‘Times’ touts digital subscriber numbers, bemoans jittery economy during earnings call

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The New York Times building. (wallyg via flickr)
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The New York Times confirmed that it has accrued 324,000 paid digital subscribers since implementing a system in March in which non-print readers must pay for access to content after exceeding a 20-article monthly limit.

That's up from 281,000 at the end of the second quarter, and it means the Times has already surpassed a reported internal goal of 300,000 by the end of the program's first year.

C.E.O. Janet Robinson made the announcement in a conference call to discuss the company's third quarter earnings report. She suggested that number would increase at the end of the year after the expiration of a Ford Lincoln sponsorship that currently provides unlimited access to an additional 100,000 subscribers.

"Those are highly engaged users, and we expect those people will look positively upon a paid subscription to the Times, particularly because of our experience in print," she said. The introduction of gift subscriptions and corporate accounts before year's end is likewise expected to boost the numbers, she said.

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In The New York Times Company's News Media Group, which includes its flagship paper, digital ad revenues increased at a slower rate than they have in previous recent quarters, edging up by 6.2 percent to $50.3 million, according to the company's latest earnings report, issued this morning. Digital advertising across the company dropped 4.5 percent to $74.8 million in part due to Google algorithm changes that have limited traffic to About.com, which is owned by the Times Co., and other so-called content farms.

Martin Nisenholtz, also on the call, said the jittery economy was to blame.

"As the economy's gotten a little more squirrelly, advertisers are pulling back a bit," Nisenholtz, the company's senior vice president of digital operations, said. "We saw that in 2010, we saw that again a bit in 2011 in the third quarter. We don't think there's anything fundamental about that. It's just simply a question of some of the very significant economic issues that have faced us in the third quarter."

There were some other digital developments besides the news about subscriptions (not to mention an overall profit of $15.7 million compared to a loss of $4.3 million during the same period a year earlier) about which Times Co. brass were projecting satisfaction.

"Pageview declines continue to be less than we expected," said Robinson, noting pageviews are down an average of 11 percent as compared to the levels they were at prior to the launch of the online pay model earlier this year.

Robinson said nytimes.com has "maintained its strong traffic," having finished August with 47 million unique visitors. (Earlier this week, Times assistant managing editor Jim Roberts noted at a conference in Vienna that uniques in September increased by 2.3 percent year-over-year despite the introduction of the pay model.)

As is standard on these calls, Robinson plugged numerous editorial initiatives, such as the expansion of the Bits blog, the recent launch of India Ink, a new site devoted to covering the Indian subcontinent, and an increase in online video coverage, which "is gaining as much respect and progress as more traditional coverage," she said.

There was no mention, however, of the Times new executive editor, Jill Abramson, who took the reins from Bill Keller on September 6, and who is the subject of a profile in this week's New Yorker.

Nor was it clear whether the Wall Street analysts on the call had any interest in last week's news that the Times is preparing for its first staff reductions since 2009 as a cost-saving measure.

But one of them did ask the executives about what sort of growth opportunity they saw in the tablet market, where the company has seen success with the Times iPad edition.

Nisenholtz said the entrance into the marketplace of new e-readers such as the Kindle Fire was encouraging.

"We think that benefits our business," he said. "The more people that adopt these technologies the better. We've seen a really nice uptick in last several weeks on iPhone and iPad download side. All of that is pointing to a positive future."