Courtesy of my colleague Robert Andrews, I tuned into a replay of a BBC interview with New York Times Co. (NYSE: NYT) digital head Martin Nisenholtz — only to hear a jaw dropper when interviewer Steve Hewlett mentioned a first-year target of 300,000 digital subscriptions. “Inaccurate,” Nisenholtz replied. “I don’t know where that number came from.”
“That number” became part of the public conversation about the paper’s new metered paywall when it was published in the pages of the New York Times.
When the company finally launched the metered system in March, its flagship paper ran a detailed report from Jeremy Peters about the strategy. Included in that was a carefully worded reference to subscription goals: “The Times will not say publicly how many online subscribers it hopes to get. But company executives have said privately that the goal for the first year is 300,000.”
The number quickly took hold.
Nisenholtz, who was interviewed for Peters’ article, of course, knows that number was in the piece and was referring in the BBC interview to not knowing the source for it from the beginning. And, no, to be very clear, he didn’t call out his own paper on the BBC.
Unlike another number that became part of the public discussion — the $40 million price tag that Arthur Sulzberger, Jr. refuted openly and strongly at Columbia University — no one else that I know of pushed back at the 300,000 goal report. Then again, an internal goal doesn’t have quite the reverb as reports that you’ve overspent on putting in a paywall.
I’ve used it not only because of the way it came out but because of the response during my own reporting since then. Nisenholtz, though, is not one of the people I’ve spoke with about that figure.
The PR reply to my query on the BBC interview: “We’re not commenting on our internal numbers.” Peters is out of the office; his voicemail says he will not respond to calls until next week. (I didn’t leave a message.)
So what does it mean? Among other things, it means that there is no real way to gauge the more than 100,000 subscribers the NYT said it got in the first three weeks of the paywall in the context of a goal. We don’t know if the company is one third of the way there for the first year, one half, etc. Nisenholtz’s other comments to the BBC echo last month’s earnings call: the response is running ahead of plan.
Whatever the plan may be.
The interview starts about two thirds of the way into The Media Show.