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May 6, 2020, 4:02 p.m.

The New York Times’ success with digital subscriptions is accelerating, not slowing down

In January, the Times announced it had passed 5 million total subscriptions. Today, it announced it had passed 6 million. Ad revenue is cratering, but the path forward remains sustainable.

Advertising is one big disaster zone for news companies right now, with publishers’ revenues down 30, 50, even 80 percent or more. But there’s one glimmer of positive news: The pandemic seems to be pushing more people to subscribe to the news sources they find valuable.

We told you last month about The Atlantic’s startling success, with its strong coronavirus coverage earning more than 36,000 new subscriptions in March — despite putting much of that coverage outside its metered paywall.

Today, we got another piece of data: The New York Times signed up 587,000 net new digital subscribers in Q1 2020, a record. (To put that number in context: It took the Times 18 months to sign up its first 566,000 digital subscribers after the paywall’s launch in 2011. Now it can add more than that in just three.)

Wasn’t it just January that the Times announced it had passed 5 million total subscribers? Well, now it’s passed 6 million.

The bad news is that advertising collapse; the Times projects ad revenue will be down a stunning 50 to 55 percent in the current quarter. But the company now earns nearly 3× as much revenue from readers as it does from advertisers, which limits the damage. And much of that ad revenue will come back post-pandemic, while relatively few subscribers will leave, based on past performance.

As always, we should note that The New York Times is a poor proxy for the performance of the rest of the American newspaper industry. It’s a lot easier to sell digital news to a national and global audience than it is to the residents of one city. As Rasmus Kleis Nielsen pointed out, the Times added nearly as many new digital subs in Q1 as Gannett — America’s largest newspaper company, with hundreds of dailies across the country — has overall.

Gannett will report its quarterly results on Thursday — that should be more representative of local news’ numbers.

Here’s what stood out in this morning’s Times earnings call (which included a short Q&A session with executives) and the released earnings report.

Breaking records has become a broken record

Of those 587,000 net new digital subscribers, most — 468,000 — were signing up for the Times’ core news product, with the rest subscribing to digital offerings like Cooking and Crosswords. That news offering now has more than 4 million digital subscriptions.

As of the end of the quarter, March 31, the Times had 5,841,000 total subscriptions. By the end of April, that number had passed 6 million. (Adding at least 159,000 new subs in April suggest Q2 is off to a nice start.) That’s despite the Times putting much of its coronavirus coverage outside its paywall, free to all — a move some had argued “made no sense.” (It makes sense.)

Like many news organizations, the Times saw a surge of traffic in March as Americans sought the latest on the unfolding coronavirus pandemic. That month, “well over half of all American adults” came to The New York Times, said chief operating officer Meredith Kopit Levien. Readers viewed 2.5 billion pages, double the monthly average. Levien said their internal data suggested 240 million unique users globally — “by far the highest number ever” — in March.

Times executives also highlighted that The Daily, the flagship podcast for the Times, saw its audience grow to nearly 3 million downloads a day “despite the change in morning routines for many listeners.” Some non-news coverage performed extremely well, too; Melissa Clark’s advice on creating a well-stocked pantry racked up more than 2.5 million views.

The Times is confident it can hook new readers

The record-breaking traffic means the Times — which began requiring readers to register and login to see more than one story last year and has kept that model for the paywall-free coronavirus content — has seen millions of new readers register. The system has allowed the Times to keep better tabs on its readers and learn what kind of content is likely to keep them coming back — critical information for keeping the readers after their appetite for constant coronavirus updates fades.

Levien said the Times has already seen encouraging return rates for registered (but not-yet-subscribed) users improving week over week. “That’s in part because the unique nature of the news cycle, but it’s also because of deliberate work on stimulating return by helping people follow story lines, get continuous live updates, and explore a broader range of their interests,” Levien said in prepared remarks.

Later, in response to a question, she added, “What drives our optimism…is the idea that we’re getting many more registered users in this period and we’re getting better at stimulating them to come back and get them to form habits.”

CEO Mark Thompson said the Times has become “far more expert at understanding every stage of the subscriber kind of life cycle, including retention” since even the traffic-heavy first quarter of 2017, as Donald Trump ascended to the White House.

“We are very good now at understanding churn, and even before the coronavirus struck, every sinew of the organization was focused on trying to make the customer journey, and the fundamental experience of Times journalism, so compelling, and so addictive in terms of features which bring you back, day after day, that usage will be high, perceived value will be high, and therefore churn will be low.”

(Thompson said something similar to our Ken Doctor in November about the consequences of pushing registration: “Being able to track a much larger number of people across devices and over time. Serve them better. Begin to learn how to, in ways which are respectful of their choices, put content in front of them, send them messages.”)

The decline in ad revenue is bad and will get worse

Overall ad revenue fell by more than 15 percent in the first quarter. Digital ad revenue dropped 8 percent, print by 21 percent. (That gap allowed digital to make up 48 percent of the company’s total advertising revenue — an all-time high.)

Thompson said, sans crystal ball, he could still be fairly confident the decline would get worse. He expects ad revenue to fall by 50 to 55 percent in the second quarter compared to Q2 2019. The declines will likely be steeper in print than digital, keeping with pre-pandemic trends, but significant in both places.

Executives said they expected to see a larger concentration of advertisers in a smaller set of categories, namely tech, telecom, and financial services. Companies like Google and Verizon are still doing large, multi-platform collaborations with the Times, even as advertising in other sectors softens.

Subscription revenue is expected to help offset the decline. Still, a planned price increase for the longest-tenured digital subscribers is being put on pause. Roughly 200,000 of digital subscribers have seen an increase — out of a planned 750,000 — and the Times will stop there, for now.

The Times’ subscription ceiling may be higher than even it thought

In February, Joshua Benton foreshadowed what’s capturing the attention of the Times’ top brass:

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.

Today, executives at the Times said that potential customer base — “the addressable audience” — may be bigger than the 100 million figure — drawn from estimates of English-speaking, college-educated readers who have demonstrated a willingness to pay for news — they’ve cited in the past. Levien said the Times has a new approach for international audiences, particularly those outside of Canada, Australia, and other English-speaking countries, that includes more aggressive pricing and metering.

Thompson nodded again to the 240 million unique visitors from across the globe and internal information that suggested new subscribers were younger and more diverse than the Gray Lady has attracted in the past.

“I think there’s a real sense of The New York Times as a brand and its broad appeal sort of moving up a shoe size. Both in becoming a genuinely global news provider but also reaching into younger, more diverse, more geographically spread audiences than was historically the case,” Thompson said. “I think that sometimes people who follow the Times very closely miss the fact that the Times is becoming a much broader appeal than some of those classic stereotypes would suggest.”

We got a small look into its audio product.

The Times bought the spoken-audio app Audm in late March, a few days before the quarter ended, which means this is the first time we’ve seen its numbers included in an earnings release. Audm had “approximately 20,000” paid subscriptions at the time of acquisition. (It was an unusually clutch 20,000, though; adding them juuuuust put the Times at “5,001,000 paid digital-only subscriptions” in total.)

But don’t expect to see many more hard numbers about Audm (or whatever the Times rebrands it as). For earnings purposes, audio gets lumped in with Cooking and Crosswords as “other product subscriptions.”

Single-copy sales tanked — but print isn’t going anywhere.

With the closure of hotels, universities, and newsstands pretty much everywhere, single-copy sales of the Times cratered. But in response to the 12,945th time they’ve been asked about ditching print entirely, Times executives made it clear they saw a long life for the physical newspaper.

As the Times’ own Marc Tracy noted:

While panelists at media conferences have predicted the death of print for decades — indeed, the number of Times print subscriptions fell 7.9 percent, to 840,000, during the quarter — it still accounted for the majority of subscription and ad revenue. For the quarter, the print subscription business brought in $155.4 million for the company, while the digital subscription business accounted for $130 million. On the ad front, print generated $55 million, versus $51 million from digital.

That’s all despite the fact the Times has just 840,000 print subscriptions, versus those 5 million in digital.

The Times has, like many papers, been able to make up for declines in home-delivery subscriptions — between 6 and 8 percent per quarter — by increasing prices.

“The print paper is profitable without a dollar of advertising,” said chief financial officer Roland Caputo. “As long as there has sufficient demand, we’ll continue to have a print product and it’ll continue to be cash generative.”

POSTED     May 6, 2020, 4:02 p.m.
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