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Media Briefing: Publishers’ Q3 earnings reports show promise, but not without sacrifice

This week’s Media Briefing takes a look at publishers’ Q3 earnings reports, which show that despite hard economic conditions, optimism is still in the air.

  • Silver linings in Q3
  • Layoff season
  • Recurrent Ventures signals distress from within, Insider’s Union blocks new paywall strategy and more

Silver linings in Q3

The key hits:

  • Just like Q2 2022, half of the publicly traded publishers in this roundup experienced a decrease in total revenue or pro forma revenue (the measurement used to compare the businesses’ performance pre- and post-acquisition) in Q3. 
  • Advertising revenue isn’t as down as anticipated. 
  • Subscriptions remain a stable area of growth for most publishers. 

Accepting the fate of decreased advertising revenues and finding ways to brace against those headwinds have seemed to change the tune that many publishing executives were singing going into the third quarter earnings season. 

While Q2 2022 earnings calls felt pessimistic, this round of calls acknowledged the impacts to business while also showing signs of hope for getting through the end of the year and beginning of 2023 on somewhat stronger footing.

“We believe that peak decline… from a year-over-year perspective, is now behind us,” said Michael Reed, CEO and chairman of Gannett during the company’s third quarter earnings call on Thursday.

Meanwhile, IAC’s CFO Christopher Halpin said his team is “accepting a choppy [ad market] through the rest of the year,” during the company’s Q3 earnings call, but is hopeful that following the completed process of onboarding Meredith’s sites to Dotdash’s tech stack, traffic (and in turn advertising and commerce revenues) will start increasing once again — “provided the economy and market do not substantially soften” in the meantime, added IAC’s CEO Joey Levin in a letter to shareholders.

Digging into the results of the third quarter, it’s clear that advertising is still taking hits, but publishers are diversifying their revenue streams, cutting costs wherever possible and putting their money behind areas of the business that have the most revenue potential.

By the numbers: 

  • BuzzFeed’s pro forma revenue was down again this quarter, dropping about 12% from $118.6 million earned in Q3 2021 to $104 million earned in Q3 2022. 
  • IAC’s Dotdash Meredith saw a decrease in pro forma revenue of 19% from Q3 2021, from $467.1 million to $579.1 million, due to a 13% decline in digital revenue.
  • Gannett’s total revenue was $717.9 million, a 10.3% decrease from Q3 2021, thanks in part to digital revenues falling 2.3% year-over-year.
  • New Corp’s Dow Jones total quarterly revenues reached $515 million, a 16% increase from $444 million in the same period the year prior.   
  • The Arena Group earned $66.7 million in Q3, a 12% increase year-over-year, with digital advertising revenue specifically increasing 56% from $18.3 million to $28.5 million year-over-year.
  • The New York Times Company’s total Q3 2022 revenue increased 7.6% to $547.7 million with digital ad revenue in the quarter increasing 4.9.% to $70.3 million, year-over-year. 

Advertising is shaking but still standing

Gannett and Dotdash Meredith both took hits to advertising revenue again this quarter. 

Gannett’s digital advertising business was down 24.8% year-over-year, thanks to a “softer programmatic advertising market” in the third quarter, according to Doug Horne, Gannett’s chief financial officer.

Meanwhile, Dotdash Meredith’s pro forma digital revenues (which encompasses digital advertising) were down 13% from $252.7 million in Q3 2021 to $220.7 million Q3 2022. 

Advertising revenue was flat for BuzzFeed, at $50.4 million in Q3 2022 compared to $50.2 in Q3 2021, per the company’s Q3 2022 investor letter. And although advertising revenue growth decelerated from $53.2 million in Q2, it is an improvement over the 5% decline year-over-year that this revenue stream experienced last quarter as well.

News Corp’s Dow Jones is still experiencing revenue growth in its advertising business, but it’s slowing down.

Last quarterly earnings, which was News Corp’s fourth quarter for its 2022 fiscal year, Dow Jones experienced a 13% increase in advertising revenue year-over-year with digital advertising revenue specifically increasing by 16%. According to the company’s Q1 2023 earnings report, total advertising revenues for Dow Jones only increased by 4% year-over-year with an 11% growth in digital advertising revenues.

On an even brighter note, The New York Times Company’s digital advertising revenues increased this quarter by 4.9% to $70.3 million, representing 63.6% of the company’s total ad revenue. Last quarter, the company experienced a 2.4% decrease in this revenue stream, attributed to the challenging macroeconomic environment and advertisers not wanting to be next to news coverage.

The Arena Group also experienced an increase in digital advertising revenue of 56% from $18.3 million to $28.5 million year-over-year, due to a 32% increase in monthly average pageviews and a 10% increase in revenue per pageview, according to the company’s Q3 earnings release. Despite several acquisitions, the company did not report pro forma revenue in its Q3 earnings.

Subscriptions are steady

Gannett, Dow Jones and The New York Times all reported increases to their subscription businesses again this quarter, indicating that consumers are still willing to pay for news despite the strains on individual spending.

For Dow Jones, publisher of The Wall Street Journal, digital subscriptions represented 68% of the company’s total circulation revenue, up from 66% the year prior. Subscriptions to Dow Jones’ consumer products grew 13% in the quarter while digital-only subscriptions to The Wall Street Journal reached an average of 3.1 million subscriptions — a 13% increase year-over-year.

Gannett’s digital-only paid subscribers grew by 28.5% year-over-year to 1.98 million, representing $34.5 million, a 34.5% increase from Q3 2021. As of October, the publisher surpassed 2 million, making it a third of the way to its 6 million digital-only subscriber goal by 2025.

The New York Times Co. saw a 22.8% increase in digital-only subscription revenue, reaching $243.9 million. This comes from a total of 8.59 million digital subscribers, with the addition of 180,000 digital-only subscribers specifically in the third quarter.

Looking to other avenues 

Time spent by audiences on BuzzFeed content declined by 32% year-over-year to 151 million hours across both the company’s owned-and-operated properties as well as third-party platforms.

“The significant majority of our advertising revenues are driven by time spent on our owned-and operated-properties,” said BuzzFeed’s CFO Felicia DellaFortuna during the company’s third quarter earnings call. “Although we expect time spent to again be impacted by the ongoing traffic declines on Facebook … we are focused on building further momentum with short-form vertical video cross platform as we continue to lay the groundwork for future monetization.”

BuzzFeed Inc CEO Jonah Peretti claimed that the company published over 5,000 short-form vertical videos across Instagram Reels, YouTube Shorts and TikTok in the third quarter — with views of this content increasing by more than 60% across those platforms in Q3 versus Q2. While diving head-first into short-form video is appealing from an audience perspective, monetization capabilities aren’t quite there yet, making this an early bet for BuzzFeed.

Meanwhile, commerce revenue was back up for BuzzFeed in the third quarter, increasing 12% year-over-year to $14.9 million, thanks to Amazon Prime Day taking place in July this year, versus June.

While this quarter may not have been as grim as anticipated, everything must be taken with a grain of salt. Cost cutting was another significant trend last quarter, and is spilling into the fourth quarter as well. Layoffs (see below) are becoming a regular occurrence and publishers ranging from Gannett to BuzzFeed talked about “preserving cash” and cutting operational costs in their earnings calls as well.

What we’ve heard

“Everybody cut spending and we probably lost to the tune of $20-25 million [in advertising revenue] between Q3 and Q4 because of the supply chain issues.”

An anonymous media exec on the impacts to advertising revenue in 2021

Layoff season

After another quarter of disappointing earnings results due to a downward trend in ad revenue and consumer spending, layoffs are hitting publishers this month after waves of cost-cutting this summer and fall.

The economy is “likely to get worse” so companies are “bracing for that and watching costs,” said Craig Huber, media analyst and founder of research and advisory firm Huber Research Partners. More belt-tightening is to be expected, he added. – Sara Guaglione

Here are the layoffs that were made public in November so far:

Outside

Outside Media’s CEO Robin Thurston announced on Nov. 15 that it was letting go of 12% of its staff, Adweek reported on Wednesday, hitting content and editorial roles the hardest. The lifestyle publisher laid off 15% of its employees in May.

Protocol

The tech news website founded by former Politico owner Robert Allbritton in 2020 is shutting down, CNN first reported on Tuesday. About 60 people will lose their jobs as a result, though they will remain active paid employees through Dec. 16, at which point they will be eligible for eight weeks of severance.

Vice Media Group

Last week, Vice Media Group let go about a dozen editorial and news employees, representing roughly 2% of its news staff, Deadline first reported. A person inside Vice Media told Digiday the cuts were a result of the consolidation of the digital news team, following the promotion of Cory Haik from head of digital to chief operating officer, news and entertainment. The person Digiday spoke with said the company is also being mindful of costs given the economic climate. Vice Media declined to comment.

Recount 

Last week, Axios reported another round of layoffs had hit video news startup Recount, leaving the company with just 12 staffers. In May, the company had cut its headcount of about 75 in half — then cut that by half again in October.

BDG

On Nov. 4, BDG sunset its part-time model, Adweek reported. While “dozens” of part-time writers at its lifestyle titles will transition to become full-timers, a number of positions are being eliminated. BDG’s union, which also represents part-time workers, issued a statement saying they were “very disappointed in BDG’s decision to eliminate the roles of 21 of our colleagues.”

This comes after BDG let go of 19 employees in September, a result of the company deciding to shutter its tech and culture title Input and reduce headcount at pop culture site Mic.

Additionally, these layoffs are expected before the end of the year:

CNN

In an all-hands meeting on Tuesday, CNN CEO Chris Licht said layoffs would hit the news organization in early December, Insider reported, though they are not expected to impact CNN Digital. The news came a few weeks after CNBC reported CNN’s parent company Warner Bros. Discovery would let go of over 1,000 people before the end of the year. 

Insider

A Intelligencer profile on Axel Springer’s CEO revealed the company is planning a round of layoffs at Insider soon. An Insider spokesperson did not immediately respond to an email asking for that timeline.

Numbers to know

17%: The percentage of 73 respondents to Digiday’s survey who said they agree somewhat or strongly that they plan to discount subscription prices more aggressively due to the state of the economy, compared with 35% who said they disagree somewhat or strongly.

<3 years: The life span of Protocol, Robert Allbritton’s tech news website, which was launched at the beginning of 2020.

15%: The amount of money Vice Media’ CEO Nancy Dubuc is planning to cut from the company’s operational costs this quarter, by issuing hiring freezes, reducing travel and expenses budgets and reducing operational and production costs.

What we’ve covered

Pizza Hut helps Barstool Sports take on college basketball with the goal of expansion: 

  • Barstool is hosting a college basketball tournament named Barstool Sports Basketball Invitational, which Pizza Hut is sponsoring.
  • Barstool and Pizza Hut conducted a social media campaign to promote the tournament, including promoting it with short-form videos on TikTok, YouTube and Instagram.

Read more about Barstool Sports’ tournament here

How Bleacher Report is using animation to differentiate its World Cup coverage:

  • Bleacher Report is creating animated videos to join the conversations around the FIFA World Cup 2022 in Qatar later this month – with a unique, satirical spin. 
  • The publisher will have a special episode of its popular animated series “The Champions,” as well as a new, shorter-format show called “Champions Chat” and quick skits to keep up with the games.

Read more about B/R’s animated programming here

Vox’s short-form video strategy faces TikTok’s monetization issue, but fulfills publisher’s ‘civic duty’:

  • Vox Media’s video ambitions have been ongoing for a number of years now, but short-form, vertical video is still a nut the publisher has yet to crack from a revenue perspective.
  • After a year-long hiatus from TikTok, short-form videos are increasingly returning to Vox’s video mix, as the publisher aims to grow its younger audience and debunk misinformation that circulates on those platforms.

Read more about Vox’s short-form video strategy here

Why media investors are saying publishing company VC funding slowdown is a good thing:

  • During the pandemic, VC money was getting thrown into the market and competing for opportunities for investment. Now, the VC market is correcting itself. 
  • Company valuations are down and less competition means smaller VC firms can be more deliberate with their investments. However, this also means it’ll be more difficult for media companies looking to raise capital to do so.

Learn more about the state of VC funding in the media industry here

What we’re reading

Recurrent Ventures is in a precarious position: 

Recurrent Ventures’ staff is still reeling after the surprise shutdown of MEL Magazine and a round of 52 layoffs this past summer, but given how fast the private-equity backed media company acquired new publications, it was a “JENGA house” on the verge of collapse, according to Insider.

Insider’s union is pushing back against the publisher’s paywall pivot: 

Insider planned to move the work of about 60 reporters out from behind its paywall to increase the amount of traffic the publisher generated, but because this changes the editorial goals of dozens of reporters, the publisher’s union is fighting the changes, reported Adweek.

CVC Capital Partners and Group Black are banding together to buy Vox Media

CVC and media collective Group Black sent Vox a term sheet last week outlining details for a potential deal, according to Axios. Vox is not looking to sell the business at the moment, but in 2015, the company was valued at around $1 billion after a $200 million funding round.

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