New York Times Results Warn of Deepening Newspaper Industry Trouble

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Wall Street traders sold New York Times Co. (NYSE: NYT) shares down sharply after it posted its quarterly results, primarily because of a drop in digital advertising that has been part of the recent success of the owner of one of the country’s largest newspapers. Much of the battered industry expects digital advertising to be a major component of a turnaround after years of decline.

The company announced total revenue in the third quarter rose only 2.7% year over year to $429 million. Per-share earnings dropped from $0.15 to $0.10. Advertising revenue was down 6.7% to $114 million. Breaking down the advertising portion of the numbers, “Third-quarter digital advertising revenue decreased 5.4 percent, while print advertising revenue decreased 7.9 percent.” Lower “direct-sold” ads had a major effect. These ads usually get the highest yield among the types of advertising most newspapers run.

The company posted another rise in the number of digital subscribers, which have been the major engine of its success over the past several years. Paid digital-only subscriptions rose to about 4,053,000. This was up a net 273,000 compared to the end of the second quarter, as well as higher by 31% than at the end of the same period a year ago.

The New York Times has posted such large increases in digital subscriptions because of the quality of the newspaper, most industry experts believe. It has maintained what is considered the largest newspaper news staff in America. If quality is the measure of subscriber demand, only the New York Times, Washington Post and Wall Street Journal can field products that bring in large numbers of subscribers to offset drops in advertising.

Smaller papers have continued to cut staff, which means that the quality of their products is bound to suffer. Even large newspaper chains have nowhere near the digital subscriber count the New York Times has, even when spread over all their papers. This has been due to the fact that consumers are unlikely to pay for newspapers that produce less content each year. These layoffs still plague the industry. The Tampa Bay Times, for example, one of the largest papers in the nation, recently went through another round of downsizing.

Without large digital subscriber counts, newspapers and newspaper chains need to rely mainly on digital advertising to drive better results after years of top-line erosion. Based on public company newspaper company results, revenue across the papers is dropping between 7% and 9% in 2019, about the same as in 2018. A recession is likely to accelerate this rate further.

If there is any lesson from the New York Times results, it is that the industry’s problems will not just persist but will worsen.

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