Newspaper circulations are down again – cue the paywall plans

Almost all Irish newspapers posted largely predictable slides in their circulation figures yesterday, with sales of the Irish Times falling below the psychologically important 100,000 mark.

Interestingly, however, the Times also posted audited figures for some of its digital editions – 2,023 for its online e-paper and 1,687 for subs on what they call “other platforms, such as Kindle” – I assume that’s e-readers as its iPhone and Android apps are currently free.

Some beermat maths: The Kindle edition costs £14.99 (€17.65) a month, the epaper between €13.33 and about €50 a month depending on how you pay. So that comes to somewhere between about €56,000 and €133,000 a month. That leaves the Times some way to go to make up for the missing 6,393 sales (worth about £325,000 a month on cover price alone).

Although Liam Kavanagh, the MD, said he was happy with the print + apps + epaper total, by far the most interesting thing he said yesterday was again raising the prospect of a paywall,  “particularly in the context of business coverage and niche content”, at irishtimes.com. That may explain the heavy trailing for their revamped daily business supplement.

I do hope the Irish Times isn’t basing its plans on the success of the Financial Times and Wall Street Journal’s paywalls. I’ve written here before that I don’t think a general interest newspaper can compete with such specialist publications. Irish newspaper executives are almost certainly also looking at the relative success of the New York Times’s paywall (although plummeting advertising revenues take the gloss off that, too).

In the US, Gannett announced yesterday that it was going to put up a metered-use paywall at 80 titles. The company, which owns 200 titles in the UK, claims the US paywalls could increase revenues by $100 million. I’ll believe it when I see it. In London yesterday, News International announced a new “digital pack”, essentially doubling the online price of the Times of London and the Sunday Times. The Times claims 119,255 digital subscribers, but doesn’t break them down between web-only and print subscribers and doesn’t indicate what kind of reader turnover it suffers.

In short, the titles that use or plan to use paywalls are either so specialised, so over-optimistic or so secretive, it is very difficult to extract any meaningful indication of whether such a strategy would work in a market as small as Ireland’s. My suspicion is that it would not.

Publishers need to be made fully aware that paywalls are no panacea – at the Paywall Strategies conference in London yesterday, the Economist’s Audra Martin said it had doubled the content it produced over the past two years.

“Just putting print online was never going to be enough,” she said. “We had to up the amount and frequency we were publishing.”

Although the potential rewards are great – the Economist’s operating profits rose 6 per cent  in the first half of 2011 - how many publishers would commit to such a large increase in journalistic output while maintaining its quality?

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  1. Stephen

    Will people stop linking to that article by Matt Ingram and just read the financial statements put out by the New York Times flagship paper? If you did that, you would see that for the first time in FIVE LONG YEARS, it is growing revenue, while the rest of the company struggles sans paywall. ( well, boston just started). The paywall has been a blinding success, and did anyone notice that the number of subscribers INCREASED from last quarter…so it is picking up speed. Good lord, will people just learn how to read a financial statement.. It is just not that hard. Then you dont have to depend on people like Ingram and repeat his foolishness.

    • finoreilly

      Thanks for the comment. The New York Times’s own report seems to me to back up the figures in Matt Ingram’s piece, if not his interpretation. You’ll note I did say that the NYT paywall was a relative success – it has increased the paper’s revenues without scaring away its less committed online readers. The fact remains that the increased circulation revenue from the NYT paywall is far from offsetting the fall in advertising revenue. But you’re right – it is growing (although “blinding success” may be a bit strong). A point I would add is that the New York Times, even though a general interest newspaper, almost falls into that niche WSJ and FT area where paywalls can work. It will be interesting to see how the Boston Globe fares.

  2. Stephen

    You are making the same mistake that Ingram is making. The Times COMPANY is many papers, of whom only one had a full fledged paywall during that period. You cant judge the paywall by the performance of other papers, can you? This is like saying that LeBron James is a bad basketball player because Dwyane Wade doesn’t score more points now.
    The question is… How did the New York Times
    PAPER do, by itself, with the paywall? So lets look at the actual financial statements…

    http://services.corporate-ir.net/SEC/Document.Service?id=P3VybD1odHRwOi8vaXIuaW50Lndlc3RsYXdidXNpbmVzcy5jb20vZG9jdW1lbnQvdjEvMDAwMTE1NzUyMy0xMi0wMDA0NTMvZG9jL1RoZU5ld1lvcmtUaW1lc0NvbXBhbnlfOEtfMjAxMjAyMDIucGRmJnR5cGU9MiZmbj1UaGVOZXdZb3JrVGltZXNDb21wYW55XzhLXzIwMTIwMjAyLnBkZg==

    Go to page 22 to see how the NYT Paper did by itself. What we see is that it is growing revenue. Also note that the revenue growth is ALL in circulation. The paywall. Ingram makes this mistake time and time again because he cant read financial statements. In fact, he does not even try, which is shameful, since his job should included that.
    This is the context of the NYT’s now-growing revenue stream…
    - it reversed over five years of not just shrinking, but plummeting revenues
    - it reversed nearly ten years of print circulation declines on Sundays.
    These are astonishing results. So astonishing that some people refuse to believe them…

    • finoreilly

      I am aware that the Times *company* is many papers – that’s why I mentioned the Boston Globe at the end of my last reply. Also, basketball metaphors are lost on me – I had to google Dwyane Wade.

      As for mistakes, I see no Page 22 in the document to which you linked.

      It does have an entry on page 14 for the New York Times Media Group (which includes the International Herald Tribune, btw). Is it that to which you are referring? It says the NYT Media Group’s circulation revenue is up 3.1% year-on year, but its advertising revenue is down 3.1% year-on-year. As advertising revenue remains higher in dollar terms than circulation revenue (as at most papers) I fail to see there evidence of “astonishing” success. I see a trend at best.

      As for “refusing to believe” the NYT figures, I would love to believe them, but it’s a time-honoured saw in science that extraordinary claims require extraordinary proof. “Astonishing” circulation results should be no different. The Times has been running a metered paywall for less than 12 months – it is a tad premature for every other paper in the world to throw their arms in the air and declaim that the Times has clinched it.

      The thrust of my post was about how newspapers in small countries, such as Ireland, cannot point to the perceived success or otherwise of the NYT as evidence that a similar strategy would work for them. Anything to add on that?

  3. Stephen

    Sorry about the poor pagination. No excuse really. It is page 14 as you noted.

    You stated the full year numbers. That is a poor comparison. The paywall did not start until march 2011 and only had half the current subscribers until mid summer, most of whom paid a small introductory rate for the first month. The better comparison is quarter over quarter- Advertsing decreased 3.8 percent. Circulation increased 7.9 percent. The overall effect was a growth in revenue of 0.5% at that entire, single paper. ‘Astonishing’ is subjective of course, but this is to me. This was in the context of double-digit revenue losses in previous years, and a host of futurists who predicted this would be a dismal failure. But the paywall keeps growing, and in fact sped up slightly in the last quarter. Heck, they even grew some print! Looking down the barrel of an industry death, this thrills me. Btw, i am neither a journalist nor have any connections here. I just love newspapers, and have all of my 32 years.

    As for smaller countries, I might point to the paywalls being put up by Piano Media in Slovakia. They cover all of the newspapers in Slovakia. They have not released revenue numbers because they are private, but it has been up for about one year. They just increased prices 25%. This would imply that demand is healthy. Of course, Slovakia does have an insular language, so it is a bit different.

    One underreported fact is that here in the United States, about 50% of newspapers with circulation of less than 25,000 have paywalls. These are mostly smaller town papers, needless to say. They thrive on having a monopoly over local news.

    http://www.niemanlab.org/2011/05/moneyball-and-paywalls-lessons-on-paid-content-from-smaller-papers/

    This has even been working well in Metro sized papers of 100,000 to 300,000. The Arkansas Democrat Gazette is a great example here in the US. They started a paywall in 2003 and have been growing PRINT circulation ever since. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fM0kCYFJFJA&feature=youtube_gdata_player
    I wish I could come up with more examples, but there arent any. Metro papers have been very fearful of losing market share, and so never charged. Foolish.

    Most important in my mind is that, at least here in the US, no more than 25% of the population read newspaper in the
    last 50 years. The Newpaper audience has always been a select few willing to pay. I say stop catering to the masses who only ever cared for Radio and TV in the first place.

  1. 1 Tougher copyright laws could finish Irish newspapers off « Fin O’Reilly

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