In case you missed it, amidst Tom Brady’s Superbowl triumph and the upcoming second impeachment trial, The New York Times has posted some extraordinary revenue and subscription numbers for 2020 that point the way to a prosperous 21st century for some newspapers.

Yes, newspapers. Some newspapers. The venerable Grey Lady’s earnings report documents 7.5 million digital and print subscriptions at the end of 2020. The paper is well on its way to its stated goal of 10 million total subscriptions by 2020 and at this rate, could even exceed it. Further proof of the old adage that bad news is good news for news organizations and a disastrous year like 2020 can be a bonanza.

(Of that 7.5 million, a paltry 833,000 are print subscriptions purchased by ancients like me who still enjoy the tactile pleasure delivered to my door each morning.)

This subscription boom took place as total NYT digital and print advertising revenue for 2020 fell by a perilous 26 per cent to just under $400 million. Most of that loss was in print advertising, which declined 38 per cent in the fourth quarter of 2020. In a role reversal, 65 per cent of ad revenue came from digital. The tail is now wagging the dog.

So, the broader pattern is clear: subscription revenue up, advertising revenue down. Since the days of the penny press, the income publishers received from subscriptions was almost an afterthought. Now digital subscribers appear to be a key to economic survival.

Of course, this lifeline is only available to papers like The Times, the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal and others that have built their websites into rich, reliable, appealing smorgasbords of news and features. The Times does especially well with a variety of stand-alone digital offerings like cooking and crossword apps, podcasts and video. The Washington Post has added live interviews with newsmakers and panels to its regular fare.

Bottom line for newspapers in 2021: Digital is the present and future; print is fading fast. Something gained, something lost.

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