If there was a bright spot in the latest quarterly results from the New York Times, it’s the fact that the newspaper’s metered paywall has attracted almost 325,000 subscribers willing to pay a monthly fee for the site. Despite all the celebrating from the pro-paywall camp, however, that bright spot was more than overshadowed by the other dark clouds in the numbers — including the fact that print advertising revenue continues to decline, and the paper’s former online jewel About.com got whacked by Google’s algorithm updates. Anyone who takes on the job of CEO at the media company is going to have to start thinking creatively about its business, because all the easy money has already been made.
Although the paywall and related print-subscription deals helped boost circulation revenue by almost 5 percent in the NYT’s media group — which includes the New York Times, the Boston Globe and the International Herald Tribune — and digital advertising revenue was also up by about 5 percent for the quarter, neither of those things were able to compensate for the continued drop-off in print advertising. Print ad revenue fell by almost 8 percent, which helped push the NYT’s fourth-quarter profit down by more than 12 percent, and for the full year the company reported a loss of $40 million.
Paywall revenue isn’t even close to making up the gap
The New York Times didn’t provide any helpful charts that would make the reality of this situation more obvious, so one blogger decided to come up with his own. Paul McMorrow, an editor at CommonWealth magazine, put together a chart that shows the contrast between the NYT’s advertising revenue, circulation revenue and its total revenue:
According to newspaper-industry analyst Ken Doctor, the NYT is probably pulling in about $86 million or so from its digital paywall — or “metered access,” as the paper likes to call it, since you get to read 20 articles for free before you get hit with a request for your credit card. But that’s not even close to being enough to make up for the decline in ad revenue, both print and digital, which dropped by 7 percent in the quarter.
One of the biggest problems for the Times is that its former online star About.com, which the company bought in 2005 for $410 million, has seen both its profitability and revenue-generating ability implode in the wake of an update to Google’s search algorithm — a change that was designed to penalize what the company called “low quality” content sites, or what some call “content farms.” In the most recent quarter, the NYT said About’s revenue fell by 26 percent, and profit fell by a staggering 67 percent.
As McMorrow’s chart shows, the Times is still far under water in terms of revenue, despite the benefit of its paywall. As I’ve argued before, there’s nothing wrong with having a paywall — although in many cases it amounts to building a wall of sandbags around the print newspaper edition, which provides most of the ad revenue — but if a paywall is your only strategy for responding to digital disruption of the media business, then you are almost certainly doomed, whether you are the New York Times or not.
Which way will the new CEO go — towards the past or the future?
So what should a new CEO be looking at to revitalize the NYT for a digital age? Ken Doctor suggests that the paper needs to look beyond just subcription revenue and focus on how it can target those 325,000 digital subscribers — since it knows who they are and where they live, and it already has their credit-card numbers.
I would take it one step further, however, and suggest that the new CEO think about some of the suggestions about “reverse paywalls” that have been made by journalism professor Jeff Jarvis, and also by former Washington Post managing editor Raju Narisetti (who is now at the Wall Street Journal in a digital role). The main principle behind this idea is that regular readers should get more than just a sales rep hitting them up for a monthly payment — the fact that they are a devoted fan should entitle them to earn rewards, whether it’s money off their subscription for interacting with the paper, or offers that others don’t get.
The NYT has taken a few steps towards trying to build relationships with its readers through what I’ve called the “levelling up” process that it recently added to its comment section, where readers can achieve preferred status for good behavior. Those are the building blocks of a relationship that the paper could use to its own benefit in all kinds of ways, many of which could generate new sources of revenue — real-life events, for example, which has been one of the things that has helped turn The Atlantic around, or a line of e-books based on the newspaper’s original reporting.
Another thing the NYT could — and should — be thinking about is what the role of an information provider is in the digital age. Is it to act as a gatekeeper for certain kinds of data and try to reimpose the scarcity that used to exist in the print era? Or is it to find partners to distribute that information in as many ways as possible, and to think of the paper as a data platform, as The Guardian has with its open-platform project? One way looks to the past, and the other to the future. Which way will the NYT go?