New York Times: More Than 100,000 Digital Subs In First Weeks of Paywall

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 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 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.