In graphic detail: Publishers’ full year 2022 earnings

Publishers’ high hopes for 2022 were brought down to earth about halfway through the year.

The first revenue stream that felt the impact of the economic downturn was advertising, but by the end of the year, subscriptions began to slow and some publishers reported dips in consumer revenue streams, like affiliate commerce. 

Below are some insights we’ve gathered from six public publishers’ most recent earnings reports, most of which for the full year 2023 (News Corp’s Dow Jones/WSJ reports on its fiscal year, which runs July 1 – June 30).

Revenue comparisons

As stated, 2022 wasn’t a boon for most publishers, especially when comparing pro forma revenues for those players that participated in the M&A race in 2021.

The publishers that experienced decreases in total revenue year over year — BuzzFeed, Dotdash Meredith and Gannett — range between 8.2% and 17.9%. This is pretty much the mirror experience to the three publishers that reported year over year growth in their total revenue — Dow Jones, The Arena Group and The New York Times — with a range was between 8.1% to 17.7%. In fact, if you take the median year over year change in these six publishers’ total revenue, the industry nets out relatively flat — up 0.05% from last year’s total revenue.

This could likely be attributed to both cutting costs measures that came in the form of layoffs or selling off real estate, as well as sales teams bending over backwards to keep advertisers happy during yet another economic downturn — tactics learned during the early months of the pandemic.

Piece of the pie

Comparing to the revenue break downs in 2021, advertising became a slightly smaller portion of publishers’ pies.

The New York Times’ advertising business lost 2% worth of share, which was absorbed by subscriptions. BuzzFeed’s display and pre-roll advertising business became less than half of its business last year, while its branded content and custom business increased its share by about 5% — not surprising given how average programmatic CPMs decreased steadily in 2022. Dotdash Meredith saw a continued shift toward digital revenue, but print still makes up the lion’s share of the publishers’ revenue in 2022.

Gannett, however, saw a slight increase in advertising revenue in 2022, while subscriptions dropped slightly. The Arena Group saw its digital advertising business increase by 74%, due primarily to a 47% increase in monthly average page views and a 13% increase in RPM, according to the company’s earnings report. What’s more, 80% of the total digital revenue increase was attributed to organic growth, a true outlier in the media industry.

Subscription slow down

Looking at the last couple of quarters of 2022, news publishers saw a slow down in the number of net new subscriptions, seen especially in Gannett and The Wall Street Journal’s businesses.

There has been an on going return to normality following the first year of the pandemic, where readers were paying more for news content and subscription services in general while spending more time in their homes, according to Piano’s evp of strategy and social, Michael Silberman. [Editor’s note: Piano is a contracted vendor with Digiday.]

But the current economic downturn also has readers re-balancing their budgets again and getting more bang for their buck may be what convinces paying subscribers to renew their subscriptions this year.

News Corp.’s CEO Robert Thomson said during the company’s latest earnings call that News Corp. will be “increasing the emphasis on upselling subscriptions with the bundling of Market Watch, the WSJ, IBD and Barron’s,” a strategy that has proven to work for other publishers, like The New York Times.

Commerce comeback

After a soft start to the year, BuzzFeed’s commerce business ended up rebounding nicely in the fourth quarter, ultimately surpassing 2021’s total revenue of $61.6 million and ending the year at $68.1 million.

But that Q4 spike in revenue was primarily due to ComplexCon, BuzzFeed Inc’s marquee in-person shopping event, which place Nov. 19-20 last year, according to the company’s CFO Felicia DellaFortuna, during its Q4 earnings call.

BuzzFeed has spent the past couple of years trying to revise its commerce business, launching its BuzzFeed Shopping vertical in early 2021, as well as experimenting with livestream shopping that same year, but as CEO Jonah Peretti said during the company’s most recent earnings call, “it takes time to ramp monetization of newer content formats.”

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