Why Is Facebook Killing It in Mobile, While The New York Times Struggles?

Last week, both Facebook and The New York Times reported quarterly earnings. While Facebook continues to show impressive growth in its mobile revenues – 49 percent of total revenues, which themselves increased by 66 percent – The New York Times digital and mobile advertising business limped through a down quarter.

The paper actually recorded quarter-over-quarter declines in overall digital advertising revenue, and mobile drove less than 10 percent of that total.

To recap:

Facebook mobile revenues = 49 percent of fast growing total revenues.

The New York Times mobile revenues = less than 10 percent of declining, total digital revenues.

I’m as perplexed by the Times’ overall drop in digital ad revenues as I am the paucity of mobile income, all of which happened in the context of a 28 percent increase in digital subscribers, quarter over quarter. In other words, The Times has attracted more consumers to its digital product and yet is generating less advertising revenue from that product.

What are the possible explanations?

  • The Times, like other newspapers, struggles to remain relevant to younger audiences that are shifting to mobile content consumption. According to data from the Newspaper Association of America, just 61.2 percent of 18-34 year old adults read a paper in any format, a number that is nearly 16 percent smaller than the cohort 35 years old and older. That’s a significant decline that should worry all newspapers.
  • The paper is focused on audience acquisition first. The Times’ digital and mobile focus may be on acquiring subscribers first, with advertising to come later. If true, this would put The Times in good company. After all, lots of tech companies, including Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn, made audience acquisition their top priority in their earlier days. Now that each has achieved significant scale, they are turning their attention to advertising.
  • It’s still a print-first business. As hard as it is to deny the rise of digital and mobile channels and consumption habits, The Times may be intent on stabilizing its print business first. That’s a rational move because digital consumption, though rising quickly, still trails reading on good old fashioned dead trees. Though this chart shows the percentage of digital subscribers to magazines (not newspapers) relative to the total number of subscribers, it’s apparent that digital still accounts for a small percentage of traditional print businesses.
  • The Times is data-poor. Growing digital advertising businesses requires providing rich sources of data to advertisers so that they can target consumers more effectively. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg alluded to this in his company’s Q3 earnings call when he said, “Right now the Facebook experience is push-based, but over time, if we do a good job, we should be able to create value using the knowledge that’s being shared [on the network].” He’s talking about the power to deliver the right message to the right consumers and devices in the right location and at the right time. If The Times isn’t aggressively tracking what its readers read, when, and on which devices, they won’t be able to give advertisers the value they have come to expect from competitors such as Facebook.

In all likelihood, each of these reasons has a role to play. For its sake, I hope that the truth has more to do with growing its digital and mobile audiences than it does doubling down on what seems to be a stagnant print medium. At some point, though, The New York Times will have to become a powerful, relevant content and data engine via mobile and digital channels, both for its readers and its advertisers, in order to pay for the expensive news gathering and editorial it does. The dynamics of younger readers dictates this.

Given the resources at its disposal, The Times would seem to have the power to realize this vision of the future – if that’s what it wants for itself.

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