There's a rarity in today's circulation figures for The New York Times: a print circulation number went up with its Sunday paper showing a tiny 0.2 percent gain in home delivery. The Times points out in its press release that it's "the first increase in print home delivery circulation in five years." For actual numbers, the paper's average Sunday circulation over the six months ended September 30 was 992,383, while last year's figure was 990,055. The latest figures, drawn from the Audit Bureau of Circulations report for The Times is the first time since the paper erected its paywall earlier this year that it meters both print and digital subscribers. But despite what some other reports lauding the Grey Lady's positive gains, there's more to the story than what the Times included in their release.
"We're up 31 percent in total average circulation for Monday through Friday," Times spokesperson Danielle Rhoades Ha told The Atlantic Wire, citing the Times's internal numbers. "But as far as ABC report goes, we can only do an apples-to-apples comparison for print numbers."
The direct comparison between the current total average circulation and past figures is impossible, since the Times pay-wall that went up on March 28 brings in a whole category of paid subscribers that didn't exist before then. The number of digital subscriptions — including access to replica editions and e-reader versions — is now 380,003 for the weekday paper and 371,933 for the weekend paper. (This figure includes the 100,000 promotional subscriptions, sponsored by Lincoln, which gave away a year's worth of digital access to selected readers.) Excluding those digital figures, The Times's total average print circulation in the six month period ending September 30 was 1,273,219 for the Sunday edition and 770,586 for the weekday edition. (Adding back in the digital numbers pads out the total average circulation figures to 1,645,152 and 1,150,589, respectively.) As Rhoades Ha mentioned, we can only do an apples-to-apples comparison for print, so comparing the September print-only figures above to the March Times — 1,280,402 for the Sunday edition and 816,391 for the weekday edition — shows that the number of paid print subscribers actually declined. The Sunday Times lost 7,183 paid subscribers and the weekday paper lost 45,805.
This gives us a different picture of The Times's paid subscription numbers. According to the ABC figures, the Times's print circulation is actually down by about 0.56 percent for the Sunday Times and 5.6 percent for the weekday edition. The 0.2 percent bump comes from internal numbers measuring only home subscribers that The Times sent out in its press release, the first release about circulation numbers they've sent in a while, the paper's press team told us. The good news for The Times, however, is that there are more digital subscribers paying for access now than print subscribers that have stopped paying.
"We believe this statement illustrates the true strength of The New York Times brand," Times company president and general manager Scott Heekin-Canedy said in a statement. "In addition to the strong start we have made with our paid digital subscriptions, we are delighted to see an improvement in home-delivery circulation trends following the launch of the digital subscription plans."
A couple things are worth noting. First, because of the tiny 0.2 percent bump in home subscriptions to the Sunday Times, we can conclude that the paywall is wooing some web readers into paying for print, as predicted. At $3.15 per week the Sunday Times subscription is the second cheapest way to get full digital access, so it's impossible to tell just from the stats whether the rise in circulation numbers is driven by increasing interest in the print product or a value-add to a digital subscription. (The weekday-only subscription for $3.10 is marginally cheaper.) Second, the number of digital subscribers is continuing to grow. (Starting at $3.75 a week, digital-only access is actually more expensive than both the Sunday Times and the weekday-only subscriptions.)
So what does it all mean? The paywall is working — at least in helping The Times grow their circulation on the backs of the new digital subscribers. The continued growth of digital subscriptions is icing on what used to be a bare-naked cake.