You once thought the best way to get rich quick was to win a Hollywood game show?
That was so 20th century.
The best route to prosperity today might be to persuade President Donald Trump to accuse you of “failing.”
Take the case of the New York Times, the favorite of Mr. Trump’s clutch of “failing” companies. Its stock price has soared since he took office. Times stock traded at $13.17 on January 2017 day of the president’s inauguration. On Friday, it closed at $35.50
Digital circulation replaced hard copies across the U.S., and the Times was in a unique place. As a leader of a handful of true “national” newspapers, it was in a position to gain digital subscribers because it ran items of wide interest to many readers. Few comparable urban papers can even come close. The Wall Street Journal is a top contender, but it’s in the lone basket of the top business paper.
The Washington Post is the next real contender. Owned by Amazon’s Jeff Bezos (another Trump enemy), the Post has rebooted aggressive coverage of the nation’s capital. In many ways, the competition between Times and Post mirrors the Watergate era of 1972-74, when the papers went after the slowly-spreading scandal involving the link between Richard Nixon’s re-election fund and a break-in at Democratic National Committee headquarters.
It would cost a fortune to subscribe to either Post or Times in paper form. But the ability to read both online costs a fraction of that: about $99 a year for each.
A true digital paper could cash in quickly, since it costs next to nothing to gain an additional subscriber.
Add that business reality to the sheer luck of being branded a presidential enemy, and you are occupying the highest-priced real estate since the Nixon Enemies List became coveted.
It’s hard to say which — the branding or the digital business model — produces more traction for a paper like the Times. But there is little doubt that the paper and its writing staff has benefited from its position of speaking truth to power. Some even see the Times and Post as some of the loan guardians of the “real story” behind the scoundrel factor of American politics.
It wasn’t always so. Before Trump was in power, many newspaper economists recognized the severe gamble the Times was taking in selecting a rare path to save itself from the erosion of print readership. Another 9 percent of print readers crumbled nationally last year.
The Times, like any other paper, was operating on the usual business model: get circulation up as high as possible, and sell that high number to advertisers anxious for readers’ eyes.
But circulation itself was expensive to produce. In a rush to sell ever higher subscriber numbers, papers would slash their rates for home delivery — some to say, a buck a week, or mere pennies. Circulation departments were bleeding money as newspapers contracted phone boiler rooms to hawk copies. Meanwhile, print advertising continued a painful decline.
Some papers lost sight of basic business. If the key to the game was advertising — which produced the bulk of revenues — why not give the paper away? Few papers adopted that model (though both Aspen daily papers are free to readers).
The Times bet that it could lose huge swaths of paper advertisers, but gain back the revenue from hundreds of thousands of digital subscribers who’d pay for a peek at what was truly going on in Washington and certain business capitals. Many thought the Times would lose out. Its stock tanked.
One key to its survival was a rare form of family ownership that gave the Ochs-Sulzberger family unusual voting power above normal shareholders. The family was bound together by almost-spiritual gatherings in which its members would pledge their continuing allegiance to independent, searching journalism.
With Inauguration Day 2017, Trump bestowed upon the Times the rare honor of a “failing paper” tied to “fake news.” The paper redoubled its aggressive coverage of the new administration, and readers began to perceive a threat to independent coverage. Fox News was already soaring by engaging in a reverse strategy in which it touted its ties to conservatives and all but abandoned its pledge of “fair and balanced” coverage.
The paper continues to ply risky waters. Starbucks said on Saturday it would no longer carry the paper as it always has — probably a decision involving business strategy.
Some feared New York Times stock might sink beneath the horizon before the dawn of the Trump era. It has not worked out that way.