The Los Angeles Times continues to lag far behind national competitors in its attempt to build a robust digital subscription base despite a focus on acquiring paying customers and a global pandemic to boost reader interest.
The newspaper had only 253,000 paying digital subscribers as of early August, a Times spokesperson told TheWrap on Tuesday, with another roughly 103,000 digital subscribers accounted for through promotional partners like Apple News that do not pay publishers per-person fees.
That's well short of the 300,000 subscriber goal set for the end of 2019, let alone the 1 million mark announced last year by the Times' billionaire owner Soon-Shiong -- and it's also dwarfed by other national news giants. By comparison, the New York Times reported 5.7 million digital-only subscriptions last week, while the Wall Street Journal reported 2.2 million digital-only subscriptions. The L.A. Times is a privately held company and does not typically release subscriber numbers publicly.
In response to an inquiry by TheWrap, L.A. Times spokesperson Hillary Manning said digital subscriptions have grown "by at least 78,500 since the beginning of February," fueled in part by reader interest in coverage of the coronavirus pandemic. Total digital subscription count is up 49% over the 170,000 the paper shared last July in a leaked internal newsroom memo. In the memo, Executive Editor Norman Pearlstine and Managing Editor Scott Kraft told staff that the paper gained 52,000 new subscribers since the start of 2019 but also lost another 39,000 -- nearly wiping out the gains.
"The big challenge is retention," an individual with knowledge of the matter told TheWrap. "Even if they got (to the) big numbers, if they couldn't retain people, it wouldn't matter. The initial ambition was 1 million as a multi-year goal. I don't know if they'll ever get to that goal."
The updated subscription numbers still fall short of subscriber benchmark that billionaire bioscientist Soon-Shiong, who bought the Times for more than $500 million in 2018, had set in an interview with Nieman Lab last year. Despite his investment, the Times is far from Soon-Shiong's goal of 1 million subscribers, let alone the ambitious target of 2 to 4 million he hoped to achieve by 2023.
The paper said it remains committed to transforming itself into a digital-age news organization with a direct relationship with its readers. "If it was not clear before the coronavirus pandemic it should be obvious to anyone at a newspaper now that becoming digital-first, and building a sustainable digital subscription business, is necessary to both serve the community and survive," Manning told TheWrap in a statement. "The Los Angeles Times has invested in journalists, data scientists and technology in order to make meaningful change in how we connect with and serve more of the community."
But the drive toward digital subscriptions has led to conflicts within the L.A. Times, which also has been roiled by internal unrest over handling of misconduct accusations against a handful of senior editors and writers as well as the lack of diversity in newsrooom and the paper's coverage of racial issues.
Moreover, interviews with more than half a dozen Times employees, as well as a review of previously undisclosed Slack messages and other internal documents, paint a picture of a venerable news organization in crisis: Staffers describe an internal push for signing up new subscribers that threatens to overshadow quality journalism, a lack of transparency in subscription rates and an executive editor, Norman Pearlstine, who has become so disengaged that he "falls asleep in important meetings."
Read TheWrap's full investigation here: The Los Angeles Times in Crisis: Stalled Subscriptions, Drowsy Leadership, Slack Channel Trash Talk (Exclusive)
Check out the video below from our discussion about the Los Angeles Times on this week's episode of "TheWrap-Up."