New York Times Struggles to Replace Print Ads With Digital Sales

The New York Times Co.’s advertising department is struggling to replace its once-lucrative print ads with digital sales, as Google Inc. and Facebook Inc. gobble up increasingly large chunks of marketers’ budgets.

Both print and digital advertising at the newspaper decreased about 3 percent in the third quarter, the company said last month, signaling that the total amount fell below $140 million. That’s the lowest level since at least 1998, when the Times began reporting the ad revenue of its individual papers.

While the entire newspaper business is suffering advertising woes, the Times’ prestige and elite readership should be giving it a leg up over other publications, said Rick Edmonds, a media analyst with the Poynter Institute. Instead, the paper hasn’t yet capitalized on its surging online audience. The slump also has led to management turnover and budget cuts, hampering the ad department’s ability to attract new clients, people familiar with the situation said.

“The Times’ ad business reflects what’s happening in the industry, which is down altogether,” Edmonds said. “And if the Times is making deep cuts in the ad department, that could be affecting the quality of their ad sales.”

Cost reductions and low morale have led to the departure of as many as a dozen sales executives at the division, said the people, who asked not to be identified because the matter is private. In some cases, budgets have kept sales reps from offering free Times subscriptions to clients -- once seen as a standard part of doing business, the people said.

Comeback Effort

Chief Executive Officer Mark Thompson said in an e-mailed statement last week that the ad sales force is setting the stage for a turnaround. While last quarter’s 3 percent decline represents the 12th straight decrease in ad revenue, he noted that it’s the best performance in three years. The company will report its official results on Oct. 31.

“The Times has performed well in what has been a very difficult advertising climate over the past several years, however, I believe we have the opportunity to make further improvements,” said Thompson, who took the helm at the Times last year after a career at the British Broadcasting Corp. “We will invest new funds in our sales force, both in personnel and in the technology we need to succeed.”

Turnover among the Times’ sales executives is hampering that recovery, the people said, though the company recently filled some key positions. Brendan Monaghan, an associate publisher at GQ, was named publisher of T, the Times’ luxury magazine, last week. Meanwhile, the company is offering an early-retirement buyout to account managers and sales staff, creating uncertainty among employees, one of the people said.

Circulation Gains

The 162-year-old publisher is racing to increase revenue from online subscriptions fast enough to make up for falling ad sales. Most of its revenue now comes from readers, not advertisers -- a reversal from historical patterns.

The company also has fewer levers to pull with its financial results, since it has sold off assets unrelated to its New York Times media brand. The paper has lost more than half a billion dollars in ad sales since 2000, when it generated $1.3 billion. The figure stood at $711 million last year. The company also hasn’t adequately invested in the sales staff, making it harder to compete at a time when print media is losing ad dollars to the Internet, the people said.

Expense Budgets

The ad department is grappling with smaller expense budgets, making it more difficult to woo clients, according to the people with knowledge of the company’s workings. While different sales departments have different policies, some teams now have expense budgets of as little as a 10th of 1 percent of their annual sales, two of the people said. That means a group bringing in $60 million in annual advertising could have an expense budget of less than $60,000.

Some sales reps have taken to buying client lunches out of pocket as a way to maintain appearances, the people said. In other cases, they’ve ordered pizza to the office, rather than paying for a customer lunch at a restaurant. Travel to meet clients outside of New York also has been scaled back, according to the people.

For ad clients requesting free subscriptions to the Times, the sales staff has to find room on a fixed list of available spots. In a few cases, salespeople couldn’t offer a complimentary subscription after hitting the limit on their expense spending, the people said. The Times’ online version is free to all clients.

Salary Levels

Managers also have faced difficulty recruiting new sales executives with experience and contacts because the Times pays a less competitive salary, according to three of the people. On average, an account manager at the Times makes about $90,000 a year without bonuses, a fixed salary as set by the Times’ union. Potential recruits, however, are requesting the industry standard of $125,000 as a base salary, according to the people.

The Times also has made it harder to meet bonus requirements as managers are now setting bonus goals as late as halfway through the quarter, according to the people.

The upheaval has increased the paper’s challenges in an era when marketers can get their message across in an ever-widening array of websites for less money. Advertisers’ appetite for newsprint has diminished and they’re relying on a programmatic approach online, meaning they want to reach many different sites using targeting software.

Savvy Customers

“The New York Times has had some struggles internally and they’re also getting caught up in programmatic ad buying,” said Ken Doctor, a media analyst with Burlingame, California-based Outsell Inc. Unlike most U.S. papers, the Times relies more heavily on national advertisers, which have adapted to digital buying more quickly than regional marketers, he said.

Edmonds sees the Wall Street Journal, published by News Corp., as the Times’ closest competitor for ad dollars. The Journal doesn’t break out individual results, though News Corp.’s total revenue has held up better than that of Times Co. Its sales climbed 2.7 percent to $8.9 billion in the most recent fiscal year, while Times Co.’s revenue rose 1.9 percent.

Bloomberg LP, the parent of Bloomberg News, also competes with the New York Times.

In July, Thompson picked a new head sales executive, Meredith Kopit Levien, to help lead the company back to advertising growth. Thompson said in his e-mail that Levien is already helping turn around the organization.

‘Real Impact’

“Meredith has been in her role for two months and in that time, has begun to make a real impact by reimagining the structure, organization and processes of our sales operation,” he said. “She has also added to our already strong team by recruiting bright new talent to the Times including sales executives from GQ, Vogue, Forbes and Politico, among others.”

The prestige of the Times, known as the Gray Lady, once made it easier for salespeople to hawk ad space. As competition for advertising dollars stiffened following the recession, the staff has had to work harder to persuade marketers to stick with the paper, the people familiar said.

To catch up with online rivals, the Times has started to invest in new advertising platforms, such as online video, which generally fetches higher rates than banner ads. The company also has opened up more of the videos to nonpaying subscribers, giving it a bigger audience to sell against. Still, the initiative is in its early stages and the Times hasn’t generated enough content to make it attractive to advertisers, according to one media buyer.

“The Times just has too many things going against them right now,” Doctor said. “When it comes to advertising, no one at that level seems to have come up with an answer.”