The Steepening Slide At The New York Times: The Paper, Not The Company

Posted by: Jon Fine on April 21, 2009

There’s plenty of bad news in the New York Times Co.’s first quarter earnings, but the worst of it is this: the steepening slide at its flagship New York Times.

Yes, the New York Media Group—which consists of the Times, the International Herald Tribune and radio station WQXR—turned in the best ad performance of any of the Times Co’s newspaper units. Unfortunately, “best” here is highly relative. The New York Media Group’s ad revenues were off 27.3%. (Its New England Media Group, which includes its highly stressed Boston Globe, had ad revenues fall 31.6%; its Regional Media Group of newspapers,which are primarily based in the southeastern US, had ad revenues fall 29.3%.)

Strangely—and not at all encouragingly—the New York Media Group also had the smallest circulation revenue gain of any of the units, eking out a mere 0.7% uptick.

For a sui generis title like the New York Times, which should, theoretically, have a strong grip on a premium audience thanks to a premium editorial product, this is not good news.

To put both figures into some context, the New York Media Group saw its ad revenues drop 12.0% for full-year 2008, with a 16.9% drop in the fourth quarter. its circulation revenue rose 3.4% for the year and over 4% in the fourth quarter.

Parsing some comments made by CEO Janet Robinson in a conference call—thanks to David Kaplan’s piece for paidcontent.org—reveal a strain of thinking at the Times that is roughly in line with what I’ve been thinking (and saying) about how newspapers may try to make more money from their online audiences:

Our goal is to add substantial new revenue from our users, without materially affecting our leading display advertising business.
My first read on this is: well, duh, of course. But my second read on this is that this means the Times—and other newspapers—will start fiddling around with specific (i.e.: new) online products and mini-sites that they can charge users to access, and that they won’t merely slap a pay wall around their entire sites.

What, exactly, these papers will come up with is kind of a complete mystery. There are isolated subscription sites that have worked for newspapers not called the Wall Street Journal; the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel’s Packer Insider, for those insane about the Green Bay Packers to pay $6.95 a month to read everything about them, is a good example.

But there aren’t a lot of them, and it’s not clear to me how aggregating a few such sites will keep afloat such big, leaky ships.

 

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