ADDENDUM: Yes, the Times' numbers were predictably low when published Wednesday, ad revenue down 5.7%, revenue down 3.7% and operating profits off 2.7%, apple-to-apples with last year. (The operating profits number is a correction to what I had reported earlier.) I'm buoyed a bit though by CEO Janet Robinson's apparently getting it about mobile: She talks about building “an innovation capability to anticipate consumer preferences and creates ways to satisfy them. Mobility is at the heart of the group’s activities.” (Good quick-run down on the numbers and announcement on paidcontent.org, by David Kaplan, here)
The New York Times numbers will be out in the morning. They won't be great, judging from the revenue carnage we've seen in the industry. Interestingly, we'll probably see some new numbers on Times Select, the Times' experiment in online subs. When Martin Nisenholtz launched it about two years ago, he told me that his goal was $10 million in new revenue. He hoped, he said, to be able to pull half of that into building up the Times website, hiring innovative people to do new things to grasp the promise of the Internet. Well, it looks like recent numbers tell us that the Times is close to those numbers. Only 31 per cent of Times Select members have been fully paying customers -- at about $49 a year -- with the rest being print subscribers who get access to Times Select as a perk.
But multiply out the paying subs and you get to about $10-11 million. I don't know how much of that Martin has been able to invest in the site, and how much has helped the Times cope with print ad downturns. Certainly, we look to the Washington Post for greater innovation -- Local Explorer, blogs, local user-gen experimentation, useful and welcoming City Guide -- more than we do the Times.
And now PaidContent.org's Staci Kramer reports on a NY Post story that the Times is re-assessing Times Select, given the Times' recent official non-thumb's up thumbs-up: “While TimesSelect is very popular and we have certainly met and exceeded our goals since it began in 2005, we continue to evaluate the best approach to our business.” Times Select has been controversial from its birth on, putting up a wall in front of 20+"selected" columnists. The program has effectively kept Tom Friedman, Maureen Dowd, Frank Rich and Paul Krugman from the great ocean of Internet discourse, a loss to the Times' centrality in the political discussions gripping the nation. It's also meant a foregoing of ad revenue. How much?
Well, let's figure that the Times could add 40 million page views per month, if it freed its columnists (and some other walled content) including some multimedia from the shackles of Times Select). Let's say it monetized those views at a paltry $25. That would mean about a million dollars a month, or annually $12-13 million, more than Times Select.
So maybe the money could be made up.
But the rub is that the Times Select play is about more than revenue. It's about holding onto as many of those high-paying print subscribers as long as possible. That print subscriber money is essential to the Times' bottom line, even as print revenue is increasingly challenged. Currently, 28% of the Times' revenue comes from circulation, higher than 20% or so average of the newspaper industry.
Whether the Times keeps Select or tries other ideas, it's got to be clearer with its customers about what it is offering us. Last week I took the four-page "All Access" insert out of the Times, hoping to be impressed.
I liked the idea of All Access. It had all the earmarks of the modern age -- a "Have It Your Way" approach to news publishing in the 21st Century. The message seems right, but I think the delivery is still flawed. Or let me put a better, more charitable face on it: It's a work-in-progress.
One friend described my assessment of All Access elsewhere as being "a tough grader." Tough love, and especially this week when the Times has suddenly become our all-important national paper, with the Wall Street Journal on the road to compromises that threaten its value to the democracy.
All Access is an important idea, and it gets introduced at the same time the Times is significantly pricing up its single-copy and subscriber pricing. Sunday moves from $5 single copy to $6 and daily moves from $1 to $1.25, with at least some subscriber pricing up as well.
Those are good hefty percentage increases. They are part of a strategy to provide more and more to subscribers -- Times Select columns were the first lure.
But what exactly is the All Access pitch?
- In the a.m.: Home delivery of the paper
- At your desk: Focusing on desktop access
- During lunch: Premium crosswords
- At the airport: The Times’ two replica editions, Times Reader and the Electronic Edition
- On the road: The Times highlights its Times Digest e-mail edition
- The weekend: Focusing on lifestyle/leisurely reading aspects of the weighty Sunday paper
The Times then wraps up this offer for an All-Access subscription, with pitch to go online or call the Times.
Wait a minute. All Acesss means crosswords, more e-mails (please, God, no!) and electronic replicas of the print Times? Times Select, interestingly, is mentioned only in smaller type. And digital replica editions?! Times Reader? Electronic editions? What's one; what's the other? I'm confused. Sure, they are a circulation VP's wet dream --more ABC countable circulation -- and the technology's kind of cool. But they make no sense, unless you live way outside an area you once lived in, want to see the paper as it was printed and like reading a paper on a computer. All you have to do is check out the latest report on "electronic editions" to see that they don't register with readers. The Times is ninth on the list, with less than 10,000 electronic editions.
The All Access idea is a good one, but it needs at least one essential that the Times now underperforms in. Mobile. Mobile access is what smartphone/PDA access is what the times demand of the Times. It's launch of new mobile product last year was one step forward, but it's just a re-purposing of the website, making little use of all that mobile and the Times has to offer (think city guide, mapping, arts, culture, political depth, NY knowledge).
So maybe it's back to the drawingboard for All Access. The idea's right. But what is the Times selling? Archive access.? Columnists?. Video? E-Editions?. Mobile?
So on to the earnings analysis of the day, but then back to seeing how the Times creates the true 24/7 product its readers want -- and may pay for.
More on Times Select and the New York Times overall, here.