The NYT’s $150 million-a-year paywall

Growth slows sharply, but digital-subscriber revenue is propping up the paper

The New York Times’s once-torrid paywall growth continued to slow in the second quarter, adding 23,000 digital-only subscribers.

That’s the second quarter in a row that the NYT has set new lows for digital-subs growth (it added 36,000 in the first quarter), signalling that the slowdown is real and circulation revenue growth is no longer quite enough to offset advertising declines. Revenue was down 1 percent from a year ago.

Let’s keep this in perspective, though. The law of large numbers all but dictates a slowdown from early high growth rates. The paper has gone from zero to 699,000 subscribers in just nine quarters, and even with the two-quarter slowdown is still adding digital subscribers at a rate of about 100,000 a year.

But for now, the pile of paywall money is still growing and for the first time, the Times Company has broken out how big it is: More than $150 million a year, including the Boston Globe, which after finally tweaking its faulty paywall strategy is reaping the benefits. Digital subs there hit 39,000, up 22 percent from the first quarter and 70 percent from a year ago (but overall revenue is still collapsing, down 7 percent).

All in all, the Times Company is taking in roughly $202 a year in revenue per subscriber.

To put that $150 million in new revenue in perspective, consider that the Times Company as a whole will take in roughly $210 million in digital ads this year. And that $150 million doesn’t capture the paywall’s positive impact on print circulation revenue. Altogether, the company has roughly $360 million in digital revenue.

Digital ads were again the weak spot (beyond print ads, which goes without saying). They declined 3 percent in the quarter—something that has to be turned around somehow.

Contrast the NYT’s digital-ad performance with The Guardian’s (and note that Boston Globe probably accounts for 15 percent to 20 percent of the NYT’s $210 million total). The latter increased its digital advertising by 29 percent in its latest fiscal year. It’s worth pointing out, however, that the Guardian brings in just $62 million a year in digital ads and classifieds despite having similar traffic. Its total digital revenue is $85 million a year, and it lost $47 million overall.

The Times has to add new revenue sources, continue to move toward 1 million subcribers online, raise online-subscription prices 2 percent to 3 percent a year, and turn around its mature digital-ad business.

All easier said than done, of course. But without the support provided by all that paywall revenue, the Times would be in deep, deep trouble.

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Ryan Chittum is a former Wall Street Journal reporter, and deputy editor of The Audit, CJR's business section. If you see notable business journalism, give him a heads-up at Follow him on Twitter at @ryanchittum. Tags: , , , ,