economic crisis

Circulation Revenue Only Thing Growing at Newspapers

McClatchy and New York Times Company find a revenue stream that goes up
July 23, 2009

The New York Times reported some good news today, namely that it was profitable in the second quarter. But, of course, with any sliver of good news from the media business these days, it’s not that simple.

Let’s take a quick look at its results and what they mean.

First of all, the biggie is that advertising revenues continued to crater, down 30 percent in the quarter from a year ago. Now that’s bad enough, but it’s not exactly coming off a high base. I went digging back into the filings to see when the most recent high was in order to put this quarter’s ad drop in historical perspective.

In the year ago quarter, ads were down 11 percent from the year before, when they totaled $508 million in the second quarter. But that’s not all, second quarter 2007 ads were down 6 percent from 2Q06. Thankfully the chain of decline ends there, since 2006 was up 1 percent over the year before.

So it turns out this last quarter’s NYT ad revenues were down to $317 million from three years ago when they were $578 million. That’s a 45 percent plunge.

What else can we find here? Another terrible sign is that internet advertising is on the decline, too. At NYT Company’s newspapers, it cratered by 16 percent in the second quarter—just atrocious. So, again, we’re forced to ask the “don’t charge online” folks: How do you save a business with numbers like that?

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I was just mentioning on Twitter the other day that McClatchy’s second quarter results revealed something odd for this “You Can’t Charge For Something That Doesn’t Provide Value” crowd: Circulation revenues—meaning actual readers paying for newspapers—are the one thing growing at these newspapers. How about that?

At McClatchy, which turned a nifty profit in the second quarter, ad revenues tumbled 30.2 percent just like New York Times Company’s. Its online ads fared better, but were still down 3 percent.

The key thing to take away from these numbers is this: Internet ads will not save newspapers. Say somebody cracks the code on Internet advertising in a few years, making it much more lucrative than it currently is. Great, but that will be too late for most newspapers.

At McClatchy, circulation revenues—that is, money paid by readers for the newspaper, either through subscriptions or newsstand purchases—rose 5 percent in the second quarter to $69.4 million. As far as I can tell, that’s the only part of McClatchy’s revenue stream that grew.

But that hides the exact nature of the revenue increase from circulation. The chain’s daily circulation (copies sold) tumbled 12 percent and its Sunday paper lost 9 percent of its readers. That’s terrible, but it means by my calculations that average circulation revenue per subscriber was up 19 percent in the quarter from a year ago.

You can spin this a couple of different ways: That the increased cost of the paper drove away more readers. Or that on average, readers paid more for the paper. Both are right. Right now I don’t want to get into whether McClatchy jacking up subscription and newsstand costs was the right overall business move (I’m sure it was very negative for the chain in overall revenue. The question is whether the subscribers lost were profitable or unprofitable circulation, and I don’t know that). My point is that people will and do pay for newspapers.

At McClatchy, that’s still not very much. I calculate that they got only about $29 per reader in the second quarter. That’s up from $24.40 a year ago, but it’s still only about $10 a month. It’s unclear to me whether papers like the ones McClatchy owns can make a go of charging online—at least as the industry stands right now, with Associated Press content freely available everywhere (I’ve said for a while and David Simon most recently brought this up, that the AP could force much of the news industry behind paywalls by yanking its content from outlets that don’t charge. That would eliminate the cartel considerations that complicate newspapers coming together to charge online all at once.)

But let’s look at The New York Times, which I’ve often said is a much easier case in the whether-to-charge debate. It hasn’t diluted its journalism, unlike nearly every other newspaper in the country, and its subscribers already pay out the wazoo for the print paper.

That in my next post, which is coming shortly. (UPDATE: And it’s up)

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.