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August 6, 2020updated 30 Sep 2022 9:29am

How the New York Times’ digital subscription drive has compensated for the collapse in advertising

By William Turvill

At first glance, news that digital revenues have overtaken print for the first time in the New York Times’ history appears to be a PR-friendly way of deflecting from the collapse of its advertising sales.

The newspaper group’s ad turnover fell 44% year-on-year between April and June to $68m – a drop prompted by the coronavirus pandemic, but which is also part of a wider trend.

Revenues across the company as a whole, however, were down a lesser 7.5%. And investors appeared to be satisfied with this – the New York Times Company’s share price rose 1% yesterday, and is nearing an all-time high.

A breakdown into the New York Times’ second-quarter figures, published yesterday, shows that several key areas of its commercial news business are struggling.

Within advertising, print was down 55% to $28.2m, while digital was down 32% to $39.5m. The NYT’s print subscription and single-copy sales, meanwhile, were down 6.7% to $147.2m.

But much of this was compensated for by the most encouraging part of the results: the New York Times’ digital subscription numbers.

Over the last year, the New York Times has brought in nearly 2m new digital subscribers – 5.7m at the end of the second quarter, up 50% from 3.8m at the same point last year.

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Press Gazette reported in June on how several other large news businesses have benefited from growing subscription bases this year.

The NYT numbers have also boosted digital-only subscription revenues by 30%, from $112.6m in the second quarter of 2019 to $146m this year.

The graph below, based on Press Gazette analysis of New York Times company filings going back to 2015, shows how the gap between digital and print revenues – more than $180m per quarter five years ago – has closed this year.

The second graph, based on the same analysis, shows how this change has been driven not just by a collapse in the advertising market, but also by the strength of New York Times’ digital subscription sales.

On presenting the results, Mark Thompson, the New York Times chief executive, who steps down from his role in September, said: “We’ve proven that it’s possible to create a virtuous circle in which whole-hearted investment in high quality journalism drives deep audience engagement which in turn drives revenue growth and further investment capacity.

“This is why our newsroom is growing when so many others are being reduced.

“America and the world need access to great journalism now more than ever and I’m proud that, in these momentous and troubled times, our newsroom has the commitment, the talent and the resources to rise fully to the occasion.”

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