The New York Times ended 2020 with more than 7.5m paying readers, riding out a boom in digital subscriptions that has helped the company weather a bleak year for advertising across the industry.
Propelled by interest in the US election, the publisher added 627,000 new digital subscribers in the final three months of 2020, ahead of analyst expectations.
Through 2020 alone, the New York Times amassed 2.3m digital subscriptions, more than the paying online readership of almost all other news publishers in the world.
After introducing a paywall in 2011, the company bet heavily on its digital subscription business, giving it a resilient and growing base of revenue that helped it to continue hiring even as the pandemic battered publishers reliant on advertising.
But its rapid growth in recent years was propelled by two seismic events — the election of Donald Trump and the coronavirus pandemic — as well as aggressive price promotions. Whether the commercial momentum can be sustained in years to come remains an open question. The company is aiming for 10m subscribers by 2025.
Meredith Kopit Levien, president and chief executive officer, noted the group reached two “key milestones” in 2020, with digital revenue overtaking print, and digital subscriptions becoming its largest revenue stream.
While acknowledging 2020 would be an “outlier year”, Ms Kopit Levien said she saw the potential for the total 6.7m digital subscriber base to increase three or fourfold “over time”.
“The last 10 years were about proving our strategy of journalism worth paying for; the next 10 will be about scaling that idea,” she said. “With a billion people reading digital news, and an expected 100m willing to pay for it in English, it’s not hard to imagine that, over time, The Times’s subscriber base could be substantially larger.”
Total revenues in the fourth quarter were flat at $509.4m, with subscription revenues rising 14.7 per cent to $315.8m. Adjusted operating profits rose by 1.4 per cent to $97.7m.
Total digital-only subscriptions, which include crossword and cooking products, rose to 6.7m by the end of 2020. Of the 627,000 additional subscribers in the third quarter, 425,000 were for the news, while 202,000 were for the group’s cooking, games and audio products.
Other parts of the New York Times group, including a print business that was once its commercial engine, continued to decline. Advertising revenues, which have been hit hard across the news industry, fell 18.7 per cent to $139.3m. Print advertising sales dropped 37.9 per cent.
The company anticipates no let up in the pace of growth in the first three months of 2021. It expects subscription revenues to rise by 15 per cent compared with the first quarter of 2020, mainly driven by a 35 to 40 per cent increase in digital revenue. Advertising is expected to fall “in the high teens”, it said.
The company has no debt and its cash coffers continued to grow, rising 28 per cent since 2019 to $882m, giving it the financial firepower to potentially pursue more acquisitions. In a sign of its ambitions in the audio market, the group last year bought Serial Productions, the maker of the podcast “Serial”.