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Times’ Audience Numbers Struggle, Subscriptions Offer Hope

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Since News International relaunched The Times websites in June with a new paid model, I have refrained from much of the second-guessing and twisted alchemy with which many onlookers have tried to gauge their success; because the only metrics that really matter are the ones from the horse’s mouth, and how much money can be made.

Now that News Corp (NSDQ: NWS) released official numbers Tuesday morning, things do look a little meagre, on the surface…

The publisher claims “more than 105,000 customer sales to date” – which would be a healthy number in any single month, but which actually refers to all digital sales over at least the four months since the sites started charging £1 a day and £2 a week in July.

It also lumps together all sales for “digital products”, including The Timeses’ websites and the Times iPad and Kindle editions, the latter of which has been available since 2008.

Media flip

On a crude calculation, The Timeses now have average 26,250 monthly digital sales. Times Newspapers has now gone from an online readership which, at 20 million monthly uniques before the switch, was 13 times larger than its combined print circulation of 1.5 million per week, to one which is now vastly smaller, perhaps at least 30 times smaller, than its print audience.

Stripping out occasional readers from search engines and the like in favour of loyal, active customers was exactly the point of the exercise; a massive audience drop-off was not only expected but sought. But to see the newspaper again become the more consumed of the two media options, by such a degree, is poignant.

The big question, to us on the outside, is whether the reduction in advertising-exposed eyeballs associated with a traffic drop of this scale is, or will, being made up by paying customers. But we didn’t even know how much News International was making from digital before the switch; the publisher doesn’t break it out.

52,250 subs

News Corp says “around half of (the 105,000) are monthly subscribers” to either the websites or digital editions…

Subscription fees are £2 per week on the web (billed as £8.67 per month), £9.99 per month on iPad and $22.99 per month on Kindle. So, even if all these subscribers (about 52,250) were paying the littlest, £2-a-week rate, Times Newspapers could be bringing in about £400,000 a month from digital subscriptions (The £2-a-week pricepoint actually starts as an introductory £1-a-month rate for now, however).

News Corp also says: “In addition to the digital-only subscribers, there are 100,000 joint digital/print subscribers who have activated their digital accounts to the websites and/or iPad app since launch.” But it seems these are mostly existing print subscribers who have merely added their free digital access, rather than new customers who jumped at the chance of a dual-medium sub.

Early days

A large-scale downscale in audience numbers is little surprise; it’s part and parcel of News Corp’s aim to remake its newspaper websites as packaged products. But it’s disappointing that collecting together sales for each product and across multiple months leaves us without a wholly accurate picture.

What’s true is that, despite being four months in, it’s still early days – News Corp has made a big philosophical switch to exploit this model in all its forms in the long term, and expects all these numbers to grow…

Accepting that sustainable revenue – and not sky-high audience figures – are now the metric on which to judge, then the small subscriptions base at least offers hope of recurring customer income.

8 Responses to “Times’ Audience Numbers Struggle, Subscriptions Offer Hope”

  1. Thomas Schiefer

    I’m using the iPad edition and the website and I have access to it because I subscribe the print edition. It is a great online experience and I would subscribe to it for £2 per week if I wouldn’t get the paper as well. Firstly journalists must be rewarded for their work and therefore it is only fair to pay for good content and secondly the pay wall makes sure that it is really fun to read the comments to articles because on free web sites comments tend to be very radical and the same extreme people are commenting with more or less over and over with the same remarks. So, well done. News Corp. Hope that the online circulation grows to a point where you are proven right.

  2. Richard Tobin

    Of these initial subscribers I suspect a large number are media, political, academic and professional entities, obligated to having access to the Times and thinking little about cost since they are not dipping into their own pockets. The further recruitment of this quality of subscriber will be ruled by a law of demising returns; the bulk may already being in place.

  3. Does Apple or Amazon take a cut of the subscription on those devices, or does the entire subs amount $9,99 etc. accrue to Newscorp? If not, the figures above are likely to be worse than expected. Kudos to Newscorp for having the balls to reveal its figures (though flawed).

  4. Those are still impressive numbers from News Corp. As much as many people can’t stand RM, he is a pioneeer in this field. Hats off to him for giving it a go and converting people.

    I think the people at the New York Times will be studying this carefully.

  5. Indeed, who does know?
    Regardless of the cumulative aspect to the individual payments, however, the “around half of them are monthly subscribers” line is *current* – that’s 50k-ish current active subscribers – confirmed with News Corp. today.
    The notion that iPad subs may be the majority of those may be tempered by the fact that they sort of screwed up the subscribability of the iPad edition – they had to give away consecutive free months; only now is there a recurring mechanism, and anyway, they’re giving the first iPad month free.

  6. Dennis Publishing

    As you said, the figures are cumulative “paid-for customer sales” – so 52,000 subscription sales could well be 18k people subscribing for 3 months… Or 52,000 people who paid a £1 for the trial. Or 52,000 sales of iPad apps over 4 months. Who knows.

  7. I do wonder how inflated those numbers are. For example I may be counted twice – once for a free iPad sub and a second for the day I subscribed for a day pass. If I am typical then NI certainly isn’t generating a lot of income.

    Also I suspect the iPad figures are skewed. iPad curiosity is high – look at how well the first edition of Wired did – but keeping people coming back for more once their curiosity has been sated is a mammoth task for publishers. I would bet that only a tiny % of the original iPad subscribers are paying for the service on a monthly basis.

    Personally I would love to see the paywall become successful. It would at least provide the media with a business model on which to develop newspapers and magazines, pay staff and make profits. It would also make the more specialist sections of mainstream media (technology, food, music etc) a lot less influential which would create fantastic opportunties for publishers and brands in the open web.

  8. knowing the digital turnover figures of some other newspapers, I reckon their pre paywall digital revenues must have been around £1.2m – £1.5m a month. So they would need to triple that figure to beat their pre paywall revenues. I think they can actually achieve that (and more) given that more publishers will raise pay walls and consumers moving to iPads/iPhones for their news (phones have easier payment models than online). It will take time, questions is more if they’re willing to wait for that…