Content Isn’t King: A Lesson From The New York Times

Late last week, one of the most interesting critiques of the media landscape was released by the New York Times, in a frank and honest self-assessment of how the venerable paper is doing in today’s media marketplace. The outlook for the paper is challenging; despite having a powerful brand and one of the most respected names in journalism, they have lost as much as 50% of their readership online in the last two years:


The paper is an extensive read, and well worth the time for any digital marketing or PR professional (Scott Monty did an excellent writeup here), but the heart of it is this: the New York Times has recognized that it’s better at earned media than owned media. Its content often does better on competitors’ websites than its own. Under normal circumstances, this would be a cause for celebration; having a product that others want to promote on your behalf is ordinarily a good thing.

The exception to this rule is when you are the media, when your core product is the audience itself, something that the Times has finally recognized in this report. They’ve identified as one of their urgent strategic priorities the need to focus on building their audience and engaging it so as to grow loyalty (which is also the core mission and deliverable of effective public relations).

Here’s why this matters to your brand and business: the fatal flaw that the New York Times is trying to solve is one that every business needs to solve. For years, the refrain in marketing has been “content is king”. If there’s any institution that has content, it’s the New York Times, with 14,723,933 in its archive dating back to 1851, and the well-earned nickname as the paper of record. If content were truly king in and of itself, the New York Times would have put its competitors out of business long ago, and new entrants to the market such as Buzzfeed would have languished in obscurity until funding ran out.

Content by itself is not enough, no matter how good it is. Content is only the start of the audience growth journey. In order to be successful, you must market your content. You must get other people to share your content, but do so in a way that brings your audience back to you, back to your website and your digital properties so that they can engage with you in meaningful, tangible ways, ways that ultimately involve doing business with you.

This above all else is the central lesson of the New York Times paper, though there are countless other smaller lessons that can benefit any business: content, properly promoted, must bring people back to you in a meaningful fashion, in a way that tangibly benefits your business. This strong lesson is true of all media, from earned PR to social media to advertising.

Take the New York Times lesson and extend it to your brand and business. If you invest all of your time and effort into your Facebook Page, into your Twitter account, into contributing content for everyone else’s site except your own, then what you’re doing is helping grow the audience of platforms that you don’t own. Audience is an asset, one that you need to grow for yourself as well as for those media partners you choose to work with.

When strategizing for earned, owned, and paid media reach, approach this with the desired outcome being a balance between the three. No one channel should be so dominant that it puts your communications strategy at risk, something that the Times has learned and now has to work to correct.

Christopher S. Penn
Vice President, Marketing Technology


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