Tomorrow should tell whether the New York Times can turn its “Trump bump”—that post-election jump in paid digital subscribers, up 296,000 to about 1.85 million at year’s end—into something like a business model. The Times company is set to announce first-quarter earnings Wednesday morning, with an investor call set for 11 AM ET/8 AM PT. Anyone curious about the future of paid news delivery should be interested.
In reporting fourth-quarter earnings, Times managers rightfully celebrated that sudden 19% hike in paid subscribers. Sure, quarterly revenue was down, to $439.7 million from about $444.7 million a year earlier. Net income was still dropping, to $37.1 million from $51.7 million in the last quarter of 2015. But the surge in paying readers suddenly showed a path toward a digital future that had so far seemed elusive. “We believe that there is further opportunity to significantly extend our subscription reach, both in the U.S. and around the world,” Times chief executive Mark Thompson promised.
Hoping to turn the bump into a beachhead, Thompson and company did something rare among cost-conscious legacy news organizations; that is, they earmarked an additional $5 million in spending for investigative efforts in Washington.
It wasn’t just a patriotic gesture. The Times had clearly spotted business opportunity in the shock of Donald Trump’s election, and in the powerful antagonism he provoked among many of its new readers.
In the weeks that followed, the Times has pressed Trump hard. “The New York Times does enterprise pieces, four or five a day against him,” MSNBC host Chris Matthews noted on Sunday’s Meet The Press.
But now comes the test. Has that editorial stance helped to increase circulation revenue at the 6% rate Times managers predicted for the first quarter? The paper’s business side has certainly been fighting to meet its targets. This reporter’s email accounts—two of them—get a daily blast offering cut-rate digital subscriptions. The promotional rates float between 30%-50% off the supposed full price, and lately have been pegged at $1.50 a week for the first year (never mind that I’m already a long-time subscriber, paying far more for combined print and digital access).
Tuesday’s news that cable television viewing has slackened since the election has to be nervous-making. And loud calls for a boycott over a climate-change column by the paper’s conservative writer Bret Stephens don’t help. Those are too late to affect the quarter; but they are a reminder of the inherent volatility in a business model that trades on political intensity. In fact, it is probably no accident that the more recent pitches from the Times business side have said less about “truth,” a politically charged theme that prevailed when the paper was offering 40% off back in January, and more about access to original videos, documentaries and “virtual reality films that take you closer to the subject,” in the words of a half-off pitch last week. Tomorrow’s earnings report, and the next few weeks, should say much about where the Times is pointed.