Being friends with your ex

I guess everybody who’s smarter than me (aka a large contingent of people) heard about professor Jordan Peterson more or less under the same circumstances — he was that guy ranting against gender-neutral pronouns.

To be honest, I only learned of Peterson last month, when he came to Portugal as part of his book tour. To be even more honest, it took me a while to decipher why people cared so much about someone whose literary spectrum is limited to a prosaic publication in the 90’s and a self-help guide 20 years later called, literally, 12 rules for life.

In the end, Peterson's hype was just a classic any-publicity case: he produced and exploited a debate about political correctness, added some “controversial” interviews, and aimed to fill the self-help textbook vacuum of this decade. It is as arduous as it is ambitious: 12 rules’ pretension is belonging to the same shelves that already have Rhonda Byrne’s The secret (2000’s), Spencer Johnson’s Who moved my cheese (1990’s) and Stephen Covey’s The 7 habits (1980’s).

And, yes, I know, this is me supporting his any-publicity strategy.

In fact, too bad this wasn’t my idea. I would love to have written 12 rules for life. Not that specific book, given my weak knowledge of lobsters, skateboards and Bible stuff, but a book with different guidelines. Problem is, the first rule would pretty much kill the whole thing: “No.1 — Appreciate the exercise of mocking your inner genius”. That is to say, always mistrust your “disruptive” ideas — especially when you get old(er) and not necessarily wiser. The myth of self-awareness, a virtue everybody thinks they have but that almost nobody does, gets trickier over time.

For that reason alone, I usually keep some remarkable life lessons that I’ve developed over the years to myself, such as my “being friends with your ex” theory. “Usually”, I said.

Oddly enough, there’s a common view that marks the fact that someone can maintain a friendship with an ex-partner as a major achievement. Maybe there is some genius logic buried under this incomprehensible belief, but the only thing that occurs to me is, this friendliness thing is perfectly doable. The real challenge lies in your former relationship status (and, yes, that’s why neither of you belong there anymore). Accomplishment is being the one that will revolutionize the other’s life every single day for decades. Being friends is chocolate cake.

As uncanny as it sounds — and this may or may not explain some of my failures in relationships — , the “friends with your ex” theory always reminds me of another common ground that makes zero sense to me: the one that glamorizes The New York Times’ milestones in saving journalism.

It happens 8 to 10 times a year — like religious holidays — and, like religious holidays, it comes bundled with a lot of praise and prayers. The latest version was celebrated a few weeks ago, when the Times announced that its digital-subscription sales grew in the third quarter, adding more than 200,000 new subscribers — which resulted in over 3 million digital-only subscriptions. As is often the case with these things, it was the only passcode necessary for a new batch of articles adorned with the same good-for-the-goose punch line. Pure rubbish, naturally.

Since I mocked my inner genius a few paragraphs ago, and therefore I can’t write my self-sabotaging version of 12 rules for life anymore, here’s another 12 rules: the ones that explain why The New York Times’ strategies can’t be a role model for saving journalism.

1) The being friends with your ex rule

Being The New York Times is easy, its online reader base numbered more than 150 million unique visitors each month, which means that 3 million subscribers correspond to only 2% of the total — in conversion ratio target, this is the piece of chocolate cake. Hard is to revolutionize the Hamburger Abendblatt’s soul for decades. Or L’Unione Sarda’s, you can choose. These are real-life-happily-after-credits relationships.

2) The 1910 rule

One third of the Times’ new subscribers came from the company’s cooking and crossword products. That’s better than the 2nd quarter, when almost 40% came from these two categories, but still. These are the subscribers that officially couldn’t care less about the news — their interest is channeled to a couple of relics that newspapers have been publishing since the 1910’s: recipes and puzzles.

3) The "disruptive" rule

Recipes and puzzles play a main role in the Times’ subscription trigger strategy because the company hasn’t created anything remotely disruptive in the last couple of decades. I’m not talking about inventing Craiglist or Open Table in the 1990’s or even Goodreads in the 2000’s, I’m talking about digital-newsroom-101: their mobile experience is alarmingly unambitious, there’s no groundbreaking project to voice controlled devices, any AR or VR approach is timorous at best, and even its video portfolio remains unaccountably suboptimal.

4) The mob rule

A 2017 report shows that in 10 years, newspapers’ employment in the U.S. dropped by 45%, from 71,000 to 39,000 jobs. The good thing about having a huge newsroom is that it remains quite big after job cuts (like, say, eliminating more than 100 copy editors). Most newspapers in the world don’t have 100 journalists, the Times still has 1,450.

5) The secret sauce rule

In 2014, asked what was the “secret sauce” that could explain the Times’ subscription frenzy, former VP of Digital Products Denise Warren came out with the following answer: “The most important thing is to really understand what your readers uniquely value about your content”. Adorable, but that pack of curated words only means that the “secret sauce” is incredibly secretive — even for them.

6) The ink rule

New York Times publisher A.G. Sulzberger recently told Caixin Global that he believes that their print version will last “decades and decades” (he didn’t clarify how many decades would be “decades and decades”, but I assume at least two). “We have a million loyal subscribers with print who are paying about $1,000 per year for a subscription”, he said. I would use decades in plural too if I had these figures. The problem is, nobody else does, and the vast majority of newspapers around the world won’t last 20 years (some won’t last 20 months).

7) The Trump rule

Although our next guest needs no introduction, numbers always help to establish the proper dimension: thanks to Trump bump, the Times added more subscribers in the last three months of 2016 than in all of 2015. A lot more: 276,000 versus 184,000. Additionally, after three years of coping with a 3% to 6% growth quarter over quarter, they experienced a 21% increase in Q4 2016 and another 20% in Q1 2017, when it went from 1.6 million paid subscribers to almost 2 million.

8) The millennials misconception rule

During INMA’s 2017 World Congress, NY Times’ CEO Mark Thompson echoed an erroneous concept about millennials to justify why he believes in reader willingness to pay for news: “They’re more open-minded, they’ve grown up with Spotify and Netflix”. I would love to say I can’t stress enough how different news and Netflix are, but as a matter of fact I can.

9) The everybody wants to rule the world rule

This is maybe the most palpable galaxy-far-far-away example: the New York Times is read in every country on Earth, international readers represent 18% of its subscribers, and no news company in the world is even close to this territorial scope.

10) The third time's a charm rule

Today, everything looks shiny and shimmery in subscription land, but the Times had two previous attempts at a paid model before this one. In 2007, for example, when it decided to stop charging for access, the company published an article explaining their reasons: “More readers started coming to the site from search engines and links on other sites. These readers, unable to get access to articles behind the paywall and less likely to pay subscription fees than the more loyal direct users, were seen as opportunities for more page views”. Welcome to everybody else’s life, even 11 years later.

11) The Rolling Stones rule

In 2014, the famous 96-page leaked Innovation Report exposed some of the New York Times’ struggles to adapt to the digital age. It is a very, very long document full of guidelines that anyone who has held a managerial position in any newsroom knows it has no serious practical implementation. This is precisely why three years later a new report (much smaller, less “classified”) unveiled similar concerns: “We have not yet created a news report that takes full advantage of all the storytelling tools at our disposal”. Bottom line, the you-can’t-always-get-what-you-want rule excludes no one.

12) The benchmark rule

The last rule is probably the most important one. Since there’s no media company with these characteristics, it’s impossible to measure if the New York Times’ subscription strategy is actually performing well. That’s why CEO Mark Thompson dropped the 10 million subscribers mark (with no deadline, obviously): no doubt it’s a glistering round figure, it certainly looks good on (digital) paper, but it can’t be used as a source of pride because there’s no baseline.

Next year, there will be a new season of articles about the Times’ powerful subscription methods and how it can save journalism. If you ask me why media strategists and publishers all over the world desperately try to generalize the experience, I would say that half of them ran out of ideas and are just exhausted, while the other half probably live in a parallel universe.

There’s an important detail about the “being friends with your ex” theory that I haven’t mentioned. Those who really succeed don’t advertise it as a noteworthy deed. Only charlatans and delusionals sell it as if they’re curing cancer or as if they’ve mastered the rules for living: as we all know, there’s no such thing as one-size-fits-all, neither in life nor in journalism.




Two decades of hardcore journalism in a past life; now Digital Media PhD candidate @ University of Porto, coffee taster and vinyl aficionado

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Alexandre Botão

Alexandre Botão

Two decades of hardcore journalism in a past life; now Digital Media PhD candidate @ University of Porto, coffee taster and vinyl aficionado

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