The news at large is doing worse than ever, but The Gray Lady has a fresh coat of paint. The New York Times ($NYT) has seen record growth during COVID-19, increasing its staff on an exponential curve as several world events collide in what has become one of the busiest news years in recent history.
The New York Times’ employee headcount has increased nearly 39.5% in 2020 alone. In the nearly four years since election day in 2016, headcount has increased a staggering 66.7%. The paper’s share price has seen a similar growth curve over the same period, seeing a 35.5% increase since January.
The last several months have constituted one of the largest periods of growth in the history of the paper. In its earnings report earlier this month, the Times announced it had registered an additional 669,000 digital subscribers - the largest single-quarter increase in the company’s history and roughly the size of the entire population of Detroit. The paper also announced that for the first time, revenue from digital subscriptions exceeded that of print subscriptions, marking a major milestone in the worldwide shift from print to digital media.
Despite its many critics and the problems facing the media in general, the success of The New York Times casts no shadow of doubt over the paper’s place as a formidable institution in world news.
The source of The New York Times’ success is manyfold. The last several years of controversy and political unrest have put the mass media under an especially intense spotlight, often at direct odds with President Donald Trump and the Republican Party at large. Constant news out of Capitol Hill and the White House under Trump’s administration have helped to generate an increased demand for political coverage.
But more than simply increase demand, it has also helped with the paper’s branding efforts. Often cast by the Trump administration as “fake news” or even the “enemy of the American people,” the Times has leaned heavily into an opposition narrative, positioning itself as an arbiter of truth under an administration that is bent on misinformation - even if its infamous Op-Ed page often runs contrary to that mission.
Several of the paper’s ad campaigns, like its recent “The Truth Is” ads, break down the reporting process behind some of its biggest stories in bullet note format to demystify how the news gets made.
The paper has also proved a useful resource in the time of COVID-19, offering several live trackers to see new cases and hotspots across the world. Aside from the interest generated by the constant scandals of the Trump administration, the Times has also made a noted effort to offer a service to readers beyond just the news. The paper’s cooking section has exploded in popularity, its video output has increased, and a swath of live events offered to higher-tier subscribers make it clear that The New York Times Company envisions the future of the paper as a multimedia service that readers rely on whether it’s for information or leisure.
That strategy has paid dividends for the Times in more ways than one. The paper’s main Twitter following has increased 117% since 2016 - that’s over 25,000,000 new eyeballs on the Times, whether they’re hate-follows or not.
But the success of The New York Times alone can’t make up for the irreparable damage done to the news industry in recent years. The long, painful decline of local news and smaller websites has reached terminal velocity thanks to COVID-19. A quick scroll through Poynter’s list of outlets that faced layoffs or complete closure thanks to COVID shows the scale of the problem; more jobs have been lost than even a thousand-employee increase at The New York Times could ever make up for, and communities across America are left without local outlets to hold politicians to task and speak for the needs of the people.
In the end, the Times’ growth is both a net gain and loss for the American public. The increased importance of news is, in the simplest of terms, a good thing, but the Times simply cannot fill the black hole left by the death of local news outlets. The Times operates on a national and global scale, and even if it were to devote consistent coverage to small communities across America — something that may ultimately prove to be unprofitable for the company — it would run the risk of parachute journalism, and couldn’t devote the kind of consistent, hawkish coverage that communities under duress need. The Times itself has covered the scale of loss in local media, reporting in May that some 36,000 news jobs had been lost due to COVID-19, a number that has only increased with the passage of time.
What The New York Times has been able to do over the last four years, and particularly under COVID-19, would not be possible without its scale and pre-existing reputation. Without its history, they would not have been able to flip the script on the Trump administration’s anti-media narrative for its own benefit. Without its scale, they would not have been able to devote the resources to ad campaigns to that end.
The New York Times’ success is surely a good thing for the American public, but as its sphere of influence grows and local news dies out, all readers from the most ardent fans to its harshest opponents should be highly critical of the paper and push for its news to be of higher quality. But no matter where you come down on The Gray Lady, she isn’t going anywhere anytime soon.