Media Briefing: Publishers’ Q4 earnings paint a gloomy picture of 2023

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Update: This story has been updated to include BuzzFeed’s revenue generated from the discontinued operations.

Only place to go is up

During a fairly positive Q1, some publishers released their Q4 earnings reports, reminding the industry that ad revenue may be on the come-up, but it’s based on a new low set in 2023.

Gannett, IAC, News Corp and The New York Times released their Q4 and full year 2023 earnings this month and rather than waiting for the remaining stragglers (ahem, The Arena Group and BuzzFeed), below is a look at how the four public media companies performed in the final quarter of 2023, as well as some of their full year performances.

While BuzzFeed has not released its fourth quarter earnings yet, some information regarding the company’s performance was included in the press release for the sale of Complex, which was announced on Feb 21. The company’s Q4 and full year 2023 earnings will be published on March 25. 

By the numbers

BuzzFeed:

  • BuzzFeed’s total revenue in Q4 is now expected to be between $73 million to $78 million on a continuing operations basis and revenue generated from the discontinued operation is expected to be $14 million to $18 million. That’s a decrease from the company’s financial outlook of $99 million to $110 million, which was shared during its Q3 earnings release on Nov. 2, 2023.

Dotdash Meredith:

  • Total revenue in 2023 was just under $1.7 billion, down about 12% year over year, from the $1.9 billion in 2022. 
  • Total Q4 2023 revenue was $475.9 million, roughly flat year over year to the $477.6 million generated in Q4 2022. 

Dow Jones (fiscal year second quarter): 

  • Total revenue was $584 million, up 4% year over year from $563 million in fiscal Q2 2023. 

Gannett: 

  • Total full-year revenue was just shy of $2.7 billion in 2023, down 10% year over year from $2.9 billion in 2022. 
  • Guidance for full year revenue in 2023, according to the company’s full year 2022 earnings, estimated total revenue would be between $2.75 billion to $2.80 billion. The company was short by 1.8% this year.
  • Total Q4 revenue was $669.4 million, down 8.4% from $730.7 million in Q4 2022.

The New York Times Company: 

  • The New York Times Company’s total revenue (including The Athletic) in 2023 was $2.4 billion, up 5.1% year over year from 2022’s total revenue of $2.3 billion.
  • Total revenue in Q4 2023 was $676.2 million, roughly flat compared to Q4 2022.

Advertising nosedive 

Based on Dotdash Meredith’s, Gannett’s and The New York Times’ full-year earnings reports, the ad market in 2023 was just about as bad as it felt.  

Gannett’s full year advertising revenue fell by about 7.3% from about $1.5 billion in 2022 to $1.4 billion in 2023. The company’s total digital advertising and marketing services revenue in 2023 was less impacted, but still declined by 1.8% year over year from $825.3 million in 2022 to $810.6 in 2023.

The New York Times Company’s total advertising revenue was down 3.5% year over year from $523 million in 2022 to $505 million in 2023. Digital advertising revenue also fared slightly better, falling only 0.2% year over year from $318.4 million in 2022 to $317.7 million in 2023.

Dotdash Meredith’s total digital advertising revenue was down almost 10% year over year, hitting $560.8 million in 2023 from $621.7 million in 2022. The company did not break out its total combined print and digital advertising revenue. 

During the final quarter of 2023, Dotdash Meredith was able to turn around the narrative, however, and its digital advertising revenue increased by 3.7% year over year, totaling $185.5 million in the quarter. 

Gannett and The New York Times sang similarly sobering tunes in Q4, however. Gannett’s digital advertising and marketing services totaled $211 million in Q4 2023, down 5.2% year over year from $222.6 million in Q4 2022. The New York Times Co.’s digital ad sales fell by 3.7% to $107.7 million in Q4 2023, from $111.9 million in Q4 2022.

Dow Jones’s total advertising revenues declined 4% year over year to $126 million in Q2 2024. However, the company’s digital advertising, which accounted for 62% of total ad revenue in the quarter, grew 1% year over year. Print advertising on the other hand fell 11% year over year.

Strength in subscriptions 

Similar to past quarters, subscriptions have proven to be the safety nets for the quarter. 

Dow Jones’ total circulation and subscription revenue increased by 6% year over year to $441 million in Q2 2024, largely due to growth in digital-only subscriptions, which represents 70% of the company’s total circulation.

Within that, total subscriptions to The Wall Street Journal grew 7% year over year to almost 4.1 million average subscriptions in the quarter. Digital-only subscriptions to WSJ grew 11% to over 3.55 million average subscriptions in the quarter, representing 87% of WSJ’s total subscriptions. WSJ’s digital subscription base increased 2.6% quarter over quarter from 3.46 million in Q1 2024.

The New York Times Company’s total digital-only subscriber base increased by 9.9% year over year from 8.8 million subscribers in Q4 2022 to 9.7 million in Q4 2023. Compared to the previous quarter, the digital-only subscriber base increased 3.1% from about 9.4 million in Q3 2023.

The Times’ bundle offering continued to win over new subscribers in Q4. Total bundle subscribers increased 68.8% year over year from 2.5 million in Q4 2022 to about 4.2 million in Q4 2023. That was also up about 11.3% from Q3 2023, which had a total of about 3.8 million subscribers to the bundle. 

While the Times’ average revenue per user for the bundle fell from $15.20 in Q4 2022 to $12.13 in Q4 2023, the ARPU for the entire digital-only subscriber base increased year over year from $8.93 to $9.24 during that same period. 

Gannett also reported a return to digital subscription growth in Q4. After three back-to-back quarters of total digital subscription base declines, the news publisher’s total digital-only subscriptions hit 1.99 million in Q4, representing a small 1.5% lift quarter over quarter from 1.96 million in Q3. Q4 2023’s total is still lower than the 2.03 million digital-only subscribers Gannett had in Q4 2022 and the 2.02 million in Q1 2023, however. 

Digital-only subscription revenue for Gannett increased 18.3% year over year to $41.9 million in Q4 2023. Digital-only subscriber ARPU was $7.05, up 19.5% year over year from $5.90 in Q4 2022. Up 3.4% quarter over quarter from $6.82 in Q3 2023. 

Looking ahead to 2024 

The consensus seems to be that it can’t get worse than the past year; therefore, the publishers’ predictions for Q1 and the remainder of 2024 look fairly positive.

Looking ahead, BuzzFeed is receiving an all-cash sum of $108.6 million for Complex as well as an additional $5.7 million for the use of the company’s New York offices, severance and other employment-related costs, which is expected to help with the company’s profitability. 

BuzzFeed is also reducing its workforce by 16%, which is expected to save $23 million in annualized compensation. (More on the reductions below).

The Times’ revenue and costs guidance for Q1 2024, compared to Q1 2023, include an increase of 11-14% in digital only-subscription revenues and a 7-9% increase for total subscription revenues. Digital ad revenue is expected to grow by low- to high-single-digits while total advertising in the first quarter will decrease in mid-single-digits. 

For Dotdash Meredith, throughout 2024, digital revenue is expected to grow by 10% or more year over year while print revenue is expected to decline by about 12%, particularly in the first half of the year, according to IAC CFO and COO Christopher Halpin during the company’s earnings call on Wednesday, Feb. 14.

What we’ve heard

“When you look at how brands have invested marketing dollars to diverse consumers, right now they invest about 5% of their budgets … [but] I believe [they’ve] created a new floor, not a ceiling, for [how] diverse marketing is moving forward.”

Parker Morse, CEO and founder of My Code, on the latest episode of the Digiday Podcast

BuzzFeed begins another round of layoffs

A week after BuzzFeed Inc. announced it was planning a cost-cutting “strategic restructuring” that would reduce its workforce by 16% to save about $23 million, the company began informing affected employees on Wednesday.

The Complex employees who didn’t get an offer from NTWRK – the e-commerce company that acquired Complex last week in a $108.6 million all-cash deal – were part of the layoffs today, according to a BuzzFeed executive, who spoke on condition of anonymity. Last week, NTWRK co-founder and CEO Aaron Levant told Digiday that over 85% of Complex’s more than 100 employees will stay with the company.

All the employees offered a job at NTWRK agreed to move to the new company, the BuzzFeed executive said. They said most of those being let go from Complex were on the business and admin teams. However, some key Complex employees who didn’t get an offer from NTWRK were staying at BuzzFeed, they added. The executive didn’t know how many people were impacted by the layoffs on Wednesday.

A BuzzFeed spokesperson declined to answer questions about how many people were being let go as part of the restructuring and declined to share any further details about the layoffs on Wednesday.

The last time BuzzFeed did a big round of layoffs was when it shuttered BuzzFeed News last April and let go of 15% of the company – about 180 staffers. This layoff will likely impact roughly 160 employees, based on BuzzFeed’s workforce of around 1,000 employees.

Last week, BuzzFeed gave a disappointing preview of its fourth quarter 2023 financial results (see above). BuzzFeed CFO Matt Omer said in a statement last week that Q4 revenue was impacted by lower event sponsorship revenues and a challenging ad market, leading to the company’s decision to reduce its headcount.

Doug Arthur, managing director at media research and advisory firm Huber Research Partners, said when a company is suffering from debt and a lack of revenue growth, “the only option is to slash costs.”

BuzzFeed has about $150 million of debt obligations, according to public filings. – Sara Guaglione

Numbers to know

3: The number of stories that publishers have to publish using Google’s unreleased suite of generative AI tools to receive monthly stipends totaling five-figures annually.

>100: The number of Vice Media employees that will be laid off after an announcement that the company will no longer publish content on Vice.com.

£30 million: The amount of money that the Financial Times has dedicated to its new venture arm called FT Ventures, which will invest in high-growth media and tech companies. 

$2.3 billion: The amount of money 32 media groups, including Axel Springer, are suing Google’s parent company Alphabet for in a new lawsuit alleging financial losses caused by the platform giant’s digital advertising practices.

What we’ve covered

How much can states regulate social media? The Supreme Court hears cases for and against: 

  • Can states limit how social media companies can moderate content? That’s once again up for consideration in the U.S. Supreme Court.
  • The Supreme Court unanimously sided with the tech companies, but chose not to address the scope of Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which also came up plenty in state law discussions. 

Read more about the SCOTUS case here.

Media buyers weigh the sledgehammer or the scalpel approach to MFA classification 

  • Some consultancies and verification firms have taken the initiative to try and create more clarity in different manners.
  • When Digiday asked five media buyers which methodology — the sledgehammer or the scalpel — was winning them over, most buyers said that both options had to be approached with caution while the panic was still settling. 

Learn more about the different approaches to cutting out MFAs from media buys here.

The Trade Desk’s take on the next year in ad tech:

  • Media buyers and publishers yesterday packed the halls of New York’s The Times Center, where The Trade Desk laid out its vision for alternatives to third-party cookies.
  • The Trade Desk CEO Jeff Green was quizzed on whether or not the evolving dynamics between marketers, media agencies and tech platforms meant they may go “more client direct” in future?

Read The Rundown from The Trade Desk’s recent event here

Why media companies are pushing podcasts at SXSW ‘Trojan-horse style’: 

  • Some media companies plan to put the spotlight on their podcasts at SXSW next month by hosting multi-day programming, consumer activations and networking events for clients in a bid to land business from new advertisers this year.
  • And after a tough 2023, media companies are hungry for new podcast advertisers given ad slowdowns, stiff competition and other challenges in the medium.

See how podcast publishers are showing up at SXSW here

Watermarking AI content doesn’t go far enough, researchers warn:

  • As the tech industry rallies around watermarking AI-generated content and other commitments, some experts warn more work needs to be done.
  • Researchers suggest popular methods for disclosing and detecting AI content aren’t effective enough to prevent risks related to AI-generated misinformation.

Read the latest edition of Digiday’s AI Briefing here

What we’re reading

OpenAI accuses The New York Times of hacking ChatGPT: 

ChatGPT’s parent company asked a federal judge to dismiss parts of the Times’ suit against OpenAI because they violated the generative AI company’s terms of use to build their copyright case, according to Reuters.

More publishers sue OpenAI:

Following The New York Times’ lead, two lawsuits were filed against OpenAI by three progressive media companies, The Daily Beast reported. Raw Story and AlterNet filed a joint suit against the AI company and a second suit was filed by The Intercept. 

The cost of keeping a digital archive: 

Following the report last week that Vice was no longer going to be publishing content on its website, employees scrambled to try and download and archive their work. In this age of regular shuttering of digital media companies, Slate wrote that the concern that in a blink of an eye, journalists will no longer have access to their portfolio of work, is widespread.

Suitors emerge to scoop up the rights to publish Sports Illustrated:

After The Arena Group failed to pay Authentic Brands Group for the SI publishing license last month, several suitors have raised their hands to acquire the rights, Axios reports. Former CNN CEO Jeff Zucker’s investment firm RedBird IMI, Minute Media and now Vox Media are all in conversations with Authentic, however Arena is still said to be negotiating to keep those rights.

News publishers need to reinvent themselves, according to Kara Swisher: 

In a sit down with CNN, Kara Swisher said that many of the ails of the media industry are actually the fault of the media industry and therefore a shift needs to be made in order to stay alive.

https://digiday.com/?p=536390

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