February 4, 2021

The New York Times Co.’s quarterly earnings reports are like the nightly weather — the format is altogether predictable but the exact numbers are not.

Here in Q&A format are the results for the fourth quarter of 2020, which the company released first thing Thursday morning.

How many net new paid digital subscribers did the Times add this time?

627,000. 200,000 for its games and cooking verticals, the rest in news. By contrast, Gannett recently celebrated hitting the 1 million mark for its 250-plus daily newspapers. So the Times added nearly two-thirds of that just in the last quarter. Its total is now 7.5 million.

So that puts the company three-quarters of the way to its goal of 10 million total print and digital by 2025?

Yes, but CEO Meredith Kopit Levien said that the target, defined by her predecessor Mark Thompson, is no longer ambitious enough. The Times estimates the potential market for paid digital news in English worldwide to be 100 million people. “It is not hard to imagine that, over time,” she said, the company could have “two, three or four times that.” That would be 15 to 30 million subscribers.

How about the short run?

Kopit Levien has downplayed the so-called Trump bump as the driving factor in subscription growth over the last five years. In the last quarterly earnings report, her first as CEO, she talked repeatedly about the “breadth” of Times content.

She backtracked a bit Thursday, saying investors should expect variability in quarterly growth depending on how eventful the news cycle is. But she added that the company has a good enough handle on the “levers” of selling both trial and full-price subscriptions that it can keep growing even if the news goes relatively quiet compared to the pandemic and election year of 2020.

How about the size of the newsroom?

1,700 and still increasing, Kopit Levien said, but in a measured way, not proportionate to the subscription surge. The company wants to see growth in video and audio storytelling capacity and needs to add to its tech team to support the increased volume and varied format of its news output. Its COVID-19 tracker and live event coverage were highlights of 2020, Kopit Levien said.

And the rest of its business metrics?

Pretty bad. Print advertising was down 37.9% compared to the fourth quarter of 2019 and digital advertising was off, too. Print subscriptions and single-copy sales continue to fall both daily and for Sunday. Overall revenues and operating profits stayed even with the same period a year ago.

How does Kopit Levien assess the Times’ competition?

It is not so much other newspaper publishers anymore, she said. In the traditional Comscore metrics of uniques and views, the Times is moving into the range of “television-related (sites)” with native video expertise like those of ABC, CBS and CNN. She also mentioned The New Yorker and The Atlantic as doing an especially good job supplementing strong journalism in text form with audio and visual presentations.

Are there more acquisitions in the offing? (The Times bought the production company behind the “Serial” podcast in July.)

Yes. The Times is sitting on $882 million in cash, has no debt and has a fully funded pension plan. So it has plenty of money should a good opportunity come along.

How is all this playing in the stock market?

Very well. Since December shares have been trading above $50, the highest ever for the company. Thursday’s results were as expected so the share price was up modestly by 2.2 % in midday trading.

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Rick Edmonds is media business analyst for the Poynter Institute where he has done research and writing for the last fifteen years. His commentary on…
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