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Feb. 6, 2020, 1:53 p.m.

Readers reign supreme, and other takeaways from The New York Times end-of-year earnings report

CEO Mark Thompson says “the single biggest reason” behind the paper’s success was the decision to give more autonomy to teams working on the publication’s various digital products.

The New York Times’ decade-plus march from crisis to sustainability to growth hit another happy milestone today: The company announced it had generated more than $800 million in digital revenue in 2019. That meets a corporate goal set four years ago to hit that number by the end of 2020. (Like a good journalist, the Times even beat deadline.)

We called that target “ambitious” when first announced in 2015; the Times was generating about $400 million a year from digital at the time. The paper now sits well above its national newspaper peers and breathes an entirely different atmosphere than its local newspaper brethren.

We read the earnings release, the Times’ own coverage of the report, and listened to this morning’s earnings call with top executives. Print and digital ad revenue fell, but new record-breaking numbers confirm the Times’ philosophy that it is “a subscription-first publisher.” Here’s what caught our attention:

The Times had a record-breaking year.

As it had pre-announced last month, the Times hit several milestones in 2019. The paper of record added 1 million new digital-only subscribers and ended the year with a total of 5.25 million total subscriptions across all of their digital and print products. Both were new records for the paper.

On the earnings call, CEO Mark Thompson said “the single biggest reason” behind the paper’s success was the decision to give more autonomy to teams working on the publication’s various digital products. Having multiple cross-disciplinary teams working on converting digital subscribers means the Times is able to “continually optimize” by having “parallel tests running in the background,” he said.

Advertising revenue still fell by 10 percent — a rough forecast for other publishers having less success converting subscribers.

Print and digital advertising revenue each fell by slightly more than 10 percent apiece. Other revenue made up for the loss, with executives pointing to an increase in podcast advertising and the spike in digital subscribers as particularly helpful. The company expects the advertising losses to continue in 2020.

“The Times is a subscription-first publisher,” Thompson declared. Woe betide the newspaper that isn’t.

Prices are going up — but not for everyone.

Our Ken Doctor talked with Thompson in November about upcoming price increases for subscribers:

Thompson: …we’ve added hundreds more journalists. We’ve got eight years of not raising prices. As a subscriber, I think the idea that I might have a price rise after eight years is not unreasonable.

Doctor: How much am I going to pay next year?

Thompson: We haven’t disclosed that yet. We did some testing this year with a significant number of subscribers and, generally I’ve found that, when we explain what we’re doing and why we’re doing it, their willingness to pay more was very high, indeed.

We now know the increase: two bucks. (From $15 every four weeks to $17.) But the hike will only apply to 750,000 digital-only subscribers, representing roughly a quarter of overall digital-only subscribers.

How will the Times choose the lucky ones to get a price hike? The chief criteria will be tenure, meaning readers who’ve been subscribed at the current rate for the longest. (Other ingredients will go into the secret sauce of deciding which subscribers will see the raise, but executives declined to disclose them.)

Starbucks and Facebook News each had an impact on the Times’ bottom line.

Starbucks’ decision to stop selling print newspapers in their stores had a “meaningful” impact, accounting for 2 percentage points of the Times’ 3 percent decline in print distribution. (The Times made up part of the decrease among print subscribers.)

A 30 percent increase in “other” revenues in Q4 was primarily the result of earnings from the Times’ Hulu series The Weekly and licensing revenue from Facebook News.

In response to a question about whether the Times might renegotiate with partners like Apple News in light of this revenue — the Times declined to be in its weak-selling Apple News+ bundle — execs said they expect to review their relationship with “every significant company” in 2020. “Digital platforms gain real value from having our brand presence, and that should be reflected,” Thompson said.

Readers still like recipes and puzzles.

The Times’ Cooking product had “a spectacular end to a strong year” with 68,000 new subscriptions in the last quarter, Thompson said. Crossword subscriptions were up roughly 40,000 over the same period.

POSTED     Feb. 6, 2020, 1:53 p.m.
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