By Christopher B. Daly
Most people who care about journalism share a concern: can the New York Times survive the transition from a print past to a digital future? And can the newspaper carry forward its unparalleled standards, staffing level, and values into a future where the Times flourishes in the news business gets out of the paper business and emerges as a truly online news operation?
Increasingly, it appears the answer will be yes.
A big hint landed softly this week in a column by the Times‘ public editor, Margaret Sullivan. In her column, she indicated that the budget for the Times newsroom is “more than $240 million” a year. That’s how much it costs for the care and feeding of some 1,250 journalists in New York and around the world — salaries (which are at the top of our field), benefits, travel, rent on foreign and domestic bureaus, and on and on. It does not include other costs, such as printing and distribution.
That figure, which I had not seen broken out that way before now, is important.
It confirms, of course, that journalism is not cheap — especially journalism that is predicated on original reporting on a global scale. It represents the paper’s “journalistic nut” — the hard core of spending that must be met, just like your rent or mortgage and utility payments.
The challenge is: how to make the nut?
The good news is that it seems more and more do-able to make the nut into the indefinite future, despite the severe contraction in print advertising.
Here’s one scenario:
–Begin by reducing the nut. Let’s just assume that there is some inefficiency in there, some feather-bedding, some wasted effort (like the still extensive time and energy put into the laying out of each next day’s print “front page.”) For the hell of it, say you could cut that budget by 8% and still survive essentially intact. (That’s one-12th of the total, or $220 million instead of $240 million.)
–That means you need to come up with $55 million per quarter.
–Already, the Times is bringing in $38 million, from digital advertising only, according to the Public Editor.
–She did not say how much money is coming in every quarter from digital subscriptions, but she did note that “digital-only” subscriptions have risen (from zero) to about 800,000.
–It would not be unrealistic to think that if the Times went digital-only, it would pick up another 200,000 out of the base of subscribers who now get the print edition.
–So, there’s a hypothetical base of 1 million digital subscribers.
–If those 1 million people would pay $20 per quarter, you would have more than your $55 million nut.
Of course, there are problems. Maybe the Times can’t find 1 million customers. Maybe those readers won’t pony up enough in subscription. And these revenue figures are all net figures: someone still has to go to work at the Times every day to sell those ads and handle those digital subscriptions. Just because those operations are digital, they are not free.
My point is that the trend of rising revenues from digital ads and digital subscriptions is approaching the point at which they could carry the newsroom. They are not there yet, which may point to another partial, temporary answer: just print on Sundays. Print advertising brings in something like four times the amount of digital ads, but that print-based is declining and will not carry the paper into the future. So, during the transition, why not keep the big fat Sunday edition? It has the largest number of readers (1.2 million), pages, ads, and revenue. No need to say goodbye to all those full-page Style-section ads from Ralph Lauren and Chanel. At least not yet.