By Christopher B. Daly
In the end, as the most recent financial results posted by the New York Times make clear, the only real future for news is the audience. Journalists cannot count on advertising, and we should not count on patrons like billionaires or governments. Those sources are too fickle and too compromising. The only true basis for independent journalism is an audience willing to pay for it.
That’s why there is so much to celebrate in the latest performance figures posted by the
failing thriving New York Times. Here is the company’s statement.
Yes, profits were off a bit. Yes, revenues from print advertising continued to slide. But the real headline is impressive growth in new digital subscribers. These are the folks who supply the company with its most stable source of funds and who do not want anything from the paper but great journalism. They are the foundation of the digital future.
In a story about the company’s earnings, Mark Thompson, the paper’s top business manager, appeared to agree:
“We still regard advertising as an important revenue stream,” Mr. Thompson said, “but believe that our focus on establishing close and enduring relationships with paying, deeply engaged users, and the long-range revenues which flow from those relationships, is the best way of building a successful and sustainable news business.”
–99,000 new digital-only news subscriptions in the last quarter of 2017. (plus about 60,000 more subscribers to the Cooking and Crossword pages) Digital-only subscribers now number over 2.6 million. (If you are one, good for you! Give a gift subscription to someone else.)
—Total revenue for the fourth quarter of 2017 was up 10% (over the 4th quarter of 2016), approaching half a billion dollars for just three months. That’s because subscription revenues rose almost 20%, while ad revenues continued their downward slide, dropping by more than 1%.
—Revenue from digital-only subscribers (the people who are going to carry this operation into the future) was up more than 50% (!), reaching almost $100 million. What that means, in crude terms, is that if the Times stopped printing (which it must do one day) and laid off everyone who is not associated with news-gathering, there would be about $400 million coming in every year to pay for the newsroom.
—Advertising now contributes just 1/3 of company revenues. In other words, subscribers (plus a little money from merch) are already paying 2/3 of the cost. This has not been the case since the Civil War era. Revenue from digital ads was up 8.5%; money from print ads dropped another 8.4%.
–The company’s stock price is also rising.
Source: NYT business page
Yes, the Times is continuing to shrink its workforce and the space those folks occupy in the company’s signature skyscraper in midtown. During a recent visit, I witnessed the belt-tightening.
Moving boxes, covered portraits. Photo by Chris Daly
There are movers’ boxes in a lot of corridors, and oil portraits of various Sulzbergers are covered in plastic, awaiting removal to new, smaller quarters. So what? I don’t see this as cause for alarm, or even sadness. It struck me as a healthy sign of a company trying to get its size right. The key issue is finding a sustainable business model that will support quality journalism indefinitely into the future. The Times seems to be the best positioned of all the big, serious, fact-based news media in the country.
Down in the lobby, Adolph Ochs, the patriarch of the family that owns and runs the Times looks rather confident, no?
Photo by Anne Fishel