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New York Times Co. reported on Thursday that its circulation revenue surpassed ad revenue for the year. (CARLO ALLEGRI/REUTERS)
New York Times Co. reported on Thursday that its circulation revenue surpassed ad revenue for the year. (CARLO ALLEGRI/REUTERS)

Signs of hope – and sex – for U.S. digital publications Add to ...

It’s not every day that a Pakistani militant with a $10-million price on his head and “10 Secrets to Crazy Hot Sex!” have occasion to meet up, but that’s what happened on Thursday when New York Times Co. released its latest earnings report on the same day as North American magazine circulation numbers for the final six months of 2012 were published.

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That Pakistani militant, one Hafiz Muhammed Saeed, made the front page of the Times in a story about how he still lives in the open, despite being the founder and suspected leader of the group that carried out the horrific 2008 attacks in Mumbai.

And that hot sex? Well, that’s just another cover line on just another issue of Cosmopolitan magazine. (Other ones featured on the front of February’s edition? “A Cheater’s Diary.” “Epic Confessions.” “Obsessive Office Crushes.”)

While they may be diametric opposites, both point the way toward a place of hope for the U.S. publishing industry. For, as the Times announced that revenue from circulation exceeded revenue from advertising for the first time in 2012, Cosmopolitan said an average of 255,000 digital copies of its magazine had been purchased every month in the second half of 2012: That’s almost 38 per cent more digital copies than Cosmo had sold, on average, in the first half of the year. (Game Informer Magazine is by far the No. 1 digital publication, selling an average of 2.3 million copies in the second half of 2012, up from 1.2 million in the previous six months.)

Surely that can’t be right, you say. Why, less than two months ago, some people were beginning to write the (virtual) obituaries of digital publications, after News Corp. shut down its much-hyped tablet-only daily magazine thing known as The Daily after less than two years in operation.

But it turns out that the death of The Daily didn’t have any wider significance beyond News Corp. losing tens of millions of dollars.

Quietly, and with much less hype, a handful of U.S. magazines have been proving that publishing on digital platforms doesn’t mean you have to give away your content. (The Globe and Mail introduced its own paywall in October as part of its strategy to increase subscription revenues.)

Popular Science, whose Swedish parent company Bonnier AB was one of the first to grasp the potential of the iPad and other tablets, now regularly sells a shade more than 98,000 digital copies, helping its total circulation hit 1.3 million. And though I’m told there are plenty of places on the Internet for people to ogle scantily-clad ladies, Maxim magazine has held its overall 2.5 million circulation more or less steady even as it has lost print readers, by shifting almost 10 per cent to a digital platform.

Even Esquire and Playboy are each selling about 44,000 digital copies. (This latest statistic suggests that Canada’s own Sun Media, which was mildly ridiculed after putting a paywall in front of much of its content, including the iconic Sunshine Girls, may have the last breathy giggle.)

Some of those magazines are held by private companies, so it’s tough to penetrate their numbers and figure out the relative importance of direct contributions from readers rather than advertisers. But it’s encouraging to see that, at the publicly held Times, circulation revenue was boosted by a 13-per-cent increase in the number of paid digital subscriptions, to an estimated 668,000 at the end of the year. (The number includes subscriptions for the International Herald Tribune, which New York Times Co. owns.)

During its earnings call, chief executive officer Mark Thompson insisted ad sales would continue to be an important part of the company’s revenue mix. (Digital ad sales were up 5.1 per cent in the quarter.)

But even if it’s too soon to declare a tipping point, the development should warm the heart of those who believe news organizations are supposed to be in the business of selling information and analysis to readers, rather than selling readers to advertisers.

Still, I wouldn’t object if the Times, like Cosmo’s February edition, threw a headline about “Secrets to Intense Action” on its front page every so often. It could totally work for either a feature about a bedroom technique or a Pakistani militant, no?

 

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