Despite having new ownership and a revitalized editorial staff, the Los Angeles Times has fallen short of its digital subscription goal this year, netting just 13,000 new subscriptions since January.
According to a staff memo obtained by Poynter, the Times’ executive editor, Norm Pearlstine, and managing editor, Scott Kraft, said that the paper gained 52,000 subscriptions in the first half of this year — but lost 39,000 subscribers in the process, three times more than its net gain. With less than 170,000 total digital subscriptions to date, the Times is still far from its goal of reaching 300,000 digital subscribers by the end of this year.
“Performance for the first half of the year … has been disappointing,” said the memo, noting: “Our future depends on rapid and substantial subscription revenue growth.”
Like other regional papers competing on a national stage, the Times is in the process of converting its past successes with print subscriptions into a sustainable digital future. According to a Nieman Lab analysis, East Coast heavyweights like the New York Times and the Washington Post have been able to do so successfully, boasting a total of 2.7 million and 1.7 million digital subscriptions, respectively, this year.
The L.A. Times has experienced major changes over the last several years — including emerging from a four-year bankruptcy, transitioning to new ownership, shaking-up the newsroom’s leadership, and moving to a new office, to name just a few. The underwhelming subscription numbers also come after a recent Pulitzer Prize in investigative reporting and the reemergence of the paper’s Food section this past April.
Nieman Lab’s Joshua Benton wrote that the Times’ situation is a reminder of how important reader retention is, especially as subscription models across various industries–including entertainment streaming services like Netflix–fight for customers’ loyalties. “Once you get all those subscribers signed up, you’ve got to prove yourself worthy of their money, over and over again,” Benton said, pointing to how the New York Times repeatedly reaches out to subscribers with exclusive content and events to increase their interactions with the company.
Still, Pearlstine and Kraft wrote in their memo that they remained confident the paper could eventually make it to 1 million subscribers in “the next few years.” “I don’t think it’s any secret that any publication that is driving a large percentage of its revenues from print needs to find new products for new audiences delivered on new platforms,” Pearlstine elaborated in an interview with Poynter. “If anything, I think after years of neglect and no investment, we just have so much catching up to do.”
As Benton put it, the Times is at a crucial crossroad: “Will the L.A. Times be the nation’s biggest metro paper or its smallest, scrappiest national one?”