So, it partnered with AvantGo software, one of the earliest browsers to sync headlines to the readers’ handheld devices.


It ran daily emails to the subscribers. Subscribers can select specific sections of the Times and get them delivered to their email addresses.


Some news isn’t topical or ephemeral. They’re evergreen. Besides, people were more nostalgic and the Times developed (and it still maintains it) archive to let readers travel back in time. Why would a publisher invest heavily to maintain and host thousands of newspapers online?

There’s a catch. You had to pay $2.50 per article. Only summaries were free.

The New York Times Explorer Bar

“Stay current throughout the day with The New York Times Explorer Bar. You can enjoy the day’s top stories, breaking news updates every ten minutes, market information and access to stock quotes.”

– From the archives of NYTimes.com

iPing’s Mr. Wakeup

Most wouldn’t aware of iPing. It was a website where you could schedule a wakeup call, so the name Mr. Wakeup. NYTimes found a way to reach readers every morning when they wake up – The publisher read the headlines on Mr. Wakeup.

Automatad Team

At Automatad, we help publishers to monetize better without hampering the user experience. Our products are live across hundreds of publishers, earning them incremental ad revenue with every passing second. You can request a free audit to get an estimated revenue uplift today.

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