Times’ Audience Numbers Struggle, Subscriptions Offer Hope

Since News International relaunched The Times websites in June with a new paid model, I have refrained from much of the second-guessing and twisted alchemy with which many onlookers have tried to gauge their success; because the only metrics that really matter are the ones from the horse’s mouth, and how much money can be made.

Now that News Corp (NSDQ: NWS) released official numbers Tuesday morning, things do look a little meagre, on the surface…

The publisher claims “more than 105,000 customer sales to date” – which would be a healthy number in any single month, but which actually refers to all digital sales over at least the four months since the sites started charging £1 a day and £2 a week in July.

It also lumps together all sales for “digital products”, including The Timeses’ websites and the Times iPad and Kindle editions, the latter of which has been available since 2008.

Media flip

On a crude calculation, The Timeses now have average 26,250 monthly digital sales. Times Newspapers has now gone from an online readership which, at 20 million monthly uniques before the switch, was 13 times larger than its combined print circulation of 1.5 million per week, to one which is now vastly smaller, perhaps at least 30 times smaller, than its print audience.

Stripping out occasional readers from search engines and the like in favour of loyal, active customers was exactly the point of the exercise; a massive audience drop-off was not only expected but sought. But to see the newspaper again become the more consumed of the two media options, by such a degree, is poignant.

The big question, to us on the outside, is whether the reduction in advertising-exposed eyeballs associated with a traffic drop of this scale is, or will, being made up by paying customers. But we didn’t even know how much News International was making from digital before the switch; the publisher doesn’t break it out.

52,250 subs

News Corp says “around half of (the 105,000) are monthly subscribers” to either the websites or digital editions…

Subscription fees are £2 per week on the web (billed as £8.67 per month), £9.99 per month on iPad and $22.99 per month on Kindle. So, even if all these subscribers (about 52,250) were paying the littlest, £2-a-week rate, Times Newspapers could be bringing in about £400,000 a month from digital subscriptions (The £2-a-week pricepoint actually starts as an introductory £1-a-month rate for now, however).

News Corp also says: “In addition to the digital-only subscribers, there are 100,000 joint digital/print subscribers who have activated their digital accounts to the websites and/or iPad app since launch.” But it seems these are mostly existing print subscribers who have merely added their free digital access, rather than new customers who jumped at the chance of a dual-medium sub.

Early days

A large-scale downscale in audience numbers is little surprise; it’s part and parcel of News Corp’s aim to remake its newspaper websites as packaged products. But it’s disappointing that collecting together sales for each product and across multiple months leaves us without a wholly accurate picture.

What’s true is that, despite being four months in, it’s still early days – News Corp has made a big philosophical switch to exploit this model in all its forms in the long term, and expects all these numbers to grow…

Accepting that sustainable revenue – and not sky-high audience figures – are now the metric on which to judge, then the small subscriptions base at least offers hope of recurring customer income.