New York Times subscriptions growth drops to 2019 levels

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The New York Times added fewer new subscribers in the first quarter than it did in the first three months of 2019, the company said Wednesday while releasing its 2021 first quarter earnings.

The Times said it expects growth to return to what it was before last year’s tumultuous news cycle.

“There is no doubt that the news cycles of the last five years, capped by last year’s tumultuous presidential elections, racial reckoning and the COVID-19 pandemic created unprecedented demand for Times journalism and therefore accelerated subscription,” CEO and President Meredith Kopit Levien said in an earnings call with investors.

“In February and March, our audiences declined from their historic highs last year, and we saw fewer net subscription additions in the latter part of the quarter,” she said in the statement announcing the results.

The Times added 167,000 net new digital news subscriptions in the first quarter, far less than the average of 415,250 per quarter it was adding last year, according to an analysis from Huber Research. The drop in subscription growth echoes a recent decline in ratings experienced by the major cable news networks.

Kopit Levien said the first quarter changes signal a return to pre-2020 news consumption levels.

“With lower forecasted second quarter performance, we now expect annual total net subscription additions to be in the range of our 2019 performance, which, prior to 2020, was our best year for net additions,” she added.

The change was not unexpected. In the Times’s 2020 fourth quarter earnings call, Kopit Levien cautioned that the growth in new subscribers was driven by the unpredictable news cycle in 2020, and that similar growth can’t be counted on.

Even though the number of Times news subscribers grew by less this quarter, it still grew. As of the first quarter of 2021, the paper had 5.3 million news only subscribers compared to 5.1 million at the end 2020. 

Also, the total number of all subscribers — those who sign up for news and for other content like cooking and games — also grew to 7.8 million in the first quarter this year from 7.5 million at the end of 2020. 

Kopit Levien said the first quarter’s subdued growth does not reflect the basic strength of the Times’s readership.

“While total audience registered readers on site and subscriber engagement are somewhat lower this year than last, these metrics are all higher than in 2019,” she said.

She also said that while subscribers who signed up last year may be less likely to renew subscriptions than others, the company is happy with subscriber retention. 

“When we compare ourselves to other content-based digital media companies, we think our churn or our overall retention [rate] and monthly churn are at a world-class level,” Kopit Levien said. “I’d say that the newest cohort, you know a huge surge in new [subscriptions] last year, the newest cohort folks who came in last year are retaining slightly less well than in the past, but I’d say not in a troubling way.”

Overall revenue for the company in the first quarter of 2021 grew 6.6 percent compared to the same period in 2020, to $473 million. That includes $329.1 million subscription revenue. 

Ad revenue dropped 8.5 percent to $97.1 million, the company stated. Digital advertising revenue grew by 16.3 percent, but print advertising revenue decreased 31.6 percent.

Last year digital revenue, both subscriptions and ads, exceeded the Times’s print revenue for the first time in the midst of the pandemic.

–Updated at 12:32 p.m.

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