For the New York Times, the coming of the internet could have been a death knell. Indeed, the digital age has spelled the end for many print publications, but a few of the largest American newspapers have adapted to the changing media landscape, surviving and even thriving through the first two decades of the 21st century.
The New York Times is one such newspaper. For decades, the Times made its money from print advertisements, but over the course of the shift online, a new revenue source became more viable: readers. In 2012, revenue from people buying the print paper or access to its digital edition surpassed revenue from advertising (Sullivan 2013). This trend was exacerbated by the pandemic, as the whole world moved online and more people felt the need for access to a trusted news source (Tracy 2020). But ultimately, the New York Times has managed to weather the storm well enough to remain a viable company, and its financial future looks bright (Edmonds 2022).
In order to reach this position though, the New York Times had to successfully make the jump from page to screen. The powerful potential of electronic communication was apparent as early as the 1980s, and the Times made several attempts to harness this potential. The Times and other news outlets experimented with faxing people the paper, but these initiatives inevitably proved impractical and costly (Usher 2014).
The Times and other papers also used Videotext, invented in the 1970s, to deliver news electronically to hotels and businesses, but by the late 1980s effectively each and every videotext project had been discontinued (Usher 2014).
In the 80s the Times also launched and discontinued The New York Pulse, a dialup internet news initiative. With just a few dozen staff and a few hundred paid subscribers, the New York Pulse was never really given a chance to get off the ground (Usher 2014).
After none of these efforts saw success, the Times set aside any online ambitions until the mid-1990s, when the impending impact of the internet became impossible to ignore. In 1994 the Times partnered with the company of the moment, AOL, to create @times, featuring some content from the print paper and including forums where users could discuss (Usher 2014). Often featured prominently on the AOL homepage, the @times site received high visibility, but received underwhelming traffic: of the over 26 million hours of connect time recorded in May 1996 only 72,642 hours came from @times, which was supposed to be AOL’s flagship news site (Goodell 1996). In comparison, users logged 7 million hours on chat—over a quarter of the total (Goodell 1996).
In 1996, the New York Times launched its own website: nytimes.com. (In October 1995 the Times did a test run of online coverage using Pope John Paul II’s visit to America as a training ground.) The site reproduced the paper’s print content online, like we’re used to today. However, the Times’ site initially also included original articles intended to appeal to the Web audience, including CyberTimes, aimed at people interested in tech (Usher 2014).
The article announcing the launch of nytimes.com declared “no subscription or access fee would be charged for readers in the United States,” whereas readers from “outside the country will be offered a 30-day trial without charge, but will eventually face a subscription fee” (Lewis 1996). However the business plan was initially to make money from online advertising, and after 18 months the Times decided to stop charging readers outside of the United States (Lichterman 2016).
The Times tried an alternative way to get readers to pay for some content. In 2005, the Times launched TimesSelect, which charged $49.95 a year, or $7.95 a month, for online access to columns and to the Times’ archives, but was offered free to print subscribers and to some students and educators (Pérez-Peña 2007).
Over the years, in the quest to find a viable business model for the digital age, the New York Times erected a paywall in 2011, charging a $15 per/month fee and limiting non-paying readers to 20 free articles per month (D’Orazio 2012). In the article announcing the change, the Times claimed, “No American news organization as large as The Times has tried to put its content behind a pay wall after allowing unrestricted access. The move is being closely watched by anxious publishers, which have warily embraced the Web and struggled with how to turn online journalism into a profitable business” (Peters 2011) After a successful first year and a draw of a few hundred thousand paying subscribers, the Times cut the number of free articles down to 10 per month in 2012 (D’Orazio 2012). Currently non-subscribers can still access 10 articles per month, but the monthly cost for paying subscribers has gone up from $15 to $17.
Over the years the appearance of nytimes.com has not changed substantially, which makes sense given the Times’ identity as a professional, serious, no-frills news source. As you can see in the images below, though the site has received updates and makeovers, the page still fundamentally resembles a newspaper page, with the New York Times header and then headlines and links to articles.
The only times the appearance of the site changed substantially have been major events. For example, as you can below, the 2000 presidential election warranted a fancy blue border. And more notably, during the attacks on 9/11/01, the site went stripped-down in appearance in the name of delivering news as quickly and efficiently as possible.
All of these webpages above were displayed on computer monitors and thus consumed by computer owners. But just as computers became big, soon came smartphones. The New York Times launched an app for iPhone in 2008 (NYTimes 2008). This core app is still around and is of course updated regularly like any other app. There’s also an app for the Times’ games specifically, like the crossword and spelling bee, though these games can be accessed on the main app. And there’s also a Times cooking app.
But for every successful app idea, there’s a dud. In 2014 the Times launched an $8/month service with an app called TimesNow, which delivered articles edited specifically for a web audience—basically cut down for the shorter attention spans of young people (Somaiya 2014). The app didn’t catch on and was phased out in 2016 (Ember 2016).
In adapting to the web, the Times has had to figure out how to cater to its readers, which, as evidenced by the webpages above, are very interested in politics. One way the Times has captivated readers is through live online election coverage with interactive maps and graphs. And even beyond politics, the Times has found ways to incorporate the possibilities of digital publishing into articles, through interactive graphics and video.
All images from Version Museum’s “History of the New York Times Website”
D’Orazio, Dante. “The New York Times Cuts Free Access to Ten Articles per Month, Has 454,000 Paid Digital Subscribers.” The Verge. The Verge, March 20, 2012. https://www.theverge.com/2012/3/20/2887305/new-york-times-free-access-paywall-digital-subscribers.
Edmonds, Rick. “In Tough Conditions, Business at the New York Times Continues to Thrive.” Poynter, August 4, 2022. https://www.poynter.org/business-work/2022/in-tough-conditions-business-at-the-new-york-times-continues-to-thrive/.
Ember, Sydney. “New York Times to Shelve Nyt Now App.” The New York Times. The New York Times, August 18, 2016. https://www.nytimes.com/2016/08/19/business/media/new-york-times-to-shelve-nyt-now-app.html.
Goodell, Jeff. “The Fevered Rise of America Online.” Rolling Stone. No. 744, October 1996.
Lewis, Peter H. “The New York Times Introduces a Web Site.” The New York Times. The New York Times, January 22, 1996. https://www.nytimes.com/1996/01/22/business/the-new-york-times-introduces-a-web-site.html.
Lichterman, Joseph. “20 Years Ago Today, NYTimes.com Debuted ‘on-Line’ on the Web.” Nieman Lab. the President and Fellows of Harvard College, 2016. https://www.niemanlab.org/2016/01/20-years-ago-today-nytimes-com-debuted-on-line-on-the-web/.
“NYTimes IPhone Application.” The New York Times. The New York Times, July 11, 2008. https://archive.nytimes.com/firstlook.blogs.nytimes.com/2008/07/11/nytimes-iphone-application/?searchResultPosition=5.
Pérez-Peña, Richard. “Times to Stop Charging for Parts of Its Web Site.” The New York Times. The New York Times, September 18, 2007. https://www.nytimes.com/2007/09/18/business/media/18times.html.
Peters, Jeremy W. “The Times Announces Digital Subscription Plan.” The New York Times. The New York Times, March 17, 2011. https://www.nytimes.com/2011/03/18/business/media/18times.html.
Somaiya, Ravi. “With App and Premium Plan, the Times Expands Online Offerings.” The New York Times. The New York Times, March 26, 2014. https://www.nytimes.com/2014/03/27/business/media/the-times-is-expanding-its-digital-subscriptions-offerings.html.
Sullivan, Margaret. “A Milestone Behind, A Mountain Ahead.” The New York Times. The New York Times, January 19, 2013. https://www.nytimes.com/2013/01/20/public-editor/a-milestone-behind-a-mountain-ahead.html.
Tracy, Marc. “The New York Times Tops 6 Million Subscribers as Ad Revenue Plummets.” The New York Times. The New York Times, May 6, 2020. https://www.nytimes.com/2020/05/06/business/media/new-york-times-earnings-subscriptions-coronavirus.html.
Usher, Nikki. Making News at the New York Times. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2014.