But will the Journal and The Washington Post be able to catch up to the market leader going forward? Or is the Times preparing to lap the field?
Earnings season means it’s time for successful publishers to brag about their digital subscription numbers. On Thursday, it was The New York Times Company’s turn, throwing out some big numbers: 5,251,000 total subscriptions across all print and digital, 4,395,000 total digital subscriptions (including Cooking and Crosswords), and 3,429,000 digital news subscribers.
Perhaps most impressive to me: There’s little evidence that the potential customer base for a Times digital news subscription has topped out. That 3.429 million total at the end of 2019 was up from 2.713 million a year earlier, a strong 26 percent rate of growth.
On Friday, it was News Corp’s turn, announcing that its Wall Street Journal had topped 2 million digital subscriptions for the first time, and that Dow Jones — which also includes Barron’s, its news wires, Factiva, and some other information businesses — had topped 3.5 million digital subs.
News Corp CEO Robert Thomson seemed itching for a fight with the Times in the earnings release, mentioning its rival five times in its first six paragraphs:
Dow Jones also surpassed The New York Times in revenue growth in the final quarter of calendar year 2019, while continuing to increase its profit contribution…
“Dow Jones revenues increased by 4% in the most recent quarter, compared to 1% for The New York Times,” said Robert Thomson, chief executive of News Corp. “Dow Jones is significantly more digital than The New York Times, with 62% digital revenues as we reported at fiscal year-end, including our growing Professional Information Business.”
The total number of digital subscriptions at Dow Jones grew by 17% in the most recent quarter, with digital subscribers to The Wall Street Journal rising 13%. At Dow Jones, digital accounts for approximately 57% of consumer circulation revenues versus 44% for The New York Times…
Dow Jones advertising revenues in the October-December quarter also outpaced The New York Times, with digital advertising picking up thus far in the first quarter of calendar year 2020.
Given the fight they’ve chosen to pick here, I should note that the Times’ digital subscription growth rate is still much better than the Journal’s. News Corp reports digital subs slightly differently than the Times does — the average over a quarter as opposed to the total at the end of it. But across 2019, the Journal’s digital subscribers increased from 1,709,000 to 1,929,000 — a net gain of 220,000 and a growth rate of 12.8 percent. The Times, as mentioned above, went from 2,713,000 to 3,429,000 — a net gain of 716,000 and a growth rate of 26.4 percent.
If you’ll allow an aside: One of the all-time great ad campaigns debuted in 1962 for the rental-car company Avis. Hertz had long been the market leader in car rentals, and the Avis campaign decided to embrace its underdog status: “We’re No. 2. We try harder.” The campaign was a huge success for Avis; eventually Hertz had to respond with a defensive ads about being No. 1.
But one of the biggest impacts the campaign had was to frame Avis as a strong No. 2. In reality, Avis and National were neck-and-neck for the No. 2 spot in car rental market share, both far behind Hertz. But by punching up at the top dog, Avis reframed the competition into favorite vs. underdog, not leader vs. two also-rans.
So I can’t help but notice that the Journal punching up at the Times ignores the national newspaper that’s usually brought up as the Times’ No. 2 in this sort of competition: The Washington Post. While the Journal and Times may share a city, the Post and Times share the common bond of being general-interest newspapers, not a business-focused one. They duel on Washington and politics stories daily; the Journal, by nature of that focus, picks its spots more often. The more direct NYT/WSJ rivalry of the early Murdoch years seemed to have cooled, putting the Bezos-fueled Post into the spotlight.
So how is the Post doing in digital subscriptions?
Hard to say!
It’s always been hard to say for one reason: The Post’s unique arrangement with Amazon — in which Prime members can subscribe for a mere $59/year — makes it difficult to do an apples-to-apples comparison. (It’s good to be owned by the richest man alive — especially if he comes with a pool of 150 million Prime members to sell to.)
But even setting that aside, the Post is stingy with its subscription numbers. Bezos’ ownership means it’s not publicly traded, so it’s not obliged to impress Wall Street every three months with boffo numbers. It doesn’t report digital subscription numbers to the Alliance of Audited Media, the successor to the Audit Bureau of Circulations. Like Amazon’s Kindle sales, the Post’s digital subscription totals get announced only when it’s useful to the company.
In September 2017, an internal memo (no doubt expected to be leaked) announced that the Post had passed 1 million digital subscribers earlier that year, “more than tripled” from the year before.
At that point, the Journal’s most recent total was 1.27 million, and the Times was at 2.3 million.