Stephen Dunbar-Johnson has been president, international, at The New York Times for 10 years. Previously, he had been publisher of the International Herald Tribune (IHT), the 136-year-old newspaper which has morphed into the NYT’s international edition. He had joined the IHT in 1998, having been UK advertisement director of the Financial Times, the culmination of 12 years for the FT in Paris, London and New York.
He is now leading the NYT’s global expansion, with direct responsibility for its international businesses. The New York Times continues to be a runaway leader in the transformation of traditional news brands. It has some 10mn paid subscribers (92% of them digital) – an increase of almost 4mn in the past three years. It has the declared objective of reaching 15mn subscribers by 2027.
It is believed that international subscribers comprise at least 10% of all digital subscribers with the potential to reach 20% of the targeted 15mn. Last year, the company had revenue of $2.3bn (+7% up on 2021) – 30% up since 2020, with profit increased by 70% to $170mn. In addition to The Athletic (bought for $550mn in 2022), NYT has – during the past few years – acquired the word game Wordle, podcast studio Serial Productions, and Audmn audio narration of content.
The results tell the impressive story of a newspaper that had revenues of $1.99bn 2003, 60% of it from advertising. By 2010, revenue had declined by 22% to $1.6bn entirely due to the fall in advertising. The turnround started with the introduction of a metred paywall in 2011. Six years later, the NYT recorded a 8% increase in revenue, the first growth for more than 10 years. Fast forward to 2022 and like-for-like revenue was 8% up, with increases for five of the last six years. Advertising now accounts for 27% of revenue. But the subscriptions growth is no longer all about news but about the NYT’s “bundle” which includes access to the highly-rated Games and Cooking verticals, Wirecutter product reviews, and The Athletic sports content. The bundle costs roughly 50% more than just access to the news. Last year, the NYT site averaged a 145mn global monthly audience.
It’s a remarkable story that seems set to continue, with increased emphasis on international subscriptions and on The Athletic’s push for “global leadership in sports”. The New York Times is (so far) winning in the race to be the leading daily news brand in the English-speaking world. It estimates a potential subscriber audience of 135mn.
Dunbar-Johnson, who graduated in humanities from the UK’s University of Kent, is also a non-executive director of Nation Media Group Plc, of Kenya.
What were your earliest ambitions?
I wanted to be a windsurf instructor – and I dabbled in it before running out of money. I also had ambitions to write a book, still do, still may.
What was your first media job?
My first media job was at the Financial Times (FT) in the classified advertising department. It taught me that sales can be foundational if you are hard working, reasonably well organized and empathetic. It also taught me that career path is important. I stayed at the FT for 12 or so years because I had the opportunity to not just move within departments but around the world. It was a fantastic experience.
What were your milestones at the FT?
I was fortunate enough to be sent to New York when the FT was just getting established in the US (a long time ago!). The trajectory was all upwards. From there I moved to Paris which was a very different challenge but I loved it. We managed to grow the business there very significantly before I was asked to go back to the US to run the operations there. Finally, I was asked to return to the UK to run the advertising department. I returned reluctantly.
The key learning in all of this was a growing conviction that independent, high quality journalism is a rare commodity that needs to be cherished and nourished. All business decisions need to serve the mission in any business but especially so in the independent media business. By that I mean serve the protection of the integrity, quality and independence of the journalism. Without that you don’t have a business. Good journalism is good business – they are mutually reenforcing.
What was involved in the change from the IHT to New York Times International?
This was really an evolution over a decade or so but accelerated when The New York Times decided to establish the paywall and go fully digital-first. At that point, there was a realization that growing digital subscriptions to the extent that we needed to, in the middle and long term, was going to be a global endeavor. That was the catalyst for the rebranding of the international edition.
What have been your highlights (so far) at NYT?
Crikey – It’s been quite a ride as we have built out our international digital subscription base over the last decade but I think the collective highlight has been to see the very significant growth of our newsroom in London and in Seoul (our Asia hub) and the depth and breadth of our journalistic talent across the world. The fact that our digital subscription growth has been strong has allowed us to continue to invest in the journalism. The New York Times Climate Hub in Glasgow during COP26 was also a major highlight. It was a 9-day extravaganza of live journalism all focused on climate solutions. We have built a very significant climate desk at the NYT and our output on the subject is prolific.
What’s special about the news brand?
When we established our paywall in 2011, our news and opinion team was around 1,100 strong, we now have over 2,600 in our journalism operation. That in itself is distinctive in today’s media environment. I would also say the commitment to international coverage is a very distinct characteristic of the NYT. We have expanded and are continuing to expand the number of bureaus we have around the world. We are in places where most other news brands have long departed. As most tuned-in diplomats and foreign policy people around the world know, the NYT is required reading.
Are your international readers mostly expat Americans?
The international print edition of the NYT has a broad readership across Europe and Asia, composed of very loyal and passionate readers who enjoy the curated ritual of a print newspaper. On the digital side, our subscribers come from almost every country on earth. All of our readers are united by a common thread — the curious, English-speaking person seeking to understand and engage with the world.
We don’t break-out our digital subscription numbers geographically but we ended 2022 with approximately 9.55mn paid subscribers. Our stated ambition is to reach 15mn subscribers by 2027 and I believe international subscribers have the potential to make up 20% of that number.
How important is London been to your international operations?
It is extremely rewarding to see the growth of our operations in London. Some imagine that we are here to compete with the established UK media. We don’t see it like that. Firstly, our London operation is an editing hub for our entire European output and they also have their hands on the tiller of the website for a portion of the day before handing-off to New York. Also, we don’t strive to cover the UK market in the way that, say, a UK media house does. Rather, we try and publish stories that we think our global audiences should know about the UK. That is a different perspective. That is of value, as it happens, also to UK readers seeking an independent alternative source.
What are your own favourite media?
Other than The New York Times, my go to’s are the FT, for consistently good journalism, and Le Monde, a legacy of my 12 years living in Paris.
Which companies do you most admire?
Acciona, a global group that develops and manages sustainable infrastructure solutions. It is a company that has lived up to its motto of “business as unusual”. It is the type of business that can – and is – making a strong, positive societal impact without compromising its for-profit status.
Kite Insights – a young, dynamic company that focuses on thought leadership largely in the climate space. I have worked with them to produce events for The New York Times around the world. Their agility, talent and ability to get things done without ever compromising quality is fantastic.
What are the best lessons you have learned?
Avoid platitudes and – this is not intended to be one – spend more time listening than talking.