Remember when the FONsters told us the WSJ and FT were unique and so the NYT and others couldn’t charge? Convenient! In fact, this is pure nonsense. Yes, the Times is the greatest American newspaper and it has national and international reach. But it still faces the same business model problems that plague its lesser peers: High fixed costs, the rapid decline of print advertising, and the pitiful failure of digital advertising to make up the difference. The Times will surely be the most successful general newspaper with digital subscriptions, but it’s empirically false to argue that “nothing that it does extrapolates to other news organizations.”
But let’s try, try again. Take the metered model, which the NYT took from the FT and made better. It found that it could open up a big new spigot of circulation revenue while maintaining its digital ad revenue—something I’ve been arguing for going on four years now. Other papers, like the Star Tribune and Charleston’s Post and Courier followed suit and found it worked for them too. The thing is, no other newspaper needs to be as successful as the Times with digital subs. They have much smaller and much cheaper newsgathering operations. In fact, it was precisely the Times’s success that emboldened others to give it a try.
Buttry’s Point 2:
The gross revenue figure tells us nothing until the Times reveals how much it spent to develop its pay “meter,” how much it costs to operate and promote the paywall and how much its advertising revenue declines because of the traffic it loses from the paywall (or how much extra revenue it gets because advertisers value subscribers more than they value the non-paying audience). We don’t know whether the net revenue to the Times from its paywall is $90 million, $10 million or even a net loss.
“We” don’t know only if we don’t want to know. We do know the NYT spent about $25 million developing its meter. We know it hasn’t materially hurt ad revenue. And while we don’t know how much it costs to operate, we do know this is very high-margin incremental revenue. Certainly more than 50 percent and probably well above 75 percent. It’s in the numbers. And again, it’s low hanging fruit.
The Times announced this week that it is attempting to buy out 30 more journalists. I won’t call a company’s strategy successful until the business is growing, not cutting.
Another straw man. The “company’s strategy” is demonstrably not just to throw up a paywall and stop trying to make money in other ways. The paper just launched a DealBook conference. It spends money on R&D with NYT Labs. But yes, perhaps selling muffins at a newsroom cafe at the bottom of 620 8th Avenue is what it will take to commence growth. Look, if a newspaper with cratering revenue comes up with a $100 million, high-margin revenue stream and you can’t call that a “success” then the failure is yours.
We’ll never know what kind of revenue the Times might have generated if it had spent the millions that it poured into the paywall on more forward-looking strategies.
You’ve got to wonder what halfway competent businessman would look back after at least quadrupling an investment in its first 18 months and think, “Maybe I should have put that $30 million into what? A social-media startup”? What’s the proven alternative that would have been better?
Buttry goes on to pooh-pooh the success of the Star Tribune’s meter, which garnered 20,000 subscribers in its first six months, creating a new $2 million annual revenue stream twenty times as large as its digital-ad losses—and the paper doesn’t even charge print readers an “upsell” for the website, which is what’s driving Gannett’s success.
As for my $100 million estimate, which is conservative, Buttry claims that he flat doesn’t buy it. Shock. But he also claims I haven’t showed my work. Well, here you go. You have to back into numbers sometimes, as I did a few months ago with Buttry’s bankrupt employer. We don’t just pull numbers out of our you-know-whats.
And he actually says this: “In fact, about the only people repeating the fiction that it’s tough to make money online are those in the newspaper business.”
Finally, apologies to all you regular Audit readers who find the paywall fight tedious. This would just be another edition of Someone Is Wrong On The Internet, but this is much more about what passes for argumentation about a critical subject. Besides, these fallacious arguments are having real consequences, all around the country.
The Washington Post listened for too long. Thankfully, it looks like it’s finally learned its lesson.