Media Briefing: Publishers’ Q1 earnings show promise, but also room for improvement

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Q1 is on the rise, but it’s not a rocket

Publishers’ Q1 earnings showed a lot of promise this year compared to last. But that doesn’t necessarily mean things are all right as rain when it comes to the ad market. 

For nearly all of the five public publishers included in this report, digital advertising grew in the first quarter of 2024, with the exception of BuzzFeed. Digital subscriptions revenue also fared well in the first three months of the year for the three publishers that report that revenue line: Gannett, Dow Jones and The New York Times. Meanwhile, licensing and commerce revenue were two boons for Dotdash Meredith in the quarter as well. 

And while many of the media leaders from these publications all expressed optimism in their ability to continue revenue increases in these business lines the remainder of the year, the general consensus is that it’ll take a lot of work to stay on top of these growth trends. 

“Advertiser spending is firming up. It’s not a hot market or on fire, but it’s better and it’s strengthening,” said Joey Levin, CEO of IAC, Dotdash Meredith’s parent company. 

By the numbers

BuzzFeed:

  • BuzzFeed’s total Q1 2024 revenue (excluding Complex, which was sold to NTWRK in February) fell 18% year over year to $44.8 million.
  • Advertising revenue experienced year-over-year declines of 22% to $21.4 million.
  • Content revenue declined 19% to $13.1 million in the first quarter 
  • Commerce and other revenues were $10.2 million, a 9% decline year over year.

Dotdash Meredith: 

  • Dotdash Meredith’s total revenue in Q1 2024 was $390.5 million, up 1% compared to Q1 2023.
  • Digital advertising revenue increased by 19% year over year to $132.9 million.
  • Licensing and other revenue increased 9% to $24.9 million thanks to better performance with content syndicators like Apple News. 
  • Affiliate commerce grew 18% year over year in Q1.

Dow Jones: 

  • Dow Jones’ total revenues were up 2.8% year over year to $544 million in the quarter (which was Q3 in parent company News Corp’s fiscal year 2024). 
  • Digital advertising revenue increased 4% to $54.2 million. 
  • Digital-only subscriptions to The Wall Street Journal grew 13% year over year to over 3.7 million subscriptions. 

Gannett:

  • Gannett’s total revenues in Q1 2024 were $635.8 million, a 5% decrease year over year.
  • Total digital-only paid subscriptions exceeded 2 million, growing 1.1% year over year. Revenue from digital-only subscriptions was $43.5 million in Q1, up 21.3% year over year.
  • Digital advertising revenues were $84.5 million, up 5.3% year over year.

The New York Times:

  • The New York Times Co’s total Q1 2024 revenue increased 5.9% to $594 million.
  • About 210,000 net new digital-only subscribers were added, totaling 9.9 million digital-only subscribers. This equalled $293 million, up 13.2% year over year.
  • Digital advertising revenues were up 2.9% year over year in Q1, totaling $63 million. 

Digital advertising revenue sees gains, but still not back to former highs

Digital advertising revenue in Q1 2024 looked pretty good compared to the first three months of 2023 – particularly in the programmatic space – but not when comparing the quarter to the same period in 2022. In fact, there is still quite a bit of ground to recover when compared to the highs of a couple years ago.  

Gannett was the only publisher to report two consecutive years of digital advertising growth in Q1, reaching a total of $84.5 million, up 5.3% year over year. 

Both BuzzFeed and Dotdash Meredith called out strength in programmatic advertising in the first quarter. 

“Q1 programmatic advertising revenues across the BuzzFeed and HuffPost websites and apps grew year over year for the third consecutive quarter,” said Jonah Peretti, CEO of BuzzFeed. The digital publisher’s advertising revenue was hit hard despite programmatic promises, however. This revenue stream equaled $21.4 million in Q1, a 22% decline year over year. The company does not specifically break out programmatic advertising revenue. 

DDM’s digital advertising revenue was up 19% year over year to $132.9 million, but that’s still 3.6% less than the $137.9 million it made on digital ads in Q1 2022. Levin said during the earnings call, “In programmatic, we believe we’re outperforming an improving market and that we’re doing better because of our superior tech stack and performance.” 

Dow Jones also reported digital ad revenue growth of 4% to $54.2 million during its Q3 of its fiscal year, per News Corp’s 10-Q SEC filing. The Wall Street Journal’s digital advertising specifically grew 12% year over year, said Susan Panuccio, News Corp’s CFO, during the earnings call. Compared to the $63.2 million this revenue stream generated during the same quarter of 2022, this represents a 14.2% decrease.  

The Times’ digital advertising revenue increased 3% to $63 million, in line with the publisher’s guidance for the quarter, according to CFO and evp William Bardeen. However, this revenue stream generated $67 million in Q1 2022. 

“We continue to feel the impact of some marketers avoiding certain hard news topics last quarter,” said Meredith Kopit Levien, CEO of The New York Times. “Even still, we’re seeing a pickup in advertiser demand so far in Q2.” 

Sticking with the subscription bundle model 

It was a healthy quarter for publishers’ digital subscriptions businesses, likely thanks to it being an election year for the news publishers that report this business line. But also because Dow Jones and The New York Times both seem to be finding success with converting readers to multi-product subscribers. 

The New York Times added 210,000 net new digital subscribers in the quarter, totalling more than 9.9 million digital-only subscribers. Much of that growth was led by bundle and multi-product subscribers, according to Kopit Levien, with that cohort of subscribers now representing 43% of the media company’s total subscriber base and more than half of the net new digital subscribers in the quarter. “We expect [bundle and multi-product subscribers] to surpass 50% by the end of next year,” she said. 

Total digital-only subscription revenue for the Times increased by about 13% to $293 million in the quarter while digital-only average revenue per user (ARPU) grew in Q1 by 1.9% year over year to $9.21, according to the earnings. 

“Our ability to successfully transition subscribers on promotional prices to higher prices is a durable driver of ARPU expansion and the primary reason we’re confident we’ll see continued ARPU growth this year,” said Kopit Levien.

Total digital-only subscriptions to Dow Jones’ whole consumer products portfolio surpassed 5 million during the first quarter of the calendar year. Digital-only subscriptions to The Wall Street Journal specifically grew 13% year over year to over 3.7 million subscriptions. 

Panuccio said that subscribers to more than one Dow Jones’s subscription product accounted for about 45% of the incremental digital-only volume growth in the quarter, representing about 14% of total subscriptions.  

Gannett’s total digital-only subscription base once again surpassed 2 million after falling below that threshold in Q2 2023. The company’s digital-only subscription revenues were up a whopping 21.3% year over year to $43.5 million, while ARPU for digital-only subscribers increased nearly just as much (22.4%) year over year to $7.22. 

Courting new commerce opportunities 

BuzzFeed’s strategy for recouping some lost revenue in the coming quarters is to get a cut of the retail media network market that’s been steadily sucking up more and more digital ad dollars for the past few years. 

Commerce and other revenue was down for BuzzFeed by 9% year over year to just $10.2 million, but Peretti said on the earnings call that he’s optimistic about leveraging the relationships the company has with retailers into additional revenue opportunities, thanks to its commerce business.  

“We are growing our retailer relationships by tapping into retail media network budgets. Very simply, as ad inventory grows, retailers are looking off site to sell ad units and BuzzFeed is a natural destination because we’re already an established partner,” said Peretti. “We’re able to capture a lot of really rich first-party data [from our commerce content] because we see what are people responding to.”

The Times does not report out specific revenue figures for affiliate commerce or Wirecutter, however the “other revenues” category increased 7.6% to $61.3 million in Q1, primarily due to higher licensing and Wirecutter affiliate referral revenues, per the earnings report. 

“Revenue beyond subscriptions and advertising exceeded guidance driven by a strong quarter for licensing and Wirecutter. We believe the value of Wirecutter’s rigorous research-backed recommendations will keep increasing and we’re investing to cover more products in more categories, which should build an even bigger business,” said Kopit Levien. 

Looking ahead to Q2 and beyond

BuzzFeed’s Q2 is expected to benefit from the $23 million cost savings that occurred when the company laid off 16% of its staff in February. The company also underwent a reverse stock split in April in an effort to avoid being delisted from the Nasdaq. 

While Matthew Omer, BuzzFeed’s CFO, said during the earnings call that the restructure and savings should help to alleviate some of the financial pressures the company is under, overall revenues in Q2 are expected to be down 21-30% year over year in the range of $44 to $49 million. Adjusted EBITA will be in the range of $4 million in losses to $1 million in profits, he added.

“Building on Q1 momentum in direct traffic and programmatic revenues, as we lap the deprecation of Facebook Instant Articles and the closure of BuzzFeed News, we expect overall programmatic advertising revenue to return to modest year-over-year growth in Q2. However, we do expect ongoing pressure on the direct sales channel and lower third-party platform monetization to continue to impact year over year growth and overall revenue,” said Omer. 

DDM is expecting to have 10-plus percent total revenue growth each quarter through the remainder of the year, according to its earnings. Gannett on the other hand is expected to be down in the low- to mid-single digit range for total revenue for the full year of 2024. 

The Times is expecting total subscription revenue to increase 6-8% year over year in Q2, while digital-only subscription revenue is expected to increase 11-14% year over year, according to Bardeen. Advertising is expected to grow as well next quarter, but more measured. Total ad revenues are expected to increase “low single digits” percent year over year in Q2, while digital advertising revenues are expected to increase “high single digits” percent, he added.

“I’ll close by noting that due to our strong Q1 profit performance, we now expect our [annual operating plan] and earnings growth in 2024 to no longer be back half weighted,” said Bardeen.

What we’ve heard

“Now that Complex and NTWRK have merged, our business is actually majority commerce. Commerce is far larger than advertising, which makes us a unique company in the digital media landscape. Complex’s previous makeup of … 90-plus percent digital advertising driven, now that’s less than 50% for us.”

Aaron Levant, CEO of Complex NTWRK

Publishers aren’t sold on TikTok Shop

Despite the success they’ve had with branded content on TikTok, publishers aren’t going all-in on TikTok Shop.

For example, revenue from brand sponsorships and integrations on TikTok has grown 40% year over year for Gallery Media Group, according to the company’s CRO Chris Anthony. But even though TikTok Shop launched nearly a year ago, GMG isn’t putting a lot of resources into the marketplace just yet. And according to social media execs at Daily Mail and BDG, they’re not alone.

Phil Harvey, head of social video at the Daily Mail, told Digiday that his team is experimenting with TikTok Shop on its fashion brands but so far, sales haven’t taken off.

“It’s an exciting space to be in. TikTok tells us the average basket I believe is 40 bucks. [That’s] crazy for a platform that is quite impulsive by its nature. And it goes to show that people are consuming, they are spending money at these places,” Harvey said. But he added, “We’ve seen more success with branded content than we have with affiliate sales.” As of mid-April, Daily Mail had sold eight brand deals for TikTok in the last 30 days. He did not say how many sales Daily Mail has made in TikTok Shop.

Gallery Media Group is making some affiliate revenue on TikTok, but it is mostly coming from Amazon through links on single product review videos versus TikTok Shop, according to Emily Kerr, svp of content and growth at GMG. Kerr is waiting for TikTok to integrate more brands and products into the TikTok Shop marketplace to become more competitive with Amazon, she said.

One of the “biggest wins” the GMG team has seen on TikTok Shop so far is sales of a vegetable chopper, Kerr added – and what works better than first-person product reviews are entertainment-style videos to convert viewers. She declined to share how many vegetable choppers have been sold through Shop to date.

Anthony added that products focusing on food and beverage or “kitchen hacks” have some of the highest engagement on TikTok Shop, with some products attracting over 20,000 click throughs. He declined to share how much revenue this was bringing in.

Meanwhile, BDG hasn’t created a TikTok Shop at all. Wes Bonner, svp of marketing and audience development and head of social at BDG, said his team is focused on creating short-form video content to help market and sell a brand’s products, rather than sell those products themselves.

“I think [if advertisers] are sophisticated enough to be leveraging TikTok Shop for their own brands and running their own content programs, creator programs, advertising – a lot of times they think publishers could muddy that conversation or that process for them. It hasn’t been a very successful pitch for us,” Bonner said. — Sara Guaglione

What we’ve covered

Gannett’s new contract language around AI unsettles local union:

  • In recent contract negotiations with parent company Gannett, a local newsroom union is fighting over the extent to which generative AI will be used for news content generation.
  • On April 24, union members of the daily Democrat & Chronicle newspaper in Rochester, New York, noticed an unexpected change in a clause around the use of artificial intelligence in a contract draft sent by Gannett.

Read more about the contract wording changes here.

How FootballCo’s Jason Wagenheim is appealing to ‘soccer curious’ advertisers in the U.S.:

  • Formed in 2020 after TPG bought Goal.com from DAZN, FootballCo has been steadily growing an international audience of soccer fans across its portfolio of nine brands.
  • But this year, FootballCo is making a concerted effort to appeal to the burgeoning fandom of U.S.-based soccer enthusiasts under the leadership of Jason Wagenheim, CEO, North America.

Listen to the latest episode of the Digiday Podcast here.

Generative AI and search are becoming increasingly intertwined — and top of mind:

  • At this week’s Google I/O 2024, many marketers will be tuning in for any updates on the future of generative AI and search.
  • As conversations with chatbots becomes more commonplace, generative AI will evolve SEO by challenging brands to optimize for natural language and accuracy instead of key words.

Learn more about the role of generative AI in search here.

Podcast ad revenue growth slows, but networks and ad platforms pitch new content and ad buying tools at IAB Podcast Upfront:

  • Despite a slowdown in podcast ad revenue growth, podcast networks and ad platforms took to the stage Thursday at the IAB’s annual Podcast Upfront held in New York City.
  • The networks talk up new show launches, improvements in measurement and ad targeting and reaching audiences beyond audio platforms with video.

See the latest developments in podcast advertising here.

What we’re reading

This is how OpenAI is pitching publishers on content licensing deals:

According to a leaked pitch deck obtained by Adweek, generative AI tech company OpenAI has been courting publishers been courting premium publishers for its Preferred Publishers Program since July 2023. The program consists of five components, but deals are crafted specifically for each individual publisher.

Vice Media is bringing back its digital brands:

In partnership with Savage Ventures, Vice Media will relaunch its Vice, Munchies, Motherboard and Noisey websites, according to a report by Axios. Savage will be investing tens of millions of dollars into the deal.

A billionaire tech critic wants to buy TikTok:

Frank McCourt, founder of tech and innovation initiative Project Liberty, told Semafor that he is planning to throw his hat in the ring to buy TikTok, if the social platform’s owner, ByteDance, decides to sell it in the U.S.

The Messenger’s fallen CEO is plotting his comeback:

Jimmy Finkelstein, former founder and CEO of the now-defunct digital publisher The Messenger, is on the hunt for his next media project, according to The Daily Beast.

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