The New York Times marked a milestone of sorts yesterday with the announcement that it has passed the one million paid digital-only subscriber mark, less than four-and-a-half years after launching its paywall. The milestone is validation that paywalls can work, especially if you’re The New York Times.
The news comes less than two months after the World Association of Newspapers and News Publishers reported that global newspaper circulation revenues surpassed advertising revenues for the first time this century (good slide presentation here). The association didn’t say when was the last time circulation was the industry’s biggest revenue contributor – or even if that information is known – but we’d guess it was more than 50 years ago.
The newspaper industry became addicted to advertising in the 1960s – and thus began its downfall. With 80% of revenue coming from advertising by the late 1970s – and circulation functioning as a loss-leader to build audiences – the business had all its eggs in one basket. When the Internet tore a hole in that basket, there was nowhere else to turn.
A painful decade later, there is evidence that newspapers are rebuilding online around the paywall model. They have lost a lot of blood, though, and circulation revenue will never be as large or profitable as advertising was. Wired notes that only one-third of the Times‘ revenue comes from digital subscriptions. It will need a lot more subscribers – or alternative revenue sources – to keep the business stable.