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Feb. 10, 2020, 2:44 p.m.

The Wall Street Journal joins The New York Times in the 2 million digital subscriber club

But will the Journal and The Washington Post be able to catch up to the market leader going forward? Or is the Times preparing to lap the field?

Earnings season means it’s time for successful publishers to brag about their digital subscription numbers. On Thursday, it was The New York Times Company’s turn, throwing out some big numbers: 5,251,000 total subscriptions across all print and digital, 4,395,000 total digital subscriptions (including Cooking and Crosswords), and 3,429,000 digital news subscribers.

Perhaps most impressive to me: There’s little evidence that the potential customer base for a Times digital news subscription has topped out. That 3.429 million total at the end of 2019 was up from 2.713 million a year earlier, a strong 26 percent rate of growth.

On Friday, it was News Corp’s turn, announcing that its Wall Street Journal had topped 2 million digital subscriptions for the first time, and that Dow Jones — which also includes Barron’s, its news wires, Factiva, and some other information businesses — had topped 3.5 million digital subs.

News Corp CEO Robert Thomson seemed itching for a fight with the Times in the earnings release, mentioning its rival five times in its first six paragraphs:

Dow Jones also surpassed The New York Times in revenue growth in the final quarter of calendar year 2019, while continuing to increase its profit contribution…

“Dow Jones revenues increased by 4% in the most recent quarter, compared to 1% for The New York Times,” said Robert Thomson, chief executive of News Corp. “Dow Jones is significantly more digital than The New York Times, with 62% digital revenues as we reported at fiscal year-end, including our growing Professional Information Business.”

The total number of digital subscriptions at Dow Jones grew by 17% in the most recent quarter, with digital subscribers to The Wall Street Journal rising 13%. At Dow Jones, digital accounts for approximately 57% of consumer circulation revenues versus 44% for The New York Times

Dow Jones advertising revenues in the October-December quarter also outpaced The New York Times, with digital advertising picking up thus far in the first quarter of calendar year 2020.

Given the fight they’ve chosen to pick here, I should note that the Times’ digital subscription growth rate is still much better than the Journal’s. News Corp reports digital subs slightly differently than the Times does — the average over a quarter as opposed to the total at the end of it. But across 2019, the Journal’s digital subscribers increased from 1,709,000 to 1,929,000 — a net gain of 220,000 and a growth rate of 12.8 percent. The Times, as mentioned above, went from 2,713,000 to 3,429,000 — a net gain of 716,000 and a growth rate of 26.4 percent.

If you’ll allow an aside: One of the all-time great ad campaigns debuted in 1962 for the rental-car company Avis. Hertz had long been the market leader in car rentals, and the Avis campaign decided to embrace its underdog status: “We’re No. 2. We try harder.” The campaign was a huge success for Avis; eventually Hertz had to respond with defensive ads about being No. 1.

But one of the campaign’s biggest impacts was to frame Avis as a strong No. 2. In reality, Avis and National were neck-and-neck for the No. 2 spot in car rental market share — both of them far behind Hertz. But by punching up at the top dog, Avis reframed the competition into favorite vs. underdog, not leader vs. two also-rans.

So I can’t help but notice that the Journal punching up at the Times ignores the national newspaper that’s usually brought up as the Times’ No. 2 in this sort of competition: The Washington Post. While the Journal and Times may share a city, the Post and Times share the common bond of being general-interest newspapers, not a business-focused one. They duel on Washington and politics stories daily; the Journal, by nature of that focus, picks its spots more often. The more direct NYT/WSJ rivalry of the early Murdoch years seemed to have cooled, putting the Bezos-fueled Post into the spotlight.

So how is the Post doing in digital subscriptions?

Hard to say!

It’s always been hard to say for one reason: The Post’s unique arrangement with Amazon — in which Prime members can subscribe for a mere $59/year — makes it difficult to do an apples-to-apples comparison. (It’s good to be owned by the richest man alive — especially if he comes with a pool of 150 million Prime members to sell to.)

But even setting that aside, the Post is stingy with its subscription numbers. Bezos’ ownership means it’s not publicly traded, so it’s not obliged to impress Wall Street every three months with boffo numbers. It doesn’t report digital subscription numbers to the Alliance of Audited Media, the successor to the Audit Bureau of Circulations. Like Amazon’s Kindle sales, the Post’s digital subscription totals get announced only when it’s useful to the company.

In September 2017, an internal memo (no doubt expected to be leaked) announced that the Post had passed 1 million digital subscribers earlier that year, “more than tripled” from the year before.

At that point, the Journal’s most recent total was 1.27 million, and the Times was at 2.3 million.

In December 2018, another internal memo noted the Post had passed 1.5 million.

At that point, the Journal was at about 1.7 million, the Times 2.7 million.

What about today? Again, it’s hard to say. (I asked the Post’s PR folks if there are any updated numbers a few hours ago, though again, they tend to release them only when they want to. No reply yet, but I’ll update if I get one. Update: As expected, the Post declined to release a new number.)

The Post’s digital circulation strategy has traditionally been more mass-oriented than the Times’ — which more consciously aims at a higher-end demographic — and the Journal’s, which has a much higher subscription price and that target audience in business/finance. The Journal’s current sticker price is $39/month. The Times’ is just over $18/month. The Post’s is $11, with $100/year deals seemingly always available — not to mention that Prime deal.

The Post’s DNA has a lot more “local newspaper” in it than its national peers, which have been aiming wide for decades. (In the print days, the Post had the highest market penetration of any American metro newspaper. It famously declined to start printing and distributing nationally when the Times did in the 1980s and 1990s.)

The Post has also been more middlebrow in its editorial strategy online, as Hamilton Nolan laid out last month at CJR. Alongside the high-end investigations and foreign stories, the Post is happy to do quick blog-style aggregation and lighter viral stuff.

…more than [its national peers], the Post has pulled off the neat trick of combining prestige journalism with a shadow clickbait factory that puts out a steady flow of fast-turnaround, aggregated stories grasping at virality. (“An orphaned boy moved into his grandparents’ home. The homeowners association wants to kick him out.”) And it’s done so without losing its storied reputation. Though BuzzFeed gets more scrutiny, the Post, especially in the world that exists at the bottom half of its home page, is by far the media’s most enthusiastic user of the classic two-sentence headline construction that signals clickbait. (“Officials said he died in a fall. Then his wife admitted to poisoning his water with eye drops.”)

Given all that, you might think it would be rewarded with more digital subscription success. But — again with the caveat that the Post isn’t sharing numbers — that seems open to question. Given that 1 million and 1.5 million were both announced, I’d suggest that 2 million likely would be too — but it hasn’t been.

In September 2017, the Post’s digital subscription total was at 1.3 million behind the Times and 270,000 behind the Journal.

In December 2018, the Post was 1.2 million behind the Times and 200,000 behind the Journal.

Since then, no updates from the Post, but the Times has added another 700,000-plus and shows little sign of slowing down. (If it remains on its Q4 2019 pace, it could add nearly 1 million digital news subscribers more this year.) And the Journal’s added another 300,000 — despite having a far smaller potential market and a price tag around 4× the Post’s.

Now, for all I know, @JeffBezos could tweet tomorrow that, actually, the Post just passed 8 quintillion digital subscribers, including the entire population of some alien race a Blue Origin probe just discovered. But I mention all this for two reasons:

  • If you’d have asked me a few years ago to forecast how these numbers would look in early 2020, I’d have guessed the Post would have significantly caught up to — or, in the most optimistic scenarios, even passed — the Times in digital circulation.

    The lower pricing, the lower-brow content, the unique connection to one of the most successful products and companies of human history: even before you account for any Bezosian magic, I expected the Post to be Android to the Times’ iPhone. Not as much cultural cred, perhaps, and not as popular with the price-insensitive demographic high end, but everywhere thanks to tons of partnerships, flexibility, and broader appeal. If Amazon is the Everything Store, I expected the Post to be the Everything Newspaper.

    While again, I’d love to see Post numbers on this, it seems at a minimum that the Post hasn’t hit the most optimistic end of that scenario. (Apple’s still doing fine too.)

    In 2015, the Post made a big deal about passing the Times in online audience. But the Times pulled back ahead and has mostly stayed there.

    To be crystal clear, the Post is still by all appearances doing perfectly well. Maybe really well! But it’s very much still Avis or National, not Hertz.

  • As Emily Bell put it in The Guardian yesterday, the Times’ success, while of course welcome and admirable, is not necessarily the sign of a healthy information marketplace:

    An aging audience of wealthy newspaper subscribers helped get the New York Times across the wobbly bridge to a digital world, where now, the same elderly subscribers have embraced digital subscriptions on their iPhones.

    From here the process will be one of perpetual change, but one led by the elite legacy institutions. The New York Times, in one sense, is a spectacular and hopeful success story. But in other ways it reveals the disastrous state of the current media landscape. Connectivity has sorted society into the 1% and the rest. Winners taking it all are a feature, not a bug, of the current technocracy.

    One thing that isn’t clear yet in the news business is how appealing, financially, it will be to be No. 2 — to be Avis, essentially.

    In the evolution of local newspapers in the United States, being the No. 2 paper was a pretty awful place to be in the vast majority of cities. The larger paper gained all sorts of economies of scale with advertisers and readers, and those advantages tended to snowball — which is why many American cities were reduced to one-paper towns relatively early on.

    One Netflix became Netflix, it sure wasn’t good to be Blockbuster. Or think of online retail: Is it a good position to be No. 2 behind Amazon? Jet burned through billions trying to get there; Target and Walmart are hardly welfare cases, but it’s not comfortable staring up at the Seattle monolith.

    There are some lines of business where being No. 2 can throw off oodles of profit for decades. (Companies like Disney, Apple, and Comcast all hope that digital streaming is one of them.) And there are others where being No. 2 is a quick path to irrelevance. We don’t really know yet which one the elite-paywalled-digital-national-newspaper business will be.

    Here’s a shocking statistic: It’s possible that, today in America, 1 out of every 10 newspaper journalists works for The New York Times. They’re now up past 1,700, well above its nadir of around 1,200 a decade ago. There aren’t good numbers on nationwide newsroom employment anymore, but the total is likely under 20,000.

    I’ve written before about the difficulty inherent in trying to be someone’s second digital news subscription — the Times and Quartz, the Post and The Atlantic, the Journal and your local daily. In those cases, product differentiation is key — which is one reason I suspect the Journal will come out of all this fine, given its business focus.

    Does “winner take all” mean it’s just a handful of national papers that can thrive while the 1,000-plus local papers struggle mightily? Or will it mean that there’ll really be just one winner in its general-interest category, the Times?

    I don’t know; I’d love the Post to release a boffo subscription number tomorrow to ease my mind. But the Times does seem to be running away from the field — not just its local competitors, but its Acela ones too.

Photo by Kevin Dooley used under a Creative Commons license.

POSTED     Feb. 10, 2020, 2:44 p.m.
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