The New York Times Company’s latest quarterly numbers contain a rich trove of data regarding the health of the digital news industry. Today, we’ll focus on the transition from traditional advertising to paywall strategies being implemented across the world. Paywall appear as a credible way to offset -- alas too partially -- the declining revenue from print operations.
First, the highlights.
(See NYTCO's press release here and stock here. Unless otherwise stated, all figures are for Q1 2012 and comparisons are Q1 2012 vs. Q1 2011.)
- Total Revenue is stable at $499.4 million.
- Operating profit is down by 23% at $19.6 million. When excluding depreciation, amortization and (generous) severance packages, OP is up 9.4% at $57 million.
- Print advertising for all properties and from all sources is down 8.1% at $238 million
- Circulation revenue is up 9.7% at $227 million.
- Digital subscriptions, launched just a year ago, reach 454,000. That's a 16% growth vs. Q4 2011.
- Digital advertising for the entire NYTCO (this includes NYTimes.com, BostonGlobe.com, Boston.com, About.com, etc) is down 10.3% to $71 million.
- Such decrease is primarily due to About.com losing 24% of its ad revenue to $22.6 million, and 50% of its operating profit to $7 million. This online guide is entirely dependent on advertising.
- But the real bad news is the decline in digital advertising for the NYT News Media Group consisting mostly of the NYT and the Boston Globe. Revenue dropped by 2.3% to $48.5 million for the quarter.
- Digital advertising accounts for 22.5% of the entire NYTCO ad revenue, and for 30% of the NYT News Media Group’s digital advertising revenue.
We can discern four trends:
#1: Digital advertising is struggling, even for a major brand such as the New York Times.
Again the evolution :
FY 2010: +18%
FY 2011: +10%
Q1 2012 (Y/Y): -2%
This confirms a much feared trend. By and large, in a news context, the performance of digital advertising is on the decline. All indicators are now flashing red: CPM (cost per thousand impressions), cost per click, volumes, yields, etc. The cause is well-known, and way more acute for digital than for print: ads and news contents do compete for the same eyeballs. The more attractive and eye-catching the content is, the lesser the ad yields. Behavioral advertising won't change that much -- at least for hard core, high value-added news environment.
This decline also announces a major shift in the way ads are sold. The advertising flow is likely to split: premium ads such as well-placed special packages will still be sold for high prices by in-house teams. But the bulk of the inventory will shift downward to bazaars in which gazillions of pageviews will be dumped into real-time exchanges supposed to optimize prices. The bad news: such schemes are likely to fuel deflationary trends for remnant (i.e. sub-premium) inventories. The good news: media organizations such as online news outlets or pure players are likely to join such marketplaces and perhaps gain an operating role of sorts -- assuming they are smart enough to cooperate (I'll address this in an upcoming column).
#2 Paywalls work. With roughly half a million paying subscribers, the NYTimes.com has captured the equivalent of 39% of its weekday print circulation of 1.3 million. In its financial statements, the Times doesn't break down its revenue structure, but a significant part of the 13% increase in circulation revenue (print + digital) is attributable to digital subscriptions (the rest comes from the recent print price hike).
Estimates are difficult but here are some clues: on these 500,000 digital subs, it is estimated that 60% pay the basic $15/mo rate while 40% opt for the full $35 digital package. This would translate to digital subscribers contributing $34.5 million (18%) to the $190 million in NYT Media Group circulation revenue that appear in its quarterly statement. 18% is not that bad for a paywall that is barely one year old (even though this estimated revenue doesn't reflect the cost of the NYTimes' massive promotions for its paywall program). But again, compared to the $48 million of digital advertising, it is significant.
#3 A warning to paywall dreamers: some restrictions apply. In order to be successful, a digital subscription must check the following boxes:
-- Own a sizable share of a given (and preferably solvent) segment of the population. In other words: start from a large built-in audience. Globally, the New York Times has about 34 million unique visitors per month - a large pool for conversions to the paywall.
Don't expect a paywall to work for a small site or a niche product -- unless it is a reference for its community. Even then, in spite of its reference status in New England, the Boston Globe shows a mere 18,000 paid-for digital subscribers.
-- Allow time to grow the subscriber base. A paywall strategy must spread over several years. The free audience first has to be converted into registered users able to be thoroughly data-mined; then the paywall will be tightened with less and less articles available for free (the NYT recently lowered its threshold from 20 to 10 free articles); the entire process will take at least two to four years, depending on where you start from.
-- Carefully manage porosity. That's why some people refer to a "semi-permeable membrane" (see the interesting conversation between Clay Shirky and NYT's Digital manager Denise Warren on NPR last January). While it is tightening its paywall, the NYT leaves willingly plenty of free access to its content: if you land its site from a search engine, from Facebook, Twitter, or from a blog, no limit applies (same for the FT.com, actually). Such tactic has two virtues: it doesn't affect natural referencing and incoming traffic from search engines (which could weigh as much as 30-40% of the audience), and the brand remains exposed to many -- such as social networks users.
-- Quality is non-negotiable. A successful paywall requires exclusive, unique, authoritative, high-quality content. A paywall isn’t the right solution for streams of "commodity news" or user-generated contents. It won't work for the Huffington Post. Despite its enormous audience, the HuffPo's embryonic original content won't do much to alter its "Left wing Fox News" positioning (Even though the HuffPo managed to score a Pulitzer Prize for National reporting for its remarkable Beyond The Battlefield series.)
#4 Print is still alive. While print advertising is drying up, the share of circulation revenue keeps rising (in relative terms.) The good news: price hikes don't seem to matter: the recent increase to $2.50 had no effect on sales. Actually, the Times uses its weekend edition (priced at $5.00) to channel digital subscriptions by providing the best deal of its complex rate card. Which leads to two conclusions: a sizable reservoir of readers is ready to pay for quality-on-paper at almost any price (see a previous Monday Note Cracking the Paywall); and commercially strong weekend editions can be a potent vector for digital subscriptions.
Print and digital strategies are more intertwined than ever.