Best of the week: Publishers begin cracking alternative revenue models

With display cratering and the quest for scale falling out of fashion, publishers have been doubling down on what makes their media brands unique. In order to attract — and attain — a loyal audience it pays to be different. Literally. The prevailing theme in the best Digiday stories of this week is that publishers are working hard at cracking new business models. And those that don’t — see: the Guardian U.S. — provide a chilling cautionary tale.

Barstool Sports finds loyalty pays
Getting people to pay for content, in any increment, is top of mind for many publishers. Barstool Sports, which now counts The Chernin Group as a majority owner, seems to have cracked some kind of code. The sports publisher might only get 10 million visitors per month, but that audience is highly engaged and willing to open their wallets. In fact, it got 12,500 people to pay to watch amateur boxing earlier this month — a four-hour boxing event held inside of an armory in the woods of West Virginia.

“I’ve had to think about revenue and the business from the very beginning,” Dave Portnoy, founder and content chief at Barstool Sports, told senior reporter Sahil Patel this week. “We weren’t going to survive just on ad revenue: we’re not big enough and our content can be too hard or difficult [for some advertisers]. But we knew we could always get money from our readers because we’ve had a super loyal audience that’s very connected. That has been with us forever.”

The Times of London breaks from breaking news
For harder news sites, the challenge is different: News itself has become commoditized. In order to stand out in a crowded field, media companies are rediscovering the joys of differentiated content. British newspaper The Times is among them. The paper has seen subscriptions sales jump 200 percent in the last year, reports Jess Davies. The tipping point came when it pivoted from publishing on a breaking-news cycle to a digital editions-based publishing strategy a year ago.

Appointment reading helps too. “What has been revolutionary for us and editorial is that in changing to the editions’ publishing strategy and moving away from rolling news, we now have appointments to view with our subscribers and registered users that we didn’t have previously,” said Catherine Newman, chief marketing officer at The Times and Sunday Times.

What ever happened to the Guardian U.S.? 
Two years ago the Guardian’s U.S. operations were flying high. The paper had just won the highly coveted Pulitzer Prize for public service for their articles on NSA surveillance, a week after winning a Polk award for the same reporting. Emmy and Edward R. Murrow awards followed for its reporting on U.S. immigration and killings by police, respectively.

But the ebullient mood didn’t last. Today, the Guardian U.S. is flailing at best. Last summer, the Guardian said it would have to slash its U.S. staff by 30 percent, to 100. Last week, in another blow, staffers were told that costs would be cut by 20 percent.

So what happened? Lucia Moses has a rundown of how the paper’s fortunes took such a nosedive so quickly in the U.S.

“The key thing for the Guardian U.S. is, it’s not immune to what’s happening with every other premium publisher in the U.S.,” said Evelyn Webster, who became interim CEO of the Guardian U.S. in January, succeeding Eamonn Store. “The traditional display model is not going to continue to grow at the same pace it has historically. The ad market is changing, so the business model has got to change.”

The $100 million media company glass ceiling
There’s been a flood of venture capital into media — an estimated $15.6 billion in venture capital funding was put into digital media deals for the past three years, up from $4.5 billion the three years prior, according to research firm Preqin. The expectation is that at least some of these companies will make it to the $100-plus million revenue threshold that’s the arbitrary mark of a “scaled” media company.

Getting to that mark is hard. Business Insider didn’t get there before its Axel Springer deal. Of big digital media companies, the $100 million club is small by informed estimates that say it includes BuzzFeed, Vice Media, Vox Media, Refinery29, Huffington Post and Bleacher Report.

For men’s lifestyle player Complex Media, reaching $100 million was always a goal, said Rich Antoniello, CEO and founder. Verizon and Hearst teamed up to buy Complex in a deal valued at $250 million to $300 million in April. “Many look at it as a ‘proof point’ that the business can scale further and have significant longevity/viability because of foundational importance to the advertising community,” Antoniello said.

But only a few will get there. Lucia Moses breaks down the challenges.

“Most people hate ads”
In the latest edition of our popular Confessions series, in which we trade anonymity in exchange for honesty, our very own Shareen Pathak spoke with a disillusioned agency strategist, who laid his cards on the table.

What is the thing bugs you?
We all need to just be aware that most people hate advertisements. We sort of convince ourselves that the work we make is good. I think maybe two agencies make good work in this industry — you know, where you see an ad you actually enjoy. Everyone else doesn’t.

How does it happen?
We have this problem where our relationship with our clients has so many people whose entire job it is to interfere with a pure thought. I will forever believe that whatever the idea, even if it doesn’t immediately appeal to your business interest, it has merit. We’re so caught up with the stories we tell being so neat and tidy and conforming and servicing a person that they’re far removed from reality. It’s maddening.

There’s more where that comes from.

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