Surpassing expectations, The New York Times' pay wall scheme has netted 100,000 digital subscribers in just three weeks, reports the company. But net income at the company fell 58 percent to $5.4 million in the first three months of the year compared to $12.8 million during the same period last year. At first blush, the digital subscriber numbers are stunning considering widespread complaints that the pay wall is confusing, expensive, and way too porous. But a slew of questions remain about what tier subscriptions were sold ($15, $20 or $35) and what role discounted subscriptions played in the final tally. Here's how media reporters are deciphering the Times' numbers.
The good news By any comparison, the raw numbers are impressive. Gordon Crovitz, the former publisher of the Wall Street Journal tells Paid Content that it took WSJ.com more than a year to reach 100,000 paying subscribers. "Quick success at the New York Times is very encouraging," he says. Ad Age hails the numbers as a coup from the perspective that the company just gained access to 100,000 new credit card numbers, a good way to lock in customers. Another way to look at it is that the Times has already come close to covering the development costs of building the pay wall. Staci Kramer at Paid Content notes that if 100,000 people bought the lowest plan at $15 it would yield $19.5 million. That puts it well toward covering the costs of putting the meter in place, which I recently estimated at close to $25 million. It’s also close to twice as much as the paper ever made with TimesSelect."
The big unknowns While Times spokesman Bob Christie said the 100,000 figure does not include the free starter subscriptions given out to 200,000 readers last month, apparently it does include the discounted subscriptions that offered a four-week trial for 99 cents. "So soon after the launch, the Company does not yet have visibility into conversion and retention rates for these paying customers after the initial promotional period," he said. To Kramer the announcement is about "as vague as you can be and still offer a meaningful number."
The bad news In the same statement, the Times announced that revenues are down 3.6 percent with ad revenue down 4.4 percent and circulation revenue down 3.7 percent. "The Times' digital story is a bit of a mixed bag," writes Peter Kafka at All Things D. "The publisher's media group saw digital ad revenue increase 14.9 percent, but revenues at About.com, which have been a big component of its Web business for years, dropped 10.2 percent, and operating profit at About dropped 13.9 percent."