- The New York Times has had strong subscription growth, leading it to set an ambitious goal of 10 million subs by 2025.
- The Times says it’s been able to grow because it invests in its journalism, its user experience, and its onboarding efforts, leading people to pay more and renew.
- Other publishers are leaning more on subscriptions to supplement their ad revenue, but the Times has a formula that’s hard for others to replicate.
The New York Times has been on a subscription growth tear, hitting 4.3 million print and digital subscriptions by the end of 2018. Based on those results, it’s looking to increase the price this year and set a goal of exceeding 10 million subscriptions by 2025.
With all the widespread layoffs in media lately, the question looms of how online news can be financially viable. It’s tempting to think that the success of the Times means success for the other publishers that are turning to paywalls to complement their advertising business, like Condé Nast, New York Media, and The Atlantic.
But a rising Times doesn’t necessarily lift all boats. While the strong news cycle drives reader interest and willingness to pay for news, there’s a finite number of subscriptions people will pay for. Only 8% of people in the US pay for an ongoing news subscription, according to the Reuters Institute’s 2017 report, Paying for News.
The institute’s 2019 report, "Journalism, Media, Technology Trends and Predictions 2019," warns that there may be pushback from consumers as they encounter more paywalls on sites.
The Times plans to hire more journalists
The Times has a number of things going for it that other publications don’t. Advertising as well as subscription growth enabled it to add 120 journalists last year for a total of 1,600, the biggest in Times history, EVP and COO Meredith Levien said. She said the paper would add more journalists this year, without committing to a number. When it comes to the breadth of reporting in the Times, she said, “I’m not sure we have a peer.”
“As we get better at the product, we’re also making it more valuable,” Levien told Business Insider. “I don’t think there are a lot of places in news where you can say that.”
Meanwhile, many other publishers have been laying off rather than adding journalists.
The Times also can afford to spend a lot to improve on and grow its products, which helps sell subscriptions. It’s planning to make improvements to its app. It recently rolled out a Cooking subscription product and is planning to introduce more subscription-based puzzles, a parenting product, and other utility-based products. One third of new subscriptions are coming from crossword puzzles and Cooking.
The Times also has a big marketing budget it can use to attract subscribers and market its brand. It spent $48.6 million in the fourth quarter of 2018, up from $32.6 million in the year-ago period.
It’s especially hard for general news publications to differentiate themselves enough to attract subscriptions, but The Times’ journalistic distinction and ongoing improvements have helped it win subscribers.
The paper was promoting a $1-per-week special, half off the regular price, for six months. But Levien said people readily pay full price after the introductory period ends, though she wouldn’t say the retention rate. Asked about the impact of competitors cutting their prices, she said the Times is fundamentally different and "worth paying more for."
“We’ve had a number of people come in at 50% off who we had to step up to full price, and that went really well,” she said. “We’re getting better at how we onboard you and interact with you in the first 90 days. We’re still not as good as the best subscription companies out there, but we’re a lot better than we were, and that gives us confidence we should be able to retain at whatever offer we get people in at.”
In fact, the Times is also thinking more about how to get at high-end subscribers, after testing discounts with price-sensitive people in mind.
“We’re putting lot of thought into how to get at the high end of the demand curve,” she said. “We’ll test higher prices. We’ll put out more product. We keep putting more value in the paper.”
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