The New York Times has big plans for its Cooking app, as it ramps up social video and focuses on ‘fast and easy’ recipes

News Room

The pandemic delivered a windfall for NYT Cooking, but also raised questions at The New York Times about what would happen to the app’s popularity when foodies were no longer stuck at home and in their kitchens.

Three years later, the Times says Cooking has held onto many of its new users and gotten them to return to the app more frequently, with subscribers who use the Cooking app more than tripling in the past four years.

“What felt like an enormous victory was by and large really hanging onto that audience,” said Emily Weinstein, who has been the Times’ Food and Cooking editor in chief since 2021. She joined the Times in 2007 as a web producer and later helped launch the Cooking app in 2014. “We were all wondering what was going to happen when people weren’t stuck at home baking sourdough bread obsessively. And that was nervous-making.”

While many media companies have struggled recently, The New York Times has been a big digital success story. Cooking is part of that story. The Cooking app, along with Games, The Athletic, and Wirecutter, have bolstered the company’s subscription business by providing different entry points. The “All Access” bundle strategy also lets the Times leverage upticks in demand for different types of content depending on the time of year (such as the winter holidays, which are peak cooking times) or news cycles.

Retaining readers for Cooking wasn’t a given, considering the Times had to persuade people to pay when there’s an abundance of free recipes online (a Cooking-only subscription runs $50 a year).

How did they do it?

First, Cooking’s editors doubled down on video starting in 2018. The Cooking and Food editorial team has doubled in size since the pandemic began (the Times wouldn’t share specific numbers). In addition to its daily newsletters, app, and social channels, Cooking also benefits from prominent promotion for its recipes on the Times homepage and in its recommendation widgets.

To keep growth going, Cooking’s editors will churn out more recipes and videos this year than ever before. The plan is to produce up to 100 recipes a month, a roughly 40% increase over 2023; and to double its selection of cooking demo videos to 100.

The Times isn’t modest about the potential it sees for Cooking. Camilla Velasquez, the general manager for NYT Cooking, said she believes the Times has “just scratched the surface” on getting people to become users. “We’re so early on that journey, so if we think about really everyone being able to try that and learn that, then you can think the entirety of the cooking America is potentially a user.”

The pitch that Cooking is a place for the everyday cook to find easy-to-make recipes is a shift from its earlier message of helping people become better and more confident in the kitchen. To grow its audience, Cooking’s leaders believe it needs to appeal to a broader swath of people and get them to use the app on repeat. Cooking has learned that newer users perceive Times recipes as taking longer than they say. So part of the work is to redefine what it means when it calls a recipe fast and easy and, producing, as Weinstein put it, “recipes that legitimately are faster and really trying to challenge ourselves to say, ‘Okay, but does it really need lemon zest?'”

Video is central to this approach. Weinstein and her staff are adopting a mindset prevalent on YouTube and especially TikTok, where food influencers can defy traditional assumptions about recipes, throwing together quick and simple dishes that have nonspecific measurements.

Social video is also a place where the Times can showcase its well-known personalities like Eric Kim and Melissa Clark. When a feta pasta took off on TikTok, Clark jumped in with her own version, upping the easy factor by making it in one pan.

“The challenge here is that here are people who are getting a lot of their food content as well as all other kinds of content through video,” Weinstein said. “And a lot of the video that they’re using or posting or watching is a little more fast and loose. We’re trying to show we can do something at that level.”

‘A news organization wrapped up in lifestyle’

Cooking’s success overall wasn’t a foregone conclusion before it launched in 2014. There was internal resistance based on concerns that a standalone app could work and if it was the best use of the paper’s resources, said Adam Nagourney, a longtime Times reporter and author of “The Times: How the Newspaper of Record Survived Scandal, Scorn, and the Transformation of Journalism.” It faced further skepticism around the addition of paid subscriptions in 2017, six years after the Times erected a paywall for news.

Today, the bulk of the Times’ more than 10 million subscribers are to the news product, but Times CEO Meredith Levien has said that non-news apps like Cooking increasingly are on-ramps to the bundle. Exactly how much, the Times doesn’t say; it stopped breaking out the data for individual apps. The last time it did, in 2022, the Times reported Cooking had over 1 million subscribers, the same as The Athletic and Games. The Times said Cooking and Five Weeknight Dishes are the paper’s second most popular newsletters after The Morning, while Cooking in 2023 had about 110 million users, which it defines as logged-in users and non-logged in visitors.

Newsroom insiders speak approvingly and admiringly of Cooking as one of the multiple levers that have helped the paper retain readers in slow news cycles — something other major newspapers like The Washington Post and Los Angeles Times haven’t managed to do to the same extent. In the case of Cooking, they’re also quick to point out that it builds on a tradition of food content at the Times that meets its journalistic standards.

“It’s not at all brand discordant,” one insider said.

“Sometimes you hear The New York Times is a news organization wrapped up in a lifestyle organization,” said Nagourney, repeating a variation of a joke that’s often made internally. “I’d argue it doesn’t compromise the news report; it brings more to it.”

Replicating Cooking’s success with Wirecutter and The Athletic may not be easy. Both were acquired, not homegrown, like Cooking and, to some extent, Games. And some internally have questioned whether they meet the Times’ journalistic standards. Wirecutter also raised some eyebrows when it expanded from its core gear and gadget recommendations to things like women’s fashion.

The Times has plenty of free competition

It hasn’t been smooth sailing for other major recipe outlets in recent years. Condé Nast’s Bon Appétit recently appointed its third top editor in as many years after dealing with criticisms of its treatment of staffers of color. Food52, which was a pioneer with its recipes-meet-commerce model, has gone through three rounds of layoffs.

That doesn’t mean the Times has the field to itself, however. There are still plenty of free, ad-supported recipe sites. Social media is rich with food influencers like Carla Lalli Music, who has 218,000 subscribers on YouTube; and Molly Baz, with 125,000. There are also popular Substackers like Alison Roman and David Lebovitz’s with hundreds of thousands of subscribers.

Cooking’s contention is that it’s worth the price, though, given its breadth — the Times has a back catalog of 22,000 recipes — and credibility through repeatedly testing. Along with the recipes, a subscription also provides access to the robust reader notes found at the bottom of Cooking’s recipes, which are often helpful and speak to the community that’s formed around Cooking. And the Times occasionally runs sales on Cooking, though it also wants people to subscribe to the whole “All-Access” bundle (standard rate: $325 a year).

“I think we’re worth the price,” Velasquez said. “When you think about it, it’s the price of a cookbook. It’s an expensive cookbook, so maybe two cookbooks. And I’m definitely not saying that’s affordable for everybody. We think about affordability quite a bit … We have user notes on every recipe that are rich in information. So I think it’s worth it, but obviously I’m biased.”

February 29, 2024, 1:28 p.m. ET: This story has been updated to attribute the last quote to Velasquez, not Weinstein.

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