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Summary:

The New York Times (NYSE: NYT) says it has more than 100,000 paid digital subscribers in the first three weeks of its metered paywall. That…

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The New York Times (NYSE: NYT) says it has more than 100,000 paid digital subscribers in the first three weeks of its metered paywall. That would put it one third of the way towards a privately stated goal of 300,000 paid subscribers the first year. That number does not include print subscribers who have taken advantage of the free digital all-access that now comes with their subscriptions. It includes people who signed up for the first four weeks at 99 cents but not those subscribers taking advantage of a promo offered by Lincoln that covers basic access through the end of 2011.

That puts it well toward covering the costs of putting the meter in place, which I recently estimated at close to $25 million. It’s also close to twice as much as the paper ever made with TimesSelect.

The company’s first quarter earnings results includes a section of guidance on the paywall, which launched globally Mar. 28:

Digital subscription packages on NYTimes.com and across other digital platforms have been well received, and approximately three weeks after the global launch, paid digital subscribers have surpassed 100,000. So soon after the launch, the Company does not yet have visibility into conversion and retention rates for these paying customers after the initial promotional period, although early indicators are encouraging.

It’s next to impossible to figure out an accurate revenue number without the details of how the subscribers are distributed across the three access plans — browser plus smartphone, browser plus tablet and all access. But looking at just the lowest plan — $15 every four weeks — and rounding to an even 100,000 subs, the paper would be on pace to bring in at least $19.5 million in its first full year.

Missing a lot of variables: It’s about as vague as you can be and still offer a meaningful number. It’s also more info than NYT execs initially planned to share; the change of mind suggests an understanding by some that not providing any number would have led to some assuming the initial results were bad. (A problem The Daily from News Corp (NSDQ: NWS). still faces months after launch.)

But we’re still missing a lot of info needed to accurately gauge where this is headed (to be fair, so is the Times). We’re only one month out from the Canadian launch and three weeks from the U.S./global launch. We don’t know yet how many 99-cent subs will stick around when the price goes up or whether people will ugrade or downgrade. We don’t know how many of the subs came in the first first days and what the pace is like now. We don’t know how the 99-cent offer continues to fare — or how many of those subs paid for by Lincoln who don’t count, would have paid on their own.

How does it compare? Gordon Crovitz, the former publisher of the Wall Street Journal who co-founded Journalism Online aka Press+, points out via email that it took WSJ.com more than a year to hit 100,000 paying subs when it launched in the ’90s. With that as a base, the “quick success at the New York Times is very encouraging.” He said it also suggests that the NYT could follow the same pattern Press+ is seeing of in its own results (still early) with metered plans at various sites — getting 5-10 percent of its online readers to pay for unlimited access.

For further context – The UK’s The Times racked up 79,000 monthly British-only, digital-only subscribers (web, iPad, Kindle) in eight months; The Financial Times has 224,000 paid digital subscribers.

Times execs have said all along that they are basing estimates of potential subscribers on the subset of 15 percent or so who use the site enough to hit the 20-story limit.

  1. This may have been mentioned in this or related posts and I missed it, but just to be clear: Do the numbers include people on Kindle and other e-readers, or just those who purchased subscriptions to the web site? Thanks!

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    1. Staci D. Kramer Thursday, April 21, 2011

      That’s strictly digital subs through the NYTimes.com’s plans that went into
      effect last month. During the earnings call just now, the company said
      e-reader subscriptions are up 40 percent since December.

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  2. Greg Golebiewski Thursday, April 21, 2011

    Please, could you get rid of this derogatory “paywall” term? The proper names for NYT payment options are “digital subscription packages” or “metered access” or “paid access.”

    Not to mention that if some 100K people have passed it in just a few weeks, it wasn’t such a “wall” as you claim.

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  3. Good for them. I was one of the skeptics who didn’t think it was going to work this second time around. You’ve proven me wrong. It’s good to know that people will stay pay for content.

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    1. Staci D. Kramer Thursday, April 21, 2011

      Well, the real test will be this time next year when we see how many stick
      around and how much churn there is, but yes, it’s a good start.

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  4. The Americans understand subs – and selling the benefits of a product – very well, so comparisons with the UK Times are unfortunate. The Times is not yet into selling subscriptions in a meaningfull way, but when they do, they should lift numbers significantly. At the moment, all the Times people are doing are showing product pictures with almost no message, no big benefit. Remember – it’s not the product that sells a package, but a DESCRIPTION of the product.

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  5. The NYT have done well. They already have a world-class product, and their pay-plan parameters are cleverly thought-out. Therefore, I was confident that it would work from day one, and I’m even more bullish now. Not many other national/international news publications have sufficient quality to follow this path, let alone the right parameters in place. The Times UK doesn’t. The Financial Times and The Economist do, and could accelerate their digital transitions by learning from the NYT.

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