Still Vexed By RTB Impact, NYTCo Tweaks Paywall And Video Strategies

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Mark Thompson, CEO NYTCoThe New York Times Co. CFO Jim Follo reiterated a point he's been making on earnings calls since last year, namely that "premium" digital advertising continues to be challenged by the rise of audience targeting and the infinite amount of digital inventory generated by social media. Read the release.

During the Q1 earnings call, Mark Thompson, the former BBC executive who was named president and CEO of the NYTCo last year, attempted to calm analysts by detailing the early steps of what he called a new digital strategy. That strategy will offer tiered and lower-cost access via the metered paywall and a heightened concentration on video content and ads.

NYTCo appears ready to face the issues associated with automation. This week it hired former X+1 executive Matt Prohaska as its first programmatic advertising director. However, no mention of this new role was made during the call. Instead, Thompson and Denise Warren, EVP for the NYT's digital products and services group, offered a broader outline for turning around the company's ad declines.

"I've spent most of my time since I arrived as CEO of this company working with my colleagues to develop a medium-term strategy for the New York Times," Thompson said. "What you will hear today will not be my last word on the subject of 'strategy' but a significant first step to put the company on the path to sustainable growth."

Back in October, Follo sought to put the company's digital ad declines in context, claiming digital display ad spending has been increasingly fragmented and cheapened by "a glut of available ad inventory and the resulting downward price pressure, as well as a shift toward ad exchanges, real-time bidding and all the programmatic buying channels that allow advertisers to buy audiences at scale."

Follo softened that statement somewhat when addressing the 4% total digital ad revenue drop to $46 million in Q1. "Advertising continues to be affected by ongoing and secular trends and an increasingly complex digital marketplace that is undergoing a shift toward ad exchanges, real-time bidding and other programmatic buying channels," Follo said during the call.

He added, "While such audience-targeted approaches affected pricing for premium advertising environments such as NYTimes.com, we believe that the Times Media Group can return to digital advertising growth by making significant inroads in video advertising, substantially increasing our inventory and focusing on unique, custom ad units, and by better monetizing our tablet inventory."

One of the complications that NYTCo faces, along with its newspaper brethren, is the issue of paywalls. The company is lowering the price of admission for certain content, though details on new pricing structures weren't offered. At the moment, when users consume 10 posts in a given month on NYTimes.com, they are hit with the paywall. At the high end, monthly all-digital access is $36.

Earlier in the week, NYTCo did say that video viewing on the site would be completely free as the company plans to increase production in that area. Still, it's not clear if NYTCo would rely on basic pre-rolls, additional custom ad units or some programmatic approach – perhaps a combination of all three?

On the plus side, executives did say that Q2 was showing signs of a possible turnaround, particularly in mobile advertising, which took a hit in Q1. "Overall, mobile was challenged during the quarter due to the timing of some campaigns but has turned around significantly since then, and we expect robust growth for the second quarter," Follo said, though he did not provide specifics.

While NYTCo refines its ad programs, Follo made it clear that the centerpiece of the digital revenue strategy would remain squarely concentrated on building its subscriber base, both domestic and international. Paid digital subscriptions to NYTCo totaled 708,000 at the end of Q1 for a gain of 45% over the same period the year before. However impressive, those gains will eventually slow. And while Thompson only offered an introduction to that digital strategy, it is hard to gauge how much patience investors and analysts will show toward to the still-new CEO.

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