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The New York Times has a social media problem

3 weeks ago by Joshua Fruhlinger in Trends

Two of Donald Trump's favorite things include social media and trolling The New York Times ($NYSE:NYT). The president particularly enjoys calling the newspaper the "Failing New York Times" and rarely misses a chance to attack its reputation.

But is the Times really failing, as Trump would have his believers believe? The answer, on the metrics he likely cares about most, is a solid "No". And that's not just because revenue at the paper has been trending up in the past few years. It also won multiple Pulitzer Prizes a few months back, in part for its investigative reporting of the president's finances. 

In 2016, The New York Times made $1.55 billion. In 2018, it reported $1.75 billion in revenue. While the paper did make $3.3 billion in 2006, recent years show that the company's income is trending in the right direction.

Much of The Times' recent success is credited to the company developing a smart digital strategy that has seen paperless subscription revenue grow in lieu of declining print subscriptions. But then it comes to Donald Trump's favorite digital turf — social media — the Times has a growth problem.

Facebook

The New York Times' Facebook page has 16.8 million likes. Objectively, that's a lot. In fact, it's almost three times the number of Facebook followers that the Wall Street Journal claims on Facebook ($NASDAQ:FB).

But a closer look at the Times' Facebook following timeseries revels a slowing trend. From 2016 to 2018, the paper's Facebook followers grew by more than 60%.  However, when looking at year-over-year growth for Facebook, things are slowing down precipitously.

In 2017, for instance, The New York Times' Facebook following was growing at a YoY rate of around 25%. Since then, its growth vector has slowed to just 3.5% year over year. If this keeps up, we may see it losing followers on Facebook.

It appears to already be happening. For big brands that have been the center of political discourse over the past few years, some have seen attrition in their Faceook following. We recently reported that retail giant Walmart lost 267,810 followers on Facebook in just 8 months

But, some context: Facebook usage overall is plateauing: growth on the world's largest social network isn't what it once was. Given that, The Times' drop in momentum on the platform shouldn't be too surprising.

However, the trend appears on Twitter as well.

Twitter

On Twitter, The New York Times boasts even more followers than it does on Facebook: 44 million. In 2016, when Trump was elected, it claimed only half that number of followers.

A similar trend emerges: the number of followers The TImes is picking up on Twitter is plateauing, and when looking at year-over-year change, it's approaching a near stop and potential reversal.

In 2016, the paper was picking up followers on Twitter at a rate of around 50% year over year. Today, that vector has reduced to just over 5%.

Again, this could all be due to a general plateau in Twitter usage over time, which does match usage trends for Trump's favorite platform over time.

However, current trends point to a potential future in which The Times' social media presence looks like that of Walmart: a future in which users actively turn their backs on the brand by unfollowing.

LinkedIn

Social media momentum isn't all bad news for The New York Times. On LinkedIn, the paper has actually seen a bit of an uptick in followers.

As of this week, the paper has 3.58 million followers on the business-friendly network. In fact, as of late, it's showing an uptick in follower acquisitions on LinkedIn, signaling that its content is finding an audience on that platform.

While there was some slowdown on LinkedIn for The New York Times — its 53% YoY rate in late 207 sagged to 12% by May 2018 — it's now acquiring new followers on LinkedIn at a rate of 14% Year-over-Year, signaling potential for growth beyond Facebook and Twitter.

The future 

Does all of this mean that The New York Times is failing, as certain people would have us believe? Hardly. The paper's growing revenue numbers and continued journalistic bullishness both belie any objective measurement of "failure". 

But trends are trends, and changes in trends are particularly foreshadowing. As always, we'll keep an eye on the trendlines.

About the Data: 

Thinknum tracks companies using information they post online - jobs, social and web traffic, product sales and app ratings - and creates data sets that measure factors like hiring, revenue and foot traffic. Data sets may not be fully comprehensive (they only account for what is available on the web), but they can be used to gauge performance factors like staffing and sales. 

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Joshua Fruhlinger

Joshua has been writing about technology, lifestyle, and business for over 20 years. He's one of the original writers and editors for Engadget, and still writes a...

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