More than 3 million US teenagers have a new resource at their fingertips to help with their school lessons and homework.

The New York Times (NYT) has removed its paywall to 4,000 public schools in all of the 50 states thanks to the donations of 30,000 readers to their 'Sponsor a student subscription' programme.

Under its current paywall strategy, NYT allows visitors to the website five free articles before asking them to subscribe for $15 a month.

Students aged between 12 and 18 now have full access to the website, in essence, a free subscription, by connecting to the school Wi-Fi as the scheme works through the IP address.

"Our content covers such variety of topics that there probably isn’t one academic subject where our content wouldn’t be relevant," said Hannah Yang, head of subscription growth at NYT.

"The aim is to have a reliable quality news resource at their fingertips to add to whatever curriculum they have."

The programme works as an initial one-year subscription, with a view to extending it with further funds. In addition to the free subscription, teachers and students alike benefit from the NYT's Learning Network too.

"Teachers have always used NYT to help teach their students. From the early print days, we have had a programme for the longest time where we gave print copies to high schools and even younger kids, but that got very expensive,” Yang explained.

"This is pretty much an extension of what we have always been doing, it’s part of our mission. Teachers and professors have used our material to teach at university, graduate and elementary school level. So it's really bringing in that objective, quality perspective.

"I think the students are using more and more non-textbook sources to learn using current events. That’s becoming a trend."

NYT editors handpick articles for teachers, which has amassed an archive of lesson plans over the years in a bid to prompt further reading around a topic and discussions around images and topical questions.

With the donation money raised since its conception in 2017, NYT has also hosted webinars for teachers to dial in and speak to editors on a variety of topics. One of the key themes has been media literacy.

"We talked about what it takes to create high-quality journalism and how that’s different from other sources you may encounter on the web,” she said.

But aside from contributing to the education of teenagers, instilling brand loyalty and familiarity is also part of the ambition.

"Loyalty is an important component of what we do, but the primary reason for what we do is the access to high quality journalism for democracy and education," said Yang. "But we do believe if you get access to our brand early on, then your likelihood to subscribe probably is higher.

"There is no statistical proof of that but we do know if you ask some of our most loyal readers how they came across of the Times and why they subscribe, a lot of them will say that they got exposed to it in a meaningful way by their teachers and also their parents. That’s probably good evidence that it does work in terms of an audience strategy."

However, the drive for the programme was primarily borne out of a desire for readers to support NYT on a deeper level.

"At the end of 2016 when this started, we literally had hundreds of subscribers reaching out and saying they wanted to support us and make sure we thrive; I was here and took some of those phone calls.

"We wanted to figure out how to listen and react. We really thought about our history and mission, and we believe that using this money to invest in education and the next generation of readers is what made sense to us and what is in line with our brand. It was a natural extension of what the readers were saying to us."

It seemed to strike a chord so much that in addition to the 30,000 donations, averaging $50 each, there was one stand-out, anonymous contribution of $1m.

More than that, for every donation received, NTY matched the number of subscriptions it would account for. So if someone donated $25 (one classroom), the publisher would give access to one additional class on top of that.

"I think we need to have some sort of ongoing messaging around it which is visible to our subscribers and our readers, to say that this is available so that there are more entry points to provide donations.

"I do also think investing in engagement is really important. So to check in to see that the teachers and students are using it in a more meaningful way, to take a look at the usage, whether they are taking advantage of this access.

"As much as I think our website is great, it is also very complicated and somewhat overwhelming so you do need help navigating it, especially if you want to use it in a specific way like teaching.

"I wish that we had more resources to be able to help students and teachers to use it. We’re doing what we can, but the measure of true success is how much people are using this for education. That will take more investment from us, aside from just permitting access."

Want to reach more digital readers? Find out how to kickstart an effective digital strategy at Newsrewired on 6 March at Reuters, London.

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