Donald Trump's election as President has polarised the United States but it has also led to a renaissance in journalism, as major news titles like the New York Times refocus on what really matters to their survival.

It's a renaissance which has resulted in growing numbers of Americans taking out subscriptions to the venerable New York newspaper's digital edition.

But the question is whether such strategies help secure the financial viability of news media (including in New Zealand) over the longer term, at a time when digital behemoths Facebook and Google have siphoned away the bulk of advertising revenue.

Is the New York Times' recent strong subscriber growth simply down to Americans' insatiable appetite for news about their rogue President and his impact on the body politic? And would this appetite diminish if Trump vacated the presidency?


According to James Slezak - a former chief of operations at NYT Global - the increased numbers of consumers who have taken out digital subscriptions to the Times is a direct response to the Trump phenomenon.

But Slezak reckons the move back to Americans being prepared to part with cold, hard cash for their subscriptions - in a digital environment where many have expected to get their news for free - is now well embedded, and likely to be a permanent shift that will outlast Trump's reign.

Now managing partner at the New Economy Lab, Slezak was intimately involved in the Times' moves to publish on digital platforms. In briefings in Wellington and Auckland this week, he traversed the paper's developing strategy to build a growing digital presence at a time when traditional news media advertising is falling off a cliff.

As Slezak tells it, the Times tried various strategies, such as putting its enterprise journalism and columns behind a paywall. And latterly, using social media to drive traffic to the news brand. Such strategies had varying financial success as the Times strove to maintain audience numbers to underpin its appeal to advertisers.

What the Trump phenomenon did was to cause the Times to dig back into the past and rediscover its purpose. It was the Times, after all, that had chanced its very financial survival by publishing the Pentagon Papers during the Vietnam War.

Taking on a US President who has persistently tried to demonise the Times as "fake news" also takes courage.

But it was a strategic decision taken right from the top of the New York Times Company, at the board table where chairman Arthur O. Sulzberger, Jr presides. Slezak says a lot of Americans are responding to the Times coming under attack by Trump, first during the election campaign then as President.

The upshot is that the organisation has rediscovered what really matters: talking about why journalism is important. And delving deep to rediscover what the Times' mission really is.

The salient question for other print news titles is whether they should put more focus on producing stories and commentary that consumers are prepared to buy, or concentrate more on being a vehicle for advertising? At the Auckland briefing, Slezak punted for the former.

In New Zealand, the raison d'etre behind the proposed NZME-Fairfax NZ merger is to build a much larger audience so the merged entity can better compete for advertising against Google and Facebook. This strategy does not contemplate digital paywalls.

In the US, the Times doubled its digital subscriptions in 2016 and has continued to gain subscribers this year. But the revenue is still relatively small. The risk to adopting the Times' approach is that, as Slezak says, in the digital world there will still be competitors who will charge as little as they can to build numbers.

But in an environment where more people are showing a preparedness to pay for hard news, it may be worth another look at the paywall option.

Combine that with the emergence of Winston Peters as NZ's next Prime Minister in a post-election deal, and there could be ructions aplenty for good journalism to unpack.

Just joking.