NYT Makes Now App Free, Scrapping Monthly Fee to Attract Readers

New York Times Exec. VP of Product & Technology Kinsey Wilson
Kinsey Wilson is a former executive at National Public Radio and USA Today who now oversees the New York Times Co.’s push to increase its online audience, especially on mobile devices. Source: New York Times via Bloomberg

New York Times Co. will stop charging for its mobile app NYT Now next month, an acknowledgment that its strategy of attracting more young digital readers with a fee-based subscription hasn’t been working.

The app, which debuted a year ago at $7.99 a month, will be free as of May 11 and have fewer stories and new features such as showing more recent articles higher on the screen. A slimmed-down version of the full $15-a-month digital subscription, NYT Now was aimed at younger readers with stories selected and summarized by Times editors. Apple Inc. chose it as one of its best apps of 2014.

It failed to generate a large paying audience partly because of “how we positioned the pricing of it,” Kinsey Wilson, executive vice president for product and technology at the Times, said in an interview. The goal in making the app free is to boost readership and experiment with “the best way to migrate those readers into some kind of pay model over time,” he said.

The decision, which had been hinted at for months, marks another setback in the Times mobile strategy. Last fall, the newspaper shut down its opinion app four months after it was introduced because it failed to attract a large audience. The Times has been building the readership of its free cooking app, which debuted last September.

Dropping the NYT Now app’s fee won’t have a big impact on the company’s financial performance, said Alan Mutter, a newspaper consultant who writes the blog “Reflections of a Newsosaur.” Still, the decision highlights the tensions facing many publishers trying to balance subscriptions and advertising in the digital age, he said.

‘Lots of Eyeballs’

“If you want to sell advertising you need lots of eyeballs,” Mutter said. “If you charge subscriptions you reduce the number of eyeballs you’re going to attract.”

The free app could become a vehicle for the Times to sell more advertising or promote stories to entice readers to buy the newspaper or digital subscriptions, Mutter said.

The Times plans to reintroduce its main app by April 24 with a team of editors selecting stories instead of automatically downloading them from the website and a wider variety of articles posted from across the news report. At the same time, the Times also will introduce a new app for the Apple Watch with one-sentence stories designed for smaller screens.

Asked if the Times plans more apps, Wilson said the paper is looking at “additional new ventures” likely to “launch over the course of the next year.”

Digital Subscribers

The newspaper’s evolving mobile strategy is part of its effort to find new sources of digital revenue as print advertising and circulation decline and readers get more of their news through social media and smartphones.

The Times also is trying to maintain growth in digital subscriptions and native advertising, or marketing messages that resemble news articles. The newspaper had 910,000 digital subscribers in the fourth quarter of 2014.

Chief Executive Officer Mark Thompson hinted in February he might give away NYT Now, saying at Re/Code’s Media conference “we’ve not sold as many subscriptions as we’d have liked.”

Times spokeswoman Eileen Murphy declined to say how many people signed up for NYT Now subscriptions. The app sold fewer than 20,000 subscriptions, Capital New York reported in February. The website was first to report that the app would become free, citing unidentified sources.

‘Millennial Audience’

Still, NYT Now “has been very successful in appealing to a younger, more millennial audience that may not have been exposed to the Times in other contexts, and giving them a sense of the breadth that the Times offers,” Wilson said.

The newspaper plans to use NYT Now to experiment with ways of presenting news on mobile devices with less risk than if it did so with the main app’s larger audience.

“We’re trying to not simply treat it as a derivative downstream product of what we’re doing with the desktop, but really think about the reading experience on that device, how we vary the mix and how we keep people engaged and delighted in the experience,” Wilson said.