NYTCo Still ‘Challenged’ By Programmatic, Mobile Ad Revenues Lag

Mark Thompson, CEO NYTCoThe New York Times Co.’s digital ad revenue continued to slide in Q3 as, for the first time in recent years, print actually performed better.

CEO Mark Thompson sought to put that contrast in context, saying that it was more a sign that the company had been able to arrest print losses as it works to revamp its response to digital pressures from programmatic by concentrating on video and custom advertising. Read the earnings release.

Perhaps the most surprising financial detail was that digital’s share of total revenues shrank in Q3 to 23.8%, compared with 24.1% during the same time last year.

There also appears to be a gap in the company’s mobile monetization efforts. While mobile is growing and companies like Facebook can point to portable devices contributing as much as half of their quarterly revenues, NYTCo is far behind that. Of its $33 million in digital advertising for the quarter, smartphone and tablet ads made up less than 10%.

“What we saw in Q3 was a significant improvement in the print numbers,” Thompson told analysts during the earnings call. “That’s clear. Digital for some quarters has been on a steady rate of decline around the 3% mark. The whole management team is really focused on developing our offerings in digital advertising to correct that decline and restore it to growth.”

Among the key numbers from the NYT Co.’s Q3 advertising performance:

  • Print and digital advertising revenues decreased 1.6% and 3.4%, respectively.
  • Total ad dollars fell 2% – the lowest quarterly year-on-year decline in advertising in three years.
  • Digital subscribers at quarter’s end numbered roughly 727,000, a 28% increase over last year.

As CFO Jim Follo has said on every quarterly call for the past year, “Digital advertising continued to experience challenges from programmatic buying issues along with the pricing pressures caused by a glut of inventory across the market. Despite this pressure, we expect to gain momentum on the digital advertising front and ultimately return to positive growth by focusing on areas such as video, tablet and unique custom advertising.”

The NYT Co. has been working on a programmatic strategy since this spring, when it hired digital ad veteran Matt Prohaska as its director of programmatic. Overall, the company has had a good deal of upheaval within its advertising executive team. At the end of the summer, the NYT Co. announced the hire of Meredith Kopit Levien as head of advertising, who left her post as Forbes’ chief revenue officer.

Levien, known for pushing Forbes even farther into native advertising, signaled a greater push into creating custom ad units. The need to offer something unique to the NYTimes.com as a way of blunting the effects of audience buying and the infinite availability of ad inventory was a particular focus of Todd Haskell, who exited as group VP, advertising, for NYTimes.com to become CRO of Hearst Magazines Digital at the same time Levien was hired.

As with previous calls, management offered few details on NYTCo’s specific response to these challenges beyond a general mention of video. One area of opportunity could come in an experiment that begins this Sunday. In an attempt to get single-issue print buyers to become regular digital subscribers, this Sunday’s paper will come with an individual code that targets intermittent print buyers by offering them free online and mobile access for four weeks.

“Our goal is to generate new subscriptions as well as data on our single copy users,” said Denise Warren, EVP of the Digital Products and Services Group. “As you can imagine, it’s very difficult to get data on single-copy users. This could potentially solve that problem.”

Analysts pressed Thompson for more on digital revenues. Looking at the last seven quarters, digital ad revenue was down between 2% and 4%, said independent analyst Craig Huber. “Is that all a matter of pricing or are there volume pressures at work here?”

It’s all price, Thompson replied.

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