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February 2, 2022updated 30 Sep 2022 10:59am

New York Times Co. blasts through 10m subscriptions goal three years ahead of schedule

By Bron Maher

The New York Times Company has hit its goal of 10m subscriptions ahead of its original 2025 target, it said on Wednesday.

The Times has now set itself an even more ambitious target of reaching 15m individual subscribers by 2027.

The announcement came in the company’s results for the fourth quarter of 2021, which showed a generally glowing picture for the media titan, including its best annual revenue since 2012.

Chief executive Meredith Kopit Levien said 2021 was the company’s “second-best year ever for net subscription additions and strongest operating profit and adjusted operating profit in many years”.

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The NYT bought sport news site The Athletic last month for $550m cash. That purchase, it said, carried the company over the 10m subscription mark.

However the Times said that even without The Athletic, it “believes it would have reached this target well before 2025 on an organic basis”.

The Times already tops Press Gazette’s 100k Club ranking of English-language news sites by digital subscriber numbers.

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The company reported that its operating profit rose by 17% from $80.5m in the fourth quarter of 2020 to $94.1m in the same period in 2021. It also hit $2bn in revenue across 2021, the first year it achieved the figure since 2012.

The company said higher advertising, subscription and other revenues had “more than offset higher costs”.

The Times said it added 375,000 digital subscriptions in the fourth quarter of 2021. Notably, of these, only 171,000 (46%) were for the Times’ news product. Instead, the company added 204,000 subscriptions for its other digital-only products, for example Games and Cooking, which can be purchased separately from news.

In a call to investors, Kopit Levien said: “It was an especially strong quarter in Cooking.” Both Games and Cooking crossed the 1m subscriber mark shortly before the quarter ended.

[Read more: New York Times is not the only publisher betting on games to solve subscription growth puzzle]

Chief financial officer Roland Caputo said on the call that the company had made a concerted push in the fourth quarter to market its Cooking product for the holiday season.

A major theme of both the release and the earnings call were the company’s move from focusing on subscriptions to focusing on subscribers, which Caputo said had become necessary as the company grew its non-news offering.

[Read more: How New York Times defied ‘scepticism’ to build digital subscriptions powerhouse – Press Gazette interviews Mark Thompson]

Caputo emphasised that the new 15m target was a subscriber goal, unlike the 10m subscription goal that preceded it. The new target equates, he said, to approximately 18m subscriptions under the old rubric as people can hold multiple types of subscriptions.

As of the end of Q4 2021, the Times says it has 7.6m individual paying subscribers, of whom 6.8m subscribe digitally. That compares with 8.789m subscriptions, of which 8m were digital. The company added 1.273m subscriptions year-on-year.

Print advertising grew more quickly than digital, growing 33.6% year-on-year to $65.6m. The increase was put down to an increase in luxury and entertainment advertising, connected to those sectors’ pandemic rebound. However, print advertising revenue remained 17% down on Q4 2019 due to “secular declines”.

Despite print’s partial recovery, digital advertising continued to account for the lion’s share of the NYT’s advertising income, pulling in $111.1m in Q4 2021, a 23.3% year-on-year increase. Kopit Levien said it marked the best year ever for digital advertising revenues at the company.

Operating costs increased 16.6% in the final quarter of 2021 to $500.1m. Total revenue increased 16.7%, rising to $594.2m, in particular due to the non-news products and “subscriptions graduating to higher prices from introductory promotional pricing”. Kopit Levien told investors the company had improved “how we use machine learning to determine the ideal moment to ask people to pay”.

Looking forward, in Q1 of 2022 the company anticipated a year-on-year digital subscription revenue increase of between 5% and 7% because of The Athletic acquisition. It expected the same range of increases in operating costs.

Excluding The Athletic, the company said it foresees a year-on-year increase of between 9% and 11% in total subscription revenues for the first quarter and between 16% and 20% for total ad revenues.

On its growth goals, the company said it “is focused on becoming the essential subscription for every English-speaking person seeking to understand and engage with the world” – something bolstered by Kopit Levien’s assertion that “at peak moments we reach as many as one in two people in the US”.

It said its research shows “there are now at least 135m adults worldwide who are paying or willing to pay for one or more subscriptions to English-language news, sports coverage, puzzles, recipes, or expert shopping advice.

“This large and growing addressable market, combined with our unique platform, gives us great confidence in our ability to continue to grow.” 

Asked by an investor, Kopit Levien said the Times was not concerned about Apple and Google’s moves to boost online privacy at the cost of advertising cookies: “Our proprietary first party data makes the Times an attractive place for marketers.”

On Monday, the company announced it had purchased viral daily puzzle Wordle for a figure “in the low seven figures”. Of the purchase, Kopit Levien told investors: “Our ambition is to leverage the power of our brand and that news audience to also become a category leader in other areas that can occupy a big place in people’s lives like games.”

Games have been a popular sideline for the Times. The company offers a games-only subscription for £25 a year, and the newspaper reported on Monday that the publisher’s games “were played more than 500 million times last year”.

The New York Times introduced its paywall in 2010, betting on the opposite strategy from competitors that continued to chase digital advertising.

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