But today, just a few weeks before Christmas, the clouds parted a bit as New York Times CEO Mark Thompson spoke at the UBS Global Media & Communications Conference in Manhattan. He dispensed a couple of encouraging statistics to attendees.
First: Print ads are gradually becoming a smaller piece of The New York Times overall revenue mix. According to media analyst Ken Doctor, Thompson told the crowd that ink-and-paper spots now comprise slightly more than a fifth of overall revenue:
NYT Mark Thompson's live at UBS conference: "We're seeing deleveraging and degearing of print ads". Now 22% of NYT rev. Vital stat.
— Ken Doctor (@kdoctor) December 5, 2016
On the surface, this may not seem like great news. The Times reported last month that print advertising was down 19 percent last quarter, matching precipitous drops elsewhere in the news business. Total advertising revenue declined 8 percent, with a Times executive forecasting more of the same in 2017.
But a glass-half-full analysis of Thompson's announcement would show that print revenue — the category that's shrinking the fastest — now represents a relatively small fraction of the Times' overall business. That means other categories, such as digital subscriptions, native advertising and events, have begun to fill that gap.
Indeed, Thompson had sunny news on the subscription front, too. In 2015, The Times stated its intention to double its digital revenue by 2020. A recent earnings report put its digital subscribers at 1.3 million. Today, Thompson announced the paper has added 200,000 subscribers this quarter, part of a post-election bump in reader loyalty. He also said the newspaper could eventually reach 10 million digital subscribers.
Investors, apparently, found the news encouraging, too. Times stock traded up 3 percent before the market closed this afternoon.
The Times' success isn't easily replicable across the newspaper industry, of course. The company's international scope and reach gives it an entreé to a huge base of subscribers in the United States and beyond, which it can sell to national advertisers at a premium. News organizations of smaller stature — regional and local newspapers, for example — will have a much harder time boosting subscriber revenue to those heights.
But taken together, the two statistics should bolster confidence that readers will pay for quality digital journalism. Now, with cuts looming at The New York Times and elsewhere, executives will have to right-size their newsrooms to fit their diminished advertising base.
Correction: A previous version of this story said The New York Times expects to add 400,000 subscribers in the fourth quarter. In fact, The Times expects to add 200,000 subscribers. We apologize for the error.