When I wrote about The New York Times Co. (NYSE:NYT) here in 2011, the newspaper publisher was floundering so badly that only family ties kept then-Chairman Arthur Sulzberger in his job running the business his great-grandfather Adolf S. Ochs acquired in 1896. NYT stock had at that point lost 84% of its value under Sulzberger’s leadership.
“If Arthur Sulzberger were named Arthur Smith there is no way that he would be running New York Times,” I wrote in December 2011, “or any other publicly traded company for that matter.”
While my commentary then seems overly harsh now, keep in mind that the newspaper publisher that President Donald Trump wrongly describes as “failing” was in a world of hurt at the time thanks to the digital revolution. NYT’s balance sheet was also weighed down with assets the company wound up selling at steep losses including the Boston Globe.
New York Times stock missed the dotcom bubble, slumping nearly 90% between 1996 and 2011. The publisher reported a loss of $39.7 million in 2011.
Making Readers Pay Paid Off
However, 2011 also saw the New York Times make a move that continues to reap dividends today, namely charging readers to access its websites. Many newspapers gave away their content for free on the internet at the time, a move they have regretted ever since then. Getting people to pay for something they previously got for free is the hardest thing for any business to do. It’s a lesson that many online news sites are still learning.
In the intervening seven-plus years, NYT stock has increased 362% in value, compared to the S&P 500 index‘s 92% gain.
As of the most recent quarter, The New York Times — now under a new generation of Sulzberger family leadership — had a total of 3.4 million net digital subscriptions, an increase of more than 27% from the same time period a year ago. Of those 265,000 additions, 172,000 came from its digital news product with the remainder coming from NYT’s Cooking and Crossword offerings. Digital-only subscription revenue jumped 9.3% to $105.3 million during the quarter
NYT has also wisely limited its exposure to so-called programmatic automated advertising auctions that tend to drive down ad prices. As a result, the publisher’s digital advertising exceeded print advertising for the first time ever during the quarter. Digital revenue grew an impressive 23% on a year-over-year basis.
Setting Ambitious Goals
In 2015, NYT set the ambitious goal of doubling the company’s digital revenue from around $400 million to $800 million by the end of 2020. As of the end of last year, the company generated $709 million in digital revenue. The company has set a new target to reach 10 million digital subscribers by 2025, more than double its current level of 3.4 million.
NYT is in better shape than rivals such as Gannett (NYSE:GCI) and upstarts such as BuzzFeed that find themselves hostages of Facebook (NYSE:FB) and Alphabet (NASDAQ:GOOGL) unit Google’s dominance of the online ad market. Unlike many other news organizations, The New York Times is hiring journalists, not laying them off. The company’s news operations employed 1,600 as of the end of last year, the most ever.
Overall, NYT looks to be in pretty good financial shape. The New York-based company reported fourth-quarter net income of $55.2 million, or 33 cents per share, reversing a loss from a year earlier of $56.8 million, or 35 cents a year earlier. Overall revenue jumped 3.8% to $502.8 million.
Still, NYT Stock is No Bargain
To be sure, its hard to call NYT stock a value play. The shares have surged more than 30% since the start of the year and are trading near their average 52-week price target of $29. Though its forward P/E multiple is a tech-level 34x, I wouldn’t bet against New York Times stock at this point, particularly as Washington, D.C. sinks further into a dysfunctional mess. I would, however, hold off buying NYT stock until there is a dip in the share price.
As of this writing, Jonathan Berr doesn’t own shares of any of the aforementioned stocks.