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The New York Times (NYSE:NYT)
Q4 2018 Earnings Conference Call
Feb. 6, 2019 11:00 a.m. ET

Contents:

  • Prepared Remarks
  • Questions and Answers
  • Call Participants

Prepared Remarks:

Operator

Good morning, and welcome to The New York Times Company's fourth-quarter and full-year 2018 earnings conference call. [Operator instructions] Please note, this event is being recorded. I would now like to turn the conference over to Harlan Toplitzky, executive director of investor relations and financial planning and analysis. Please go ahead.

Harlan Toplitzky -- Executive Director of Investor Relations and Financial Planning and Analysis

Thank you, and welcome to the New York Times Company's fourth-quarter and full-year 2018 earnings conference call. On the call today, we have Mark Thompson, president and chief executive officer; Roland Caputo, executive vice president and chief financial officer; and Meredith Kopit Levien, executive vice president and chief operating officer. Before we begin, I would like to remind you that management will make forward-looking statements during the course of this call and our actual results could differ materially. Some of the risks and uncertainties that could impact our business are included in our 2017 10-K.

In addition, our presentation will include non-GAAP financial measures and we have provided reconciliations to the most comparable GAAP measures in our earnings press release, which is available on our website at investors.nytco.com. With that, I will turn the call over to Mark Thompson.

Mark Thompson -- President and Chief executive Officer

Thanks, Harlan, and good morning, everyone. Well, a strong fourth quarter capped a strong 2018 for The New York Times Company. Digital subscriptions grew more quickly than at any time since the months immediately following the 2016 election. Our strategy for digital advertising is paying off, with exceptional year-over-year growth.

Our smaller digital products are performing excellently. Indeed, we made so much progress on our five-year goal of doubling digital revenue, that we set ourselves an ambitious new target. I'll turn to that shortly. But first let's look at the quarter in detail.

One note first, Q4 2017 was a 14-week quarter. In our remarks this morning, we'll use the phrase like-for-like basis when comparing revenue in 2018 to a 2017 adjusted to account for that extra week. We don't make such an adjustment on the cost side. We added 265,000 new digital subscriptions in the quarter, on which 172,000 were for our core digital news products, and the balance from cooking and crosswords.

Although the midterm election has played a part in this strong showing, audience behavior and week-to-week subscription additions suggest that our present momentum is broad-based, and far less reliant on the politics of the moment than the surge of two years ago. By the end of the quarter and the year, we had a total of 3.4 million digital subscriptions and including print, 4.3 million total subscriptions. On a like-for-like basis for the fourth quarter, estimated digital subscription revenue, including cooking and crosswords, grew 18% compared to 2017. On the same basis, total subscription revenue grew 5%.

Now we've taken a different approach to digital advertising than many other news publishers. With a focus on large-scale partnerships with the world's leading brands, a suite of creative services and a relatively low exposure to open market programmatic. This approach paid off for us in the fourth quarter, with digital advertising revenue growing approximately 32% year over year on a like-for-like basis. Indeed, in the quarter, digital advertising exceeded print advertising for the first time ever.

Digital represented 54% of total advertising revenue compared to 46% from print. We expect to see future quarters, where the relative proportion is reversed, but this is still a significant moment in the digital transition of The New York Times. In Q4 2018, print advertising, which was once the lion's share of the company's revenue, was the smallest of our four principal revenue streams. While print subscription revenue declined only modestly, print advertising fell on a year-over-year like-for-like basis of 6%.

This was a significant sequential deterioration after Q3, where print advertising was nearly flat compared to the same period in 2017. But the strength on the digital side met a total advertising revenue grew by 11% on a like-for-like basis. Although as you'll hear, we're guiding to continue healthy growth on our digital advertising business in Q1 2019. The character of our emerging digital advertising model, in particular, is reliant on our relatively small number of high-value deals, means that we may still see some variability in quarter-to-quarter results.

So we're encouraged by the fact that taking last year as a whole, on a like-for-like basis, we grew digital advertising by more than 10%. Total advertising revenues for The Times for the whole of 2018 increased by nearly $10 million on a like-for-like basis, the first year-over-year total advertising revenue growth since 2005.Total company revenue for Q4 grew on a like-for-like basis by 10%. Adjusted operating profit for the quarter was $94 million compared to $106 million in the same quarter last year. The two main reasons for the fall was first, the extra week in 2017 and secondly, higher cost, especially in marketing.

In 2015, we set ourselves the challenge of doubling pure play digital revenue for around $400 million to $800 million by the end of 2020. The end of 2018 was the third three-year mark in this five-year journey. And in 2018, we generated $709 million in total digital revenue. In other words, we're already more than three quarters of the way to achieving our target.

We'll continue to report on the progress to and beyond that $800 million goal, but now as a company, we've decided to set ourselves a new public milestone. Our analysis of our market opportunity in the United States and around the world, together with our success in recent years in scaling our digital subscription business, has led us to reset our ambition for just how large our subscriber base could grow. So we're setting ourselves the goal of at least 10 million subscriptions by 2025. There's reason to believe the ultimate number of subscribers could be far larger, but we've decided by exceeding the 10 million mark is the right target, stretching but realistic, over the time period.

So how will we go about meeting this new goal? First, journalism. Our journalism is already widely recognized as being among the very best in the world, indeed the quality and extraordinary breadth of The Times' journalism, is the primary reason why our digital subscription model is currently growing so healthily, this was especially true in 2018.But our 10-million-plus goal implied a further significant expansion of committed Times users. Those that really make The Times an essential part of their lives, both domestically and around the world. To achieve that, we want to broaden and deepen our journalism still more, to further enhance our leading position in investigative reporting, to continue to support the [indiscernible] of opinion, to explore new ways in audiovisual and multimedia of telling the most important stories of the day.

The foundation of our mission, our strategy and our offer to every new subscriber is high-quality journalism. That's why we've consistently invested in our newsroom. Last year alone, we added more than 120 new journalistic positions. And today, we have about 1,600 journalists on staff, a high-water mark for The New York Times.

In 2019, we will make a further targeted investment in journalism, which will include continued hiring. To hit that 10 million subscription milestone, we need not only to project The Times' brand and The Times journalism to new audiences around the world, but also to become more expert and more coordinated in engaging those audiences and converting them into paying subscribers. So we will also make an additional investment in digital product and in marketing, with the intention of accelerating medium-term growth of the model. Next, innovation.

From the multimedia breakthrough, Snow Fall, way back in 2012, to our smash hit podcast, The Daily, creativity and innovation have transformed the way people now think about the New York Times. More importantly, they've attracted new audiences. I never tire reminding people that nearly three quarters of the audience to The Daily, Apple's most downloaded podcast of 2018, are 40 years old or younger.2019 will see plenty more innovation and experimentation. Some of it will be cash generative from the get-go, like our new TV show, The Weekly, which launches in June, and the 5G partnership with Verizon that we announced together at CES.

But again, we won't hesitate to that great new ideas with investment when needed. Finally, we'll continue our work, optimizing both our customer journey and pay model. As you've heard me say before, despite our progress to date, we still believe there's considerable further scope to accelerate subscription growth. Indeed, we currently have multiple tests in the field.

Now as we'll shortly confirm, we expect these investments to have some impact on total cost in Q1 and subsequent quarters. But I want to emphasize that we also remained very focused on margin. We're unusual in having been able to rapidly scale our digital business, while remaining strongly profitable and we're determined to maintain that record We have an opportunity to further accelerate digital subscriptions through additional investment now that will fuel future margin expansion. We will also begin to field test the price rise for digital subscribers in the early part this year.

Although this would be the first increase since the launch of the pay model in 2011, we have many years of experience of adjusting prices for our home delivery product to reflect the changing economics of print. We're confident that our digital subscribers will also understand why the price pay for high-quality journalism sometimes has to increase if the journalism itself is to flourish. Finally, let me turn to the question of capital return. As you know in recent years, our board has opted for a conservative approach to our balance sheet.

This is not because we believe in conserving cash for its own sake, but because we want to maintain maximum flexibility regarding capital allocation, as we navigate the opportunities and risks of our ongoing long-range business transformation. As you've heard, we're still exploring the scope for further effective investment to accelerate the growth of our existing digital sub model. And we're still on the lookout to tuck-in investments that could help us scale the total -- digital business faster. Nonetheless, we've clearly made some progress.

And in the light of that, the Board of Directors has approved a modest $0.01 per share dividend increase to $0.05 a share. As you'd expect, the board will continue to keep the balance sheet and the best use of capital under close review, and we do not rule out further adjustments to the dividend in the future. But now with details of the quarter is Roland.

Roland Caputo -- Executive Vice President and Chief Financial Officer

Thank you, Mark, and good morning, everyone. As Mark said, this quarter represents a strong results for the company. As a reminder, fiscal 2017 included an extra week, and therefore the fourth quarter of 2017 contains 14 weeks as opposed to 13 weeks in 2018. The earnings press release we distributed this morning reports revenue on both a 14- and estimated 13-week basis.

Like Mark, my comments on revenues today will exclude the impact of the extra week. However, estimating the cost impact of this extra week is more difficult, and therefore all comparisons for expenses and profitability will be made versus the full 14 weeks of 2017 expenses. Adjusted diluted earnings per share was $0.32 in the quarter, $0.06 below the prior year. We reported adjusted operating profit of approximately $94 million in the fourth quarter, which is lower compared with the same period in 2017 by approximately $12 million.

Total subscription revenues increased 5% in the quarter, with digital-only subscription revenue growing 18% in the quarter to $105 million. On the print subscription side, revenues were down due to declines in the number of home delivery subscriptions, as well as the continued shift of subscribers moving to less frequent and therefore, less expensive delivery packages. Total daily circulation declined 9.6% in the quarter compared with the prior year, while Sunday circulation declined 6.5%. Quarterly digital subscription ARPU declined approximately three and a half percent compared to both the prior year and the prior quarter, as a number of newly acquired subscribers on promotion was significantly larger than the number of existing subscribers whose promotional offers ended and graduated to full price.

This downward pressure was magnified by the $1 per week promotional offer, which was in market during all sales periods in the quarter. We expect that the more aggressive promotional offer, which continued to yield strong net subscription additions in the quarter and other promotional test will continue to put downward pressure on ARPU in 2019.I wanted to note that in the fourth quarter, Google ran a cross-promotion where they provided a limited number of their customers with a six month free subscription to our digital news product. As is our practice, these promotional subscriptions are not reflected in the 172,000 net news additions we are reporting today, and will only be counted in the event that they elect to convert their free subscriptions to a paid one at the time of promotion expiration. Total advertising revenue increased 11% compared to the fourth quarter of 2017.

Our best overall result in recent memory was digital advertising growing 32% and print declining by 6%. The increase in digital advertising revenue was largely driven by growth in both direct sold advertising and our digital platforms and creative services. The print advertising result was mainly due to declines in the luxury and financial services category, partially offset by growth in advocacy, media and books. Other revenues grew 50% versus the fourth quarter in 2017 to $47 million, principally driven by growth in our commercial printing operations from the Newsday suite of products, growth in affiliate revenue from the project review and recommendation website, Wirecutter, our live events business, as well as additional floors of rental income from our headquarters building.

Both GAAP and operating cost and adjusted operating costs increased 8% in the quarter. Costs grew primarily as a result of marketing expenses to promote our brand and products, our growing commercial printing business and cost related to growth in our advertising creative services business, which will partially offset by lower print production and distribution costs related to our newspaper. We recorded two special items in the quarter. An $11 million gain, from the wind down of our investment in Madison Paper Industries, a partnership that previously operated a super calendar paper mill and a $1.5 million charge, which represents the non-capitalizable expense relating to the reconfiguration of our headquarters building to make more space available for rental income.

This project is now substantially complete. Our effective tax rate for the fourth quarter was 29%. The underfunded balance of our qualified pension plans at the end of the year was approximately $81 million, and the plans were approximately 95% funded. Moving to the balance sheet.

Our cash and marketable securities balance increased by $32 million during the quarter, ending at $826 million. Total debt and capital lease obligations, principally related to the sale leaseback of our headquarters building, which we expect will be repaid in the fourth quarter of 2019, were approximately $254 million. Let me conclude with our outlook for the first quarter of 2019. Total subscription revenues are expected to increase in the low to mid-single digits compared with the first quarter of 2018.

With digital-only subscription revenue expected to increase in the mid-teens. Overall advertising revenues are expected to decrease in the low to mid-single digits compared with the first quarter of 2018, and digital advertising is expected to increase in the mid-teens. Other revenues are expected to increase approximately 50%, largely due to the growth in our commercial printing operations. Operating costs and adjusted operating costs are expected to increase approximately 10% compared with the first quarter of 2018, as we continue to invest in the digital subscription growth drivers of marketing, product, and journalism.

In addition, our commercial printing operations are fully scaled and comping against the quarter in 2018 with no significant costs. And with that, we're happy to open it up for questions. 

Questions and Answers:

Operator

[Operator instructions] The first question comes from Alexia Quadrani with JPMorgan. Please go ahead.

Alexia Quadrani -- JP Morgan -- Analyst

Thank you very much. My first question is really on the impressive digital sub growth in the quarter. Can you provide and maybe a bit more color on the drivers behind it? I guess you have a lot more data than we can see from out here. How much you think is correlated with the sort of more intense promotional activity? How much you think sort of spike around maybe news-intensive events? Or how much is really just the overall strength in the product and what you guys have been doing on the data analytical side?

Mark Thompson -- President and Chief executive Officer

Good morning, Alexia, I think I'll suggest that Meredith answer that.

Meredith Levien -- Media Executive, Chief Operating Officer

Sure. Hi, Alexia. I think it's a combination of things, and it starts with -- and continues to be a very strong news cycle, albeit I think one of that is not driven by a single story. And I think our journalists response to everything going on in the news continue to be and appear different than were paying for.

I think that's the first and probably the biggest reason. I think the news from $1 a week as an introductory offer continues to be very good, we're seeing very positive results from that, and we're getting better and more precise about how we deploy it and when we deploy it. It's also been a period of real experimentation and work on every aspect of the conversion funnel. We could have lost more from that in the second half of the year and it's really the end of -- in the fourth quarter.

What I mean by that is everything about how we present and offer from the messaging to the load time of the page, to the number of steps it takes somebody to get through paid flow. We're saying on all of those things, we've gotten a lot better than there is more room to get better from there. I think were also getting better at spending into strong news cycle and into high demand both on direct response and in our brand work, so we're able to spend more, change the level of spend in more places and do all of that quite efficiently.

Mark Thompson -- President and Chief executive Officer

And perhaps if I can just add one other point, is some time now, we've also -- both in the data I've seen and from other indicators, we come to believe that investigative breakthrough stories, which The Times breaks, which both in a sense you know come to The Times to find, but also mean that The Times has been talked about across the rest of media. Also, really important in driving the model. And one of the reasons that we've been investing so much in investigative journalism, we actually think it makes distinctive pieces, which only The Times have got work, if you like almost every bit of our marketing effort they put for our brand and awareness of the brand, they're good for finding new users, they're also so good for getting regular users to use more and potentially convert to be subscribers.

Alexia Quadrani -- JP Morgan -- Analyst

And I guess following from that point, so I guess my takeaway is that the midterm election, specifically which doesn't sound like it was a driver, it's not one specific event and there's -- I know you don't guide for digital subs going forward, but there's nothing you would highlight saying, "Well, this was a particular benefit in Q4, so don't assume that will continue." That's my sort of read too. And then, I just want to also ask about churn. I think, historically, you said it's been stable, I'm assuming that's the case now. And I believe you started the $1 a week promotion back in August, so I guess only a few more months at least to sort of see if we -- if the churn begins to elevate when some of those promotions come off, is that fair?

Mark Thompson -- President and Chief executive Officer

Let me have add one more about the midterm then I'll go most to address churn and the $1 a week cohort. We had a good mid-terms. We had a very good mid-term. We saw good audiences.

And we saw good conversion and good subscriber numbers through the elections. But in a way, I think what we're saying is I wouldn't over-rotate on these events like the midterms now. I think we've shown, for some time now, almost going back to 2017 and #metoo, there are plenty of things we can do with our journalism, which can move the dial as much as a kind of set piece event. And I'm not sure if this makes an easier to model what our results are going to be, but we're trying to generate our own momentum through our own efforts and our own journalism.

And I think it to be working well.

Meredith Levien -- Media Executive, Chief Operating Officer

I think that's right. I think we've also gotten better at the gearing of our access model around big events, so we opened up for a few days to meet around the midterms in an effort to subscriber registration and login, which was very successful. And then we've now gone through a whole second half of the year where we also experiment with tightening meter in key moments. And I think that's going well and you'll see us continue to invest more there.

On the question of churn broadly and then specifically on $1 a week, I think churn has been, for the last two and a half, three years, very good story. For The Times, it continues to be in the fourth quarter, and it continues to be broadly overall. I would say that most of the work we're doing on churn and the best work we're doing on churn is in engagement. So actually, at the point of someone subscribing, getting the tooling right on getting them to set up so that they engage, and they're still -- we still got a lot of room to get better there, but that is starting to fair out and have an impact.

On $1 a week, we're actually almost six months in on the first domestic cohort. We've started that as an introductory offer in late August. And if you control for news events, which we always do when we go back and look at our data, they are -- that cohort is retaining sort of right alongside all of our cohorts at 50% off. So we're broadly optimistic about that.

And you can actually go back even a little further -- I forget the month, but I think it was the beginning of the second quarter, might have been even the end of the first quarter when we launched $1 a week outside the United States much more aggressively and so we're now like nine months, 10 months into those subscriptions, and I would say the same thing there. I'll also tell you it goes back to my answer sort of broadly on retention that we're incredibly focused cohort by cohort on what it's going to take to get people to engage. One of the interesting things about this focus coming in on $1 a week is many of them are coming to us, is going through their pay flow on mobile, and therefore the expectation that they're going to engage on mobile really matters, so we're doing a lot to stimulate engagement in our app and on level broadly.

Alexia Quadrani -- JP Morgan -- Analyst

All right. Thank you so much.

Operator

The next question comes from John Belton with Evercore. Please go ahead.

John Belton -- Evercore ISI -- Analsyt

Thanks a lot for the question. I just wanted to ask two on your new long-term subscriber targets. So the 10 million number sort of implies an acceleration from what we've been seeing over the last couple of years even. I'm just wondering if you've contemplated maybe changes to the paywall? And how you're going to get to that 10 million number? And then the second one is where the contribution from international subscribers that long term.

Where is the subscriber mix going geographically and where is it possible?

Meredith Levien -- Media Executive, Chief Operating Officer

Hi there. Let me -- I'll start on the second question and then I'll answer the first. We were now what I think 16% of our subscribers are coming from outside the United States, which is a bit of an uptick. And we saw international subscriptions grow a little bit faster broadly this year, I think actually across two years than in prior periods, and we still believe that there is a very big opportunity for The New York Times to be one of the dominant -- one of a handful of dominant global news providers.

And we see a giant audience through who we're relevant, we're doing quite a bit of work to continue to be even more relevant outside the United States. That said, I think as we think about 10 million, we shouldn't under-think the domestic opportunity. I think we really are beginning to get our hands on the years of our subscription model here in the United States and around the world, the sort of first year in the United States. So I think you're going to see us continue to push very hard, both domestically and internationally, and I think the opportunity domestically is quite large.

And that brings me, I think, to your first question, which is how are we thinking about the access model? But if you go back to the launch pay model in 2011, we have broadly had the finished meter model. It's been at different levels of access, but it's been broadly the same -- you had 20 stories, you get 10 stories, you have fivestories. And then, you have to buy a subscription if you want more in a given month. In the second half of last year, particularly in the fourth quarter, we began to launch a series of sort of increasingly aggressive and scaled tests, first, outside the United States now inside the United States, where we are testing, essentially getting registration and login in exchange for more and deeper access to The New York Times.

And over time, we will test getting registration and login in exchange for different kinds of features and the opportunity to use new aspects of product of The New York Times. And I would say we're still quite early in those tests in December. We launched the sweeping registration and login for access, more access test in Canada and Australia. And we launched a similar version of that test to a portion of the U.S.

population in January. So I would say it's still very early, you'll continue to hear us talk about this, but the early results are relatively promising.

Mark Thompson -- President and Chief executive Officer

But I want to go back to the right -- at the start of your question John. You're quite right. I mean our digital solution is growing very, very quickly now. But if we carry on at the current rate, we will not hit 10 million by 2025.

The target -- hitting the target depends on a further acceleration model, and you've heard us say, we think that's about putting more money and giving more support to our journalism. It's about improving the engagement and the product experience, it's about optimizing the pay model of the customer journey, and it's getting smarter and using more resources to effectively market both brand marketing all the way down to direct conversion marketing. So this is a plan for a further acceleration with -- it's not excessive, but we think some additional resources going into majority of the plan works.

Meredith Levien -- Media Executive, Chief Operating Officer

And I'll add to that. Mark talked about investment in journalism, and we continue to do that and I think the differentiation of that journalism will continue to be the most important aspect of the model. Beyond that, I think the biggest opportunity we have, certainly in the next couple of years and potentially for this whole period that we're talking about over the next six years, is to make a product experience itself, a better engine of getting people to form a habit, and to pay and to stay as subscriber. And when I talk about the product experience itself, I'm talking about the Customer Journey, which I've just described ways we're beginning to make it much more deliberate.

I also mean the user experience that features and functionality that enable you to form a habit and engage with the journalism and the programming in association with those features and functionality. And I would say we have a fair amount of work to do there to get that engine. Frankly, a lot of opportunity to get that engine working far, far better to get a very large audience people who already come to us to engage much more deeply.

John Belton -- Evercore ISI -- Analsyt

Thanks a lot for the comments.

Operator

The next question comes from Craig Huber with Huber Research Partners. Please go ahead.

Craig Huber -- Huber Research Partners -- Analyst

Yes, good morning. I have a few questions. Maybe if we could start, you mentioned early on, if I heard you're right, about the price increase for the digital-only subs. Can you maybe talk what the magnitude of that is and the time you mentioned? Did you say it was the first quarter?

Meredith Levien -- Media Executive, Chief Operating Officer

We would -- I think Mark said in his remarks was that we're going to begin this year or in the early part of this year to test what is the right approach to a price rise. I think it's worth noting that we have not raised prices in digital in seven and a half years since the launch of the model. And that we, as Mark said, we believe there's an opportunity to do so particularly as we continue to invest in the journalism and to invest in the product itself. And our products in our journalism are playing a big role in people's lives, so you can expect to see us invest and begin to test there and sort of test our way into what is the right the formula to continue to scale subscriptions at the rate that we need to with a higher price.

But we do think, look, I think it's worth saying, we know from our experience with print that there are a number of people who are willing to pay a lot for The New York Times and we also know from our experience with print that we can continue to add value to product with investment in journalism and product experience to make it worth more to people, and we intend to do work on both sides of that.

Craig Huber -- Huber Research Partners -- Analyst

Sorry. Is there a range of what you're thinking about to raise price? You're talking like maybe 10, or.

Mark Thompson -- President and Chief executive Officer

Just -- I don't mean to be really straightforward about it, one of the things we will with testing is the level of price rise and how to apply them. So to be honest the answer is, once we've done some testing, we'll have more to say both to our subscribers and to you but nothing yet.

Craig Huber -- Huber Research Partners -- Analyst

OK. Thank you. And my second question is, you always had very impressive digital add revenue growth. For the year, roughly, how much your digital add revenue do you think comes from paying subscribers versus people that have come on on-site for free.

What is the sort of breakdown there?

Meredith Levien -- Media Executive, Chief Operating Officer

Yes, I think that is a great question and I would broadly say that this was the year -- I can't give you a very sharp answer to it, but I think thematically, this was the year that we proved that the key to being a successful growing digital add business was being a subscription business first. And that the sort of high-octane gas in the tank of advertising is the same high-octane gas in the tank of our subscription business, which is deeply engaged users who feel real affinity and emotional connection to brand and who come back day after day and form a habit at the time. That said, we got, depending on what month you look somewhere between 130 million and 150 million people who use us, and only 4.3 million of them pay us. And so we like having a multi-revenue stream business, because we're able to monetize all of those who are not yet subscribers.

Mark Thompson -- President and Chief executive Officer

So we think our pay model is growing faster than our colleagues and competitors who have got harder pay walls because the porosity of our model allows lots of people to sample the product. The biggest value of letting people look at The Times for free, the biggest single advantages they get used to the journalism and many of them get attracted by the journalism, they engage in some of them, ultimately becomes subscribers. But it's true to say that we don't break out the numbers for digital advertising, but it's true that our subscribers also turn a large number of the pages of The Times and therefore they account for a lot of digital advertising revenue is also accounted for by subscribers because of their high level of engagement. So a very significant part of our total digital revenue, across advertising, as well as subscriptions, comes from subscribers.

But that doesn't mean that we should simply go for a super hard paywall, both for many reasons and for the long-term health of our marketing funnel, we believe it makes sense to have a pretty porous model.

Craig Huber -- Huber Research Partners -- Analyst

And then my last question is, if I could ask marketing cost. Can you give us a sense on a percentage basis, maybe how much you think that it might be up for this year? Or maybe asked differently, in the first quarter, you talked about cost roughly 10%. If it took out marketing costs increase, how much of that overall number be up?

Roland Caputo -- Executive Vice President and Chief Financial Officer

Yes, I'm not going to give an exact number, but in the first quarter, it's a good percentage of the increase is made up of marketing cost. But really, I think the way you think about it, is got the commercial printing piece, which is comping on basically zero last year, so that's a large part of the increase. But the combination of marketing, commercial printing, product and news together, is explaining that 90% of the increase. A large chunk of that is commercial printing, so basically the message here is that things that we believe are going to drive our subscription business growth and are going to benefit the long-term profitability of the company.

Those are the things we're spending money on.

Craig Huber -- Huber Research Partners -- Analyst

Great. Thank you.

Operator

The next question comes from Doug Arthur with Huber Research Partners. Please go ahead.

Doug Arthur -- Huber Research Partners -- Analyst

Thanks. I'd just like to follow up on that. I mean, when you put out a goal of 10 million subs down the road, I mean if you -- should we expect this marketing investment to continue ad infinitum or in terms of the step-up, probably not a 50% rate. Or do you envision some leveling out here in the next four or six quarters? That's question one.

Meredith Levien -- Media Executive, Chief Operating Officer

Yes. I think that it's a good and an important question. I don't think you should expect to see marketing cost go up in a linear way as we scale subscription. But I think marketing has played a very important role, and we'll continue to play a very important role in the model over the last couple of years.

But two things to say about that. One, we're spending more today than we have probably than at any other point certainly in the last few years more, but much more of that money is now going to funnel our brand work, and I think you'll see us continue to do that. That pays back over a longer time horizon. That is work that you do, I think, to build relationships and build engagement over the long haul.

I think as time goes on and as we invest in the journalism, the journalism in itself begins to play some of that role. I think the best example we have of that today is The Daily, where we're able to sort of explain the story of the story, all that goes into it. That is also what we're doing with a lot of our increased marketing spend. And the more that the journalism itself can do that, in products like The Daily, The Weekly in the cues that we put into the product itself, I think the more efficient we can be in our marketing spend.

I think the second thing to say about that, Mark and I have now both talked about -- and Roland just mentioned it, putting more investment into the product itself. As the product itself by which I mean the Customer Journey, the user experience, the programming that goes into that as that becomes a better engine of getting people to form a habit, pay and stay. I think, over time, there's less pressure on marketing and less of a need to sort of pay to get people to come to us. And I just go back to that figure 130 million people already come to us.

They're already in front of us and only 4.3 million of them pay us. So there's a very big opportunity right in front of us where we don't have to go out and create an audience.

Mark Thompson -- President and Chief executive Officer

This is, I think, a really important point, Doug. The success there, investment in making a fundamentally more engaging stickier product, is one chunk of costs going in, which has a fundamental opportunity to improve the coefficient of engagement and conversion in a way which should make the entire -- as were the entire curve steepen. And so unlike, for example, like a direct marketing expense, which is a continuous expense and you never get out of the generation. This is an attempt to make a fundamental change in the common geometry and the coefficient of how well the project engages and converts people to subscription.

Doug Arthur -- Huber Research Partners -- Analyst

OK, that's great. And then in terms -- again going back to the 10 million, I mean the cooking and crosswords, obviously, are not a big revenue contributor, but 93,000 sub growth in Q4, which is a pretty big number, what -- I would assume in the 10 million figure, you have other products that you're testing or looking at that may come into play here down the road?

Meredith Levien -- Media Executive, Chief Operating Officer

Sure. And let me address that sort of broadly and specifically, and I'll be specific. First, we're very pleased with formats of both cooking, which is a relatively -- I'm sorry, crosswords, which is relatively mature products. I think we're four and a half years into the pay model on crosswords.

And on cooking, and I would say we see real running room in both of those products. I think cooking, I think the fourth quarter was the best quarter we had so far on cooking. So better than when we launched the pay model. It was our second-best quarter ever on crosswords.

And I would say on crosswords, look out for new games. We've got a new game out in market called Spelling Bee now. So it's sort of games, huddles and games for curious, intelligent people. We've got a new one coming out that we'll test in the first quarter and we're seeing real momentum there and no reason why that growth won't continue.

On cooking, I would say, we're just getting started. I think that product -- in the product itself, has a lot of opportunity to play a bigger role in people's lives. If you haven't seen it yet, I would point you to -- we just launched a commercial for cooking for our first group mid-funnel and upper funnel brand effort around cooking. And you get a sense of how much running we're in the product has by watching that.

I think what you're really asking about is doing 10 to keep putting more, and new products into the market, the answer is yes. We will get beta out on our parenting exploration, which we launched last year, we'll get a beta into the market in the first half of this year there. And we have a number of other irons in the fire in terms of products around, which people have daily habits, where there is brand concurrency with The New York Times, and The Times has permission to play in the states and where there's real user need. All of that said, I think your question is more broadly about 10 million, and I would not underestimate the power of our journalism and particularly our digital products around that journalism to play an increasingly large, large role in people's lives.

In other words, just the market for people paying domestically and internationally for our core news subscription. We think it's very large, and we think we've only just begun to get it all the way, but our core news products can play well in people's lives.

Doug Arthur -- Huber Research Partners -- Analyst

Great, thank you.

Operator

The next question comes from Kannan Venkateshwar with Barclays. Please go ahead.

Kannan Venkateshwar -- Barclays -- Analyst

Thank you. So I have a couple. First is -- I think there was a test in December or actually there was a promotion run for $2 a week for some time. And obviously, you're running a $1 dollar per week kind of a promotion.

If you can just help us understand the -- compare and contrast between those two promotions and how they tend to scale and the elasticity? So that's the first one and maybe I'll follow up after that.

Meredith Levien -- Media Executive, Chief Operating Officer

Yes. I think for a lot of the fourth quarter, and potentially some -- I'm trying to remember some of third quarter, we were using in our non-sale period, $2 a week. And there is a lot of tweaking around sort of the language of how you describe what is ultimately the equivalent of 50% off. And $2 a week is very well.

We do tend to drive more conversion in our sale periods when we launched the $1 a week, we actually launched it for a sustained period of time in the third quarter. And then we dropped back in the fourth quarter to only running it in our sale periods, which roughly correlate to the last 10 days of the month. If you're following in occasionally, we do a sale because something's going on in the world, so we'll do a one-day sale but I think is probably as much as I can say that would be used. What do you think about that, Roland? Do you want to add something?

Roland Caputo -- Executive Vice President and Chief Financial Officer

Yes, I just like to add. When we have the $1 a week promotion in market, the take rate is such or the increment in the take rate is such that the amount of new subscriptions we get per $1 of media spend makes it such that the return on this acquisition investment is in excess of our hurdle rate and we're able to bring many more subscribers on to the platform per $1. But we're looking at lifetime value and we're tracking the retention. And as we mentioned before, the retention thus far about two, five months looks comparable.

Kannan Venkateshwar -- Barclays -- Analyst

OK. The second question is more around the investment guidance. And I just wanted to understand, I mean, as we go through the rest of this year, is this a pickup over the course of this year in terms of marketing? And then, it normalizes at some point. How should we think about the cadence of marketing spend and how that evolves over time?

Roland Caputo -- Executive Vice President and Chief Financial Officer

Right. So I mean, we guide quarter-to-quarter, so I can't give you any guidance, I'm out for the year, but the investment that kind of the components of the investment as we've mentioned before is the marketing, investing in journalism, it's investing in our product and how -- and so that the engagement with our readers increases and the ratio of those items will change over time. So you've seen us heavy up on marketing the last few years and we expect that to continue through quarter one. Eventually, those ratios will change and as the product develops, we don't believe we'll have to add as much marketing spend to get as much benefit from the other aspects of that kind of that circle there, that trilogy of investments.

So we do not expect the marketing spend to continue to increase literally.

Mark Thompson -- President and Chief executive Officer

Yes. And I think, without giving you any precise proportion to them, I think we can say there's another fairly obvious point, which is the marketing spend can commence relatively quickly. The business of hiring journalists and new engineers takes rather more time. So there's a sort of natural phasing of how this investment will appear.

Kannan Venkateshwar -- Barclays -- Analyst

And lastly, Mark, from your perspective, when you think about the pricing strategy, obviously, you've had a lot of success with the $1 a week kind of promotions and at the same time, you're testing a higher price point. So longer term, when you think about the product, how should we think about the pricing structure? Will you change it?

Mark Thompson -- President and Chief executive Officer

I think you should think of it as trying to exploit the demand curve as effectively as we can to use and with relatively low introductory prices to attract people to become customers. And then, I think crucially, never being exploitative, but being -- and work in a relationship with engaged users where we can reflect rising costs with rising prices, but also where we get better and better at bundling additional services. We talked about cooking and crosswords already, to over time, move customers to richer packages and higher price points. So what we're trying to do.

I mean, clearly, we're mainly -- we're significantly focused on scaling the number of customers we have, but we're also at the same time trying to figure out intelligent ways of maximizing aggregate yields by thinking hard even as we're trying to grow the scale of customers about how to make sure that we easily and quickly were also coming up with answers on yield. So as I said in my remarks, we're really focused on margins especially medium- and long-term margin and looking hard at how to ensure that we're using and have available to us levers like price and bundling to make sure that we can maximize yield on the model, as well as the simple scale of customers.

Kannan Venkateshwar -- Barclays -- Analyst

Right. Thank you.

Operator

The next question comes from Vasily Karasyov with Cannonball Research. Please go ahead.

Vasily Karasyov -- Cannonball Research -- Analyst

Thank you. Good morning. I wanted to ask you a question first about The Daily. I understand that it maybe another underappreciated part of the business there.

Can you give us any idea about what the usage base is? How is it growing? And how far you think it can grow? And then, how is the monetization? What is the monetization model here? And how much is it contributing to digital advertising growth?

Meredith Levien -- Media Executive, Chief Operating Officer

Yes, great question. We love talking about The Daily. First thing to say is I think it was the most downloaded podcast in America last year. So it is still -- it has a very strong audience and that audience is still growing.

And I think the product keeps getting better. We keep investing in the team making the products. I think that product is showing that it's able to move across a range of topics. And I think you're going to see us do more and more with it.

As to audience, I think we're now well over 1 million and I think equates to 2 million Daily listeners. My favorite thing to say about is there's more Daily listeners than the weekday paper ever had subscribers and is very, very long life, so I think that's a milestone, the character of who is listening to The Daily is also great for The Times in terms of the brand reaching in to new audiences. I think Mark may have said this already, but three quarters of the audience is under 40, and the audience is disproportionately female, so more women than men. So all of that is about sort of bringing new audiences to The Times.

On the economics, The Daily is now scaling and very successful ad business. We're essentially sold out all the time. As it grows, we can charge a higher CPM for it and we can actually just charge more because there is more audience to it, and we now have a good track record of beginning to build programs around The Daily so you'll see us continue to grow The Daily as part of our add business and I would say in the ad market generally, audio and high-quality podcasting specifically is of top, top interest. The last thing I'll say, which I think has thus far, been sort of yet unexplored is or only minimally explored, The Daily as sort of a vehicle to stimulate subscription to The New York Times.

So you've seen us, if you listen to it, we do -- we have gotten a bit more aggressive about running our own marketing inside The Daily, it's a vehicle to get people to think about buying a subscription to The Times as a way to support The Daily if they love it. And our listener, when we survey new subscribers, we do find The Daily to be a driver of that and I think we've seen real success with The Daily as a sort of parent of other podcasts, so we launched Caliphate, which was a special series with Rukmini Callimachi, our reporter deep on the trail of ISIS and terrorism. We launched that podcast into the feed of The Daily. And because it was launched into an organic, a large organic audience to begin with, it was like an instant hit.

It also happened to be a great show, and Rukmini is phenomenal to listen to. But we -- that is just the beginning of what we can sort of launch out of The Daily. And then the last thing I'll say, is The Daily would be inspiration for The Weekly. And as we're just at the beginning of all of the new ways that The New York Times can actually make its way into people's daily lives.

So I think listening to The Daily while you're making breakfast or brushing your teeth, in many ways, is a replacement to morning television. And we see The Weekly, it's coming out in June, on Sunday evening, as their replacement to the other things that are already out there, and I think we're just at the beginning of that.

Mark Thompson -- President and Chief executive Officer

And so for the TV, I mean, I think we've showed with The Daily that we could move into an area of podcasting and really break through and we haven't talked much about The Weekly because we've had so much to talk about this morning. It's a big deal. We have seen videos. It's very exciting.

It arrives in June and again, who knows what if that works, if that is a breakthrough as well what we could do in the TV field as well.

Vasily Karasyov -- Cannonball Research -- Analyst

That's very interesting. Can you please -- I think this is the first time you mentioned the economic impact of The Weekly. You said it's cash flow positive right away in the prepared remarks, if I understood you correctly. Would you mind sharing more details how it works? Is it straight...

Mark Thompson -- President and Chief executive Officer

I'm not going to -- yes, I noticed it was small but it was commissioned by FX and Hulu. So cable and digital operator at FX and Hulu over-the-top streaming service. And the commission and other rights associated with the show, means already there is a margin in series 1. We're not going to say how much, but it's already, this is not required and it were risk investments from the time.

It's already a margin-positive activity. Clearly, series, subsequent theories and rest depend on the success of the show with audiences and with those you have commissioned it. But it's an example and we actually have a surprising number of examples of big innovations that we've managed to engineer in a way which doesn't require substantial risk money.

Vasily Karasyov -- Cannonball Research -- Analyst

Thank you very much.

Operator

The next question is a follow-up from Craig Huber with Huber Research Partners. Please go ahead.

Craig Huber -- Huber Research Partners -- Analyst

Thank you again. You're still leased out that comes up the second half of this year, web can get out of those 21 floors. What is the exact date? It hasn't been clear to me for a while what the exact date is when you could potentially get out of that? That's question one.

Roland Caputo -- Executive Vice President and Chief Financial Officer

Yes. That's going close in Q4, Craig. I don't have the exact date for you, but it will be Q4.

Craig Huber -- Huber Research Partners -- Analyst

OK. And then is the intention to the extent you could talk about it publicly, just to hang onto those 21 floors or settle them off.

Roland Caputo -- Executive Vice President and Chief Financial Officer

We don't have a plan to do anything with those floors, as of yet, other than to hold them.

Craig Huber -- Huber Research Partners -- Analyst

And then my last question is on the new 10 million target, how are you guys thinking about the news-only product as a percentage of the 10 million versus these smaller products, cooking, crosswords and other ones you are going to launch. By the time you -- if you get to that number, are you still thinking roughly, say, three quarters of that. Is that news only?

Mark Thompson -- President and Chief executive Officer

I'm sorry, Craig we're not going to give you any kind of guidance on this. It's clearly going to be a very, very large part of the total. But the products, smaller products, bundle packages and indeed our great print products are also all going to form part of that $10 million plus. Just to say we think it is a milestone, not a ceiling of what we're going to achieve with the model.

Craig Huber -- Huber Research Partners -- Analyst

Very good. Thank you.

Operator

This concludes our question-and-answer session. I would like to turn the conference back over to Harlan Toplitzky for any closing remarks.

Harlan Toplitzky -- Executive Director of Investor Relations and Financial Planning and Analysis

Thank you for joining us this morning. We look forward to talking to you again next quarter.

Operator

[Operator signoff]

Duration: 60 minutes

Call Participants:

Harlan Toplitzky -- Executive Director of Investor Relations and Financial Planning and Analysis

Mark Thompson -- President and Chief executive Officer

Roland Caputo -- Executive Vice President and Chief Financial Officer

Alexia Quadrani -- JP Morgan -- Analyst

Meredith Levien -- Media Executive, Chief Operating Officer

John Belton -- Evercore ISI -- Analsyt

Craig Huber -- Huber Research Partners -- Analyst

Doug Arthur -- Huber Research Partners -- Analyst

Kannan Venkateshwar -- Barclays -- Analyst

Vasily Karasyov -- Cannonball Research -- Analyst

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