Hey, journalists — some good news (finally, maybe).
The paper of record is getting very close to its goal of building an $800 million digital business. That’s astounding, given how the New York Times only six years ago embarked on what many felt was an existentially fraught plan to charge readers for online access for the first time.
What’s happened since? The Times’ digital business (advertising and subscriptions) jumped 30 percent through September of this year. That’s a startling expansion, especially considering its online sales had been growing at an average clip of about 16 percent prior to 2017. If the paper keeps pace, it’ll hit about $579 million in digital revenue this year, and over $900 million by 2020 (more on that later).
You can (partly) thank Trump for that.
Speaking of, the stellar reporting this year from Emily Steel and Michael Schmidt on Fox News’ Bill O’Reilly, and Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey on Harvey Weinstein were rare superlatives in the world of deadwood sports. Their stories exposed how these powerful men had settled claims of sexual assault over many years, sparking further disclosures of sexual harassment in a wide range of industries.
Everyone is talking about the Times’ reporting, which is the real prize.
But there’s no way the Times maintains what appears to be a time-lapsed sales chart going into next year (even under a continued Trump administration), or for an extended period thereafter.
Instead, the Times now has a much bigger business to jump from, which means when it reverts back to a 16 percent growth rate, the paper will top $903 million in digital revenue by 2020 — that would be an impressive milestone after less than a decade of selling online subscriptions.
Even if we take the more modest 12 percent rise it has seen over just the last few years, the paper will still generate $813 million by 2020.
By either measure, the Times will win.
CEO Mark Thompson and executive editor Dean Baquet can spike the ball and shimmy out of the stadium.
But the publisher isn’t there yet. The gains are coming from a combination of things: A surge in subscribers at a time of massive political confusion; the growth in its native content shop, essentially an in-house ad agency; the viability of mobile advertising; and the addition of its affiliate marketing business courtesy of its acquisition of The Wirecutter.
Missteps in any of these areas could upset the paper’s trajectory. Businesses also tend to slow as they sign up as many customers as they can, so it’s entirely possible the Times hits its subscription ceiling in the next few years.
But some context: Early on, when the publisher was preparing to build its paywall, it hired a consulting firm to calculate how many people would pay to access the Times, and the firm spit back a number: Less than a million in the U.S.
That was clearly wrong. The Times now has 2.1 million paying digital-only subscribers to its news site, and altogether it has 2.5 million when including its Cooking and Crossword apps. (It’s still unclear, by the way, how many of the 2.1 million are only in the U.S., but it’s likely at least two million.)
There was a reason for the $800 million mark, an ambition outlined by Thompson and Baquet two years ago. That target seemed like folly at the time, but it was a necessary metric. An $800 million digital business would be big enough to support the kind of journalism (see the bad guys above) that readers (and by its legacy, history) had come to expect of the Times as its print business fades away. No dumb traffic for the Gray Lady.
But even at $800 million, that’s less than half of the $2 billion business the Times used to be as recently as a decade ago.
The Times will still have to be different, if a bit shaved down — perhaps a svelte newsroom.
In addition to the current leadership, there’s a new crop about to take rank — the fifth generation of the Ochs-Sulzberger clan that controls the Times, led by the newly appointed deputy publisher Arthur Gregg Sulzberger and his cousins, Sam Dolnick and David Perpich.
And now that we know the Times’ online operations will become an $800 million business fairly soon, we should paper up a bigger bull’s-eye for the coming leadership and ask a more important question: So when will the Times become a $2 billion digital business?
Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly cited a lower figure for digital-only subscriptions.
This article originally appeared on Recode.net.