The Paper Beat A Subscriber Goal, Bought Wordle, And Lost A Star Writer

When it comes to the fortunes of The New York Times, this week gave media observers plenty of headlines to digest — including the Gray Lady’s surprise announcement Wednesday that it’s now surpassed 10 million paid subscribers. For those keeping score, that’s several years in advance of the 2025 target the newspaper was originally aiming for.

Reaching that goal well ahead of time was made possible, in a big way, by the newspaper company’s $550 million deal for the subscription-based sports news site The Athletic. That deal was wrapped up this week, and it adds 1.2 million subscribers to the Times’ rolls. Importantly, this news once again solidifies the Times’ reputation as the leading subscription news company internationally.

New York Times Co. CEO Meredith Kopit Levien spent a chunk of the company’s quarterly earnings presentation to analysts on Wednesday diving into The Athletic acquisition, which was announced last month. On paper, at least, the massively unprofitable sports news site might have looked like an odd buy for a debt-free, cash-rich entity like The Times.

Explained Kopit Levien during the presentation, however: “Our research indicates that about 25 million adults in the U.S. alone are either paying — or willing to pay — for sports information.” And that fits in nicely with the company’s now even more aggressive push to go after still more paying subscribers.

Having reached 10 million ahead of time, the Times adjusted its ambition upwards, and is now aiming for at least 15 million subscribers by the end of 2027.

Bringing The Athletic under the NYT umbrella — plus everybody’s favorite Twitter game right now, the seriously addictive Wordle — is one piece of that puzzle. But it’s not the whole thing. Because these acquisitions also open up all kinds of bundle combinations, built around games, cooking, sports and the like. In order to, in the words of Kopit Levien, craft for subscribers “an even more compelling value proposition.”

Indeed, those pieces of the Times’ operation now (outside of the core newspaper and digital news offering) are for many people the front door to the whole enterprise. Similar to how, for some measure of the listening audience, to followers of the Times’ The Daily podcast? The Daily is, for all practical purposes, the Times.

We see some of this same kind of thing in the company’s latest quarterly numbers. For the just-ended quarter, the Times said it added 375,000 digital subscriptions, including 171,000 to the core news product. Some 204,000 subscriptions were for other digital offerings like Games, the Times’ recipe app, and the company’s product-recommendation site Wirecutter.

Based on subscriber numbers current through the last week of December, subscriptions to the print newspaper are very much the tail on the dog here. Overall, the company reported almost 8.8 million subscriptions — almost 5.9 million of which were for digital news, with 2 million for other digital products. Leaving a little under 800,000 for the print newspaper.

Another important fact about the company’s business to keep in mind: There’s not a 1:1 relationship between subscribers and subscriptions. At year-end 2021, 7.6 million NYT subscribers were paying for just over 8 million subscriptions.

Meanwhile, other notable Times highlights from the week:

  • Wordle’s millions of users can take comfort in the fact that the game will still be free to play for the time being. Once it migrates to the Times’ website, it will still be free to play for new and existing players — though the assumption is that reality won’t last. It’s assumed to be destined for the NYT paywall, eventually. Also: While the exact sale price for the deal wasn’t disclosed, it was above $1 million (“in the low seven figures”).
  • The Times’ performance in 2021 showed it weathering the first full year of the Trump era, and the post-Trump bump news landscape, quite nicely. In fact, 2021 was the Times’ first $2 billion+ revenue year in a decade.
  • The Washington Post has also just poached a high-profile Times writer, Taylor Lorenz, who has a massive online following and who writes about technology, culture, and social media. Lorenz, who has more than 503,000 followers on TikTok, is joining the Post as a Features columnist. In an interview with Vanity Fair about the move, Lorenz suggested she felt constrained at the Times — that “There’s not room for the commentary aspect” there, whereas she’ll now have that freedom at the Post. And that she thinks people still “do not understand my beat. They don’t take it seriously.”