The Times’s subscription business is booming. But the BuzzFeed CEO has a critique.
Jonah Peretti co-founded the Huffington Post, then left to start BuzzFeed. Now he’s running both companies: BuzzFeed is picking up HuffPost from Verizon, the phone company that thought it wanted to be in the media business and then changed its mind.
I talked to Peretti about the rationale for the deal (scale, scale, scale), whether he can guarantee that all HuffPost employees will keep their jobs (no), how much Verizon paid him to take HuffPost off its hands (he won’t say), and whether he wants to buy more stuff (yes, probably). You can hear all of that in our Recode Media podcast.
But I was struck by something we talked about at the end of our chat when I asked him about the success of the New York Times, which has been thriving over the last few years, while BuzzFeed, like many digital media companies, has had to retrench.
The irony, as Peretti is well aware, is that in 2014, the Times’s leadership was terrified that the paper was about to be surpassed by the likes of … BuzzFeed and HuffPost. The paper created a 96-page “innovation report” to help it fight back.
The Times, Peretti allowed, has since refined a very good subscription business model, which has allowed it to make better journalism by hiring more and better talent. This is not a controversial opinion.
But the next part may be: The New York Times, Peretti argued, can’t really be called “the paper of record” anymore — because of that same subscription model.
“A subscription business model leads towards being a paper for a particular group and a particular audience and not for the broadest public,” Peretti said. He’s alluding, in part, to the theory that the Times’s subscriber base wants to read a certain kind of news and opinion — middle/left of center, critical of Donald Trump, etc. — and that straying from that can cost it subscribers. But he’s also simply arguing that the act of requiring readers to pay to read cuts the Times off from a big audience.
Peretti’s solution to that problem, it turns out, sounds a whole lot like a combined BuzzFeed/HuffPost — publications that are widely distributed, supported by advertising, and free*:
“Will a subscription newspaper that is read by a subset of society have as big an impact as it could on voters, on the broad public, on young people, on the more diverse rising generation of millennials and Gen Z?” he argued. “I think there’s a huge opportunity to serve those consumers. And not all of them are going to be subscribers to any publication.”
I can’t argue with Peretti on one front: The Times, with 7 million subscribers and an ambition to get to 10 million, soon, certainly isn’t reaching everyone. And there’s a dangerous gap between the people with the time, money, and inclination to inform themselves with the Times and everyone else. And if he wants to fill it with free news from his newly augmented media empire, I wish him well. He most certainly won’t fix the problem alone. But if along the way he makes more good journalism available to more people, I’ll applaud it.