The Numbers Behind the New York Times’ digital transition

The Chart of the Week is a weekly Visual Capitalist feature on Fridays.

For the most part, legacy print media stalwarts are dying a death by a thousand cuts.

There are exceptions to this rule, and The New York Times is often touted as the best example of an old-school media company that is successfully navigating the challenging transition to digital. They’ve experimented with different types of content and tactics to get eyeballs, while also shifting their company-wide strategy and culture to take a digital-first approach.

While pundits give credit to the Times for their latest efforts, this doesn’t mean it’s been an easy transition for the iconic newspaper. The path forward has been littered with roadbumps, and the most recent one is hard to ignore for shareholders.

[drizzle]Earlier this week, The New York Times announced a 95.7% decrease in quarterly profit. We dug a little deeper in this week’s chart to provide some context behind the newspaper’s challenges in maintaining its relevance in the 21st century.

New York Times’ Digital Transition

New York Times' Digital Transition

Goodbye, Ad Dollars

The primary challenge faced by the Times is pretty obvious.

In the early 2000s, the company easily made over $2 billion in advertising revenue per year. Today, they make about $600 million from ads.

Why has the transition to digital hurt ad revenues so much? There are a bunch of reasons, but here’s a few of them:

  • Physical circulation of The New York Times and other newspapers is dropping rapidly.
  • Traditional display ads aren’t particularly effective, and are part of the “old-school” of digital thought.
  • Programmatic bidding drives down prices for these ads, bringing in even less revenue.
  • Digital lends itself to long-term, results-driven campaigns. It takes time to set these up and measure them properly, especially at scale.
  • Ads need to match the editorial stream to be effective. Quality over quantity.
  • There’s more competition in the digital space, which is a stark contrast to the distribution oligopolies enjoyed by big newspapers in the legacy era.
  • Madison Avenue is also slow at switching to digital, which only adds to the lag time.

These are just some of the reasons why advertising was able to make up 65% of the Times’ revenues in 2004, but only 39% in 2016.

Hello, Digital Subscriptions

While I don’t personally agree that a paywall is a long-term answer to any of their problems, it is true that the New York Times has used this as a temporary crutch to at least counter lost ad dollars.

In Q3 2016, revenue from digital-only subscriptions increased 16.4%, and money coming in from subscriptions has increased year-on-year since 2011.

Sometime between 2011 and 2012, subscription revenue (powered by digital-only subscriptions) passed ad revenues as the most important source of incoming cash for the company. The ramp-up has been impressive, and The New York Times now has 1.6 million digital subscribers.

My personal take? Digital subscriptions will plateau in the next five years or maybe sooner. Further, I think that content that isn’t industry or niche-specific will generally drift towards being free for users over time. The New York Times will have to solve their ad problem, but the paywall will buy them a bit of time to do so.

By Jeff Desjardins, Visual Capitalist

[/drizzle]