AOL’s HuffPo Premium Doesn’t Mean Much For the NYT

Frederic Filloux has some harsh criticism of The Huffington Post’s business model, calling it “a digital sandcastle.”

But what caught my eye was this at the bottom of his piece:

What ailing AOL bought is vapor. About 35% of the HuffPo’s users come form Google. They land on cleverly optimized content: stories borrowed from other (and consenting) medias that mostly generate blogging and comments. This is the machine that drove 28m unique visitors in January, which makes the HuffPo close to the New York Times/Herald Tribune audience of 30m (unique visitors). With one key difference: each viewer of the NYT websites yields an (Average Revenue Per User) of $11, ten times more than the Arianna thing. Based on the HuffPo’s valuation, the NYT Digital would be worth billions. That’s a consolation.

If only this were true.

Alas, his numbers are off there. If the NYT were really getting $11 per user, it would be rolling in $330 million annually from its website. But the whole news media group at New York Times Company only brought in $212 million in digital ads last year, and somewhere just less than a third of that probably came from and its other smaller newspapers (applying the revenue breakdown for print and digital ad sales of The New York Times, which brings in two-thirds of the News Media Group’s overall ad revenues. NYT Company doesn’t break out digital numbers in the segment).

So perhaps the Times/IHT brought in (very roughly) $140 million to $150 million in digital ads last year (ADDING: And I should say, some significant part of this is surely from upsells to people who only really want print ads. In other words, without the print paper, they’d surely be considerably less). That’s a great number—the news media group grew ads at an 18 percent clip last year—but it’s still a long way from covering a newsroom that costs upward of $200 million a year, much less the overhead needed to support that newsroom. And it’s only about $4.66 for each of its 30 million or so unique visitors.

Even if it were unmoored from the print paper, the NYT, would still have huge costs in the form of its massive newsroom. That means if viewed in isolation, its website is very unprofitable. It has to get much more revenue for each of its users to be a viable standalone business.

So you can’t apply The Huffington Post’s valuation multiple to the NYT’s website. They’re two different business models: Even though the HuffPo gets much less revenue per user, it’s apparently slightly profitable. Its costs are extremely low. It goes without saying but you’re going to get a much higher sales multiple on a company if its profitable.

The good news is that a quality paper like The New York Times does get quite a bit more per reader online than something like The Huffington Post (which is, uh, uneven). The bad news is: It’s not near enough—yet.

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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: , , ,