How NYT Cooking amassed 120,000 subscriptions in a year and a half

NYT Cooking charges $5 a month

By JILL DISIS, CNN BUSINESS
Mike Coppola/Getty Images

(CNN) - The New York Times bet more than a year ago that it could convince an audience of foodies to pay for a standalone section devoted to all things cooking.

About 120,000 subscriptions later, the newspaper thinks it has proven that NYT Cooking is not just another flash in the pan.

The Times isn't shy about touting its success: The newspaper recently announced that it surpassed four million total subscriptions. But persuading a sizable chunk of those people to sign up for a separate food website was no small feat.

NYT Cooking charges $5 a month for access to its coverage. That's a relatively big ask in an age when just about every form of entertainment has a monthly fee attached to it, and when amateur cooks already have access to countless recipes on the internet for free.

Notably, the Cooking section is not included in a basic, $15-a-month digital subscription to the Times. Cooking enthusiasts either have to pay the extra $5 for access, or subscribe to a pricier Times bundle.

That meant the Cooking staff had to come up with a product that was worth the cost of entry. According to editor Sam Sifton, the strategy for the section's current iteration was years in the making.

"The idea was based in history, really," Sifton told CNN Business. He traced it back to the 1960s, when food editor Craig Claiborne amassed a bunch of Times recipes and assembled them into his own cookbook. The book was a bestseller — for Claiborne, at least. The book belonged to him, and the newspaper didn't profit.

"We had this notion that we could build a digital version of what was 'The New York Times Cook Book,'" Sifton added, referencing the title of Claiborne's book. "But this time, we'd own it."

So Sifton and his team got to work and curated decades of Times recipes they deemed suitable for a modern cooking app. There were a few duds they passed over — the '70s microwave recipes aren't at the top of Sifton's list — but many others were classics that deserved another look.

"Each one of these things we are interrogating and retesting and trying to figure out, so that we're not beholden to whatever the food trend was then," Sifton said.

For example, the Cooking staff dusted off a recipe for an original plum torte creation from Times food columnist Marian Burros that the newspaper published every September from 1983 until 1989. The torte was re-baked and photographed for inclusion on the app. Sifton said recipes like those were chosen because they had become indelible in the minds of Times readers.

When the Cooking app launched in September 2014, it featured 16,000 recipes available at no charge. There were plenty of other flourishes to encourage reuse, such as the ability to save recipes or search for meals by keyword.

All of those features, along with a regular newsletter, helped Cooking develop a user base for when the company began charging for the service three years later. In addition to the 120,000 paid subscriptions, the Times says about three million people now subscribe to its main Cooking newsletter, which doesn't require a subscription. It has also grown its recipe library to about 19,000.

The team has been tinkering with other ways to promote the brand. It launched another newsletter in September focused on providing readers with a series of weeknight dishes to cook. That newsletter now has 86,000 subscribers.

Cooking has also partnered with Wirecutter, a product recommendations website owned by The New York Times Company, to provide tips on how to find the best pressure cooker. And until recently, the section offered a meal kit service through Chef'd, a company that is now defunct.

Sifton says he's still expanding his team. He just hired two new editors to assign and edit recipes, work on special projects and focus on social media. He also snagged cook and author Alison Roman as a columnist in the summer. Roman was a Times contributor whose chocolate shortbread cookie recipe went viral earlier this year.

And then there's video. This year, Cooking brought on two people to beef up its video presence, both of whom used to work at Tasty, the division of BuzzFeed made popular by its Facebook cooking videos.

Sifton said those hires shouldn't be read as an effort to replicate what Tasty has done. He said his team is instead focused on figuring out how to use video to expand the audience for Cooking's archive of quality recipes.

"I don't think you're going to see top-down videos of cheese-stuffed, deep-fried chicken Oreos," Sifton added. "That's not the direction."

He cited Cooking's recent Thanksgiving coverage as an example of its ambitions, including the smorgasbord of recipes it published earlier this month. The photos of the apple ombre and striped berry pies looked tantalizing enough in print. But online, readers were steered to videos that showed them exactly how to pipe the topping onto the sweet potato meringue, or create a lattice crust for the cranberry herringbone.

Another digital package featured videos of Times food columnist Melissa Clark recreating an entire Thanksgiving meal with her family.

There are more plans on the horizon. Sifton said Cooking is going to build its own test kitchen, something the company hasn't had for decades.

And when asked if the team would ever consider their own cooking show, NYT Cooking Vice President Amanda Rottier didn't rule it out.

"We're trying to establish Cooking as a standalone brand to increase our subscription business. I can imagine that extending in a lot of different ways," she told CNN Business. "I think shows is an interesting place that we would love to explore or experiment with down the line."

The Times declined to disclose how much it spends to market Cooking. But Rottier said the team has been building a marketing operation. She added that Cooking promotes the brand through social media, its newsletters, internet search results and by leveraging its relationship with the rest of the Times.

Whatever Cooking does to build awareness of its brand, it's all in the service of convincing more people to pay for the product. Sifton said the rise of subscription models of all types are actually good for Cooking, since that conditions people to pay for content.

And then there's the newspaper's ultimate value proposition: It's the Times. It should be worth the money because the company has spent several decades building enough of a reputation to justify it.

"Look, you're really competing for people's time," Rottier said. "If you're someone who loves to cook and you want to spend money on that, then Cooking is the place to do that."

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