With a heavy marketing push, The New York Times passes 3 million mark in paid digital subscribers

November 1, 2018

The New York Times ended the third quarter with more than 3 million paid digital subscribers to its main news product and crosswords and cooking verticals, the company announced today. With another million in print circulation, its total is more than 4 million.

For the quarter, the Times added just over 200,000 digital subscribers net: 143,000 for the main news product, another 60,000 for the two specialty sites.

That result was achieved only with a heavy marketing push, Times executives explained in a conference call with financial analysts.  Introductory digital subscriptions are now being offered for as little as $1 a week.

The Times tracks the characteristics of new subscribers carefully. The latest group included more women than men, chief operating officer Meredith Kopit Levien said, and a substantial number are 24 or younger.

The company used to rely pretty much entirely on direct response marketing, Kopit Levien said, but that proportion is now under 50 percent of spending. A more sophisticated mix of methods, including television and display ads, are being placed with a new slogan, "The truth is worth it."

She and CEO Mark Thompson said that they were unsure how much a run of high-profile news events may have helped with growth. The Kavanaugh hearings and an opinion piece by an anonymous inside critic of the Trump administration were positives.

The Times no longer benefits as much from the so-called "Trump bump" that led to circulation surges during the 2016 presidential campaign and the early months of the new administration. New subscriptions have grown more expensive to come by, and the deep discounts reduce the average revenue per user (ARPU), a metric closely watched by analysts and Times management.

Still, the company has kept growing its digital paid audience by a six-figure total per quarter, benefiting also from international subscriber interest.  

The third quarter was a good one for the company in advertising as well. Digital ad revenues were up 17.3 percent compared to the same quarter in 2017, and print ad revenues were off less than 1 percent.  With other revenues from commercial printing and its Wirecutter product-recommendation subsidiary, the company grew total revenue by 8 percent.

The Times also was comfortably profitable with a margin of about 6 percent as measured by net earnings and nearly twice that on a cash operating basis. It continues to add newsroom staff, the executives said.

Those results are in marked contrast to the weak financial performance this year of regional newspaper groups, where print advertising revenues are typically down 15 to 20 percent year-to-year and digital ad and subscription revenue growth have been much more modest.

As a result, the Times' stock performance is much better than that of other newspaper companies, with shares up by roughly half since the start of the year and about 7 percent just for the day.