Media Briefing: Q1 is done and publishers’ ad revenue is doing ‘fine’

This Media Briefing covers the latest in media trends for Digiday+ members and is distributed over email every Thursday at 10 a.m. ET. More from the series →

Q1 advertising recap

Despite the hope that 2024 would be a turning point for publishers’ advertising businesses, the first quarter of the year proved to be a mixed bag, according to three publishers.

While programmatic CPMs on average trended up as the first three months of the year progressed, the direct-sold side of publishers’ advertising businesses fell into some of the same patterns as previous years with advertisers delaying campaigns into Q2 or later, rendering Q1 as just “fine.”

Here’s a look at how the first three months of 2024 fared for publishers like The Atlantic and The Guardian U.S.

Delayed start

While the fourth quarter of 2023 was “incredible” for The Atlantic’s advertising business and CRO and publisher Alice McKown said the company met its revenue goals, Q1 was just “fine.” Despite the momentum of Q4 and the promise of renewals, she added that certain advertisers needed to get their ducks in a row when it comes to planning their annual budgets in 2024.

This is not atypical, McKown said, and by March, paused conversations with advertisers restarted, with campaigns firming up to go live in Q2.  

McKown added that RFP volume in Q1 was up for The Atlantic by about 40-50% year over year and the average win rate for those proposals was up by an undisclosed amount as well, almost double what it was in 2022 (which she said was a more equivalent year than 2023 to compare against). 

“What was great about Q1 is we had a lot of great conversations and a lot of things booked, but it ended up [that] some of [those deals] moved into Q2. So our first half is on track and on goal and we may, in fact, exceed our goal,” said McKown. She declined to share hard revenue numbers or growth figures. 

It wasn’t until the beginning of April that the ice began to thaw for The Guardian U.S., however. 

According to svp and head of sales, North America, Luis Romero, the first three months of the year (which represent The Guardian’s fiscal Q4), was challenging ad revenue-wise and ultimately the publisher didn’t reach its goals for the quarter. 

The reason for that was three-fold, Romero explained. For one, the amount of request-for-proposals (RFPs) that came in at the end of last year for Q1 was lower than usual. Secondly – and similar to The Atlantic’s experience – some advertisers wanted to delay their campaigns until the second quarter of the calendar year. And finally, he said that the volume of in-quarter RFPs were down as well, which typically accounts for about 20% of the publication’s total advertising dollars in a quarter.  

Once April rolled around, however, Romero said “activity for RFPs picked up [and] we saw a couple big accounts for us that shifted come back to life.”

The outlier

One media exec from a news publisher who spoke on the condition of anonymity described a very different Q1, however.  

Heading into Q1, the exec said that their sales team was upwards of 80% booked for direct-sold deals in the quarter, in part because conversations with advertisers that didn’t materialize in 2023 were able to come to fruition in the new year. 

In the quarter, however, the media exec said RFP volume was up year over year and the average RFP budget was up too, though they declined to say by how much.  

“In 2023, we definitely saw advertisers feeling less comfortable making longer term commitments, taking longer to make decisions on proposals – what may have been a couple of months’ decision time was taking like three or four months. And we really have seen that change in Q1 of 2024 for the positive which is really, really great,” the media exec said. 

Programmatic promise

All three publishers said that programmatic CPMs were up during the first quarter of the year, though Romero said that January was slower, on par with typical averages for the month. 

It turned out to be a good quarter for us [programmatically] … It took about a month for it to kind of settle in, and I would say toward the end of the quarter we started seeing the uptick,” said Romero. 

McKown said that The Atlantic’s CPMs were “holding” and that programmatic revenue was slightly up in Q1, more so due to her team optimizing its programmatic partners, which resulted in stronger CPMs that quarter. 

And the media exec said that there was “great improvement” in its open exchange business, with CPMs up double digit percentages year over year, which has persisted into the early weeks of Q2. 

According to Operative’s STAQ Benchmarking Data, average CPMs across the whole of the programmatic open market increased year over year by 20% in January to $1.20, 35% in February to $1.40 and 24% in March to $1.52. 

As for what this means for the remainder of the year, cautious optimism persists that the ad market will continue thawing in the spring months.

“For [calendar year] Q2, I am feeling very confident and encouraged with the activity that we’ve seen … We’re pacing really well [to] our targets in this quarter. But my tone is one of being sober because it’s still a little too early to tell … I’m still experiencing a little bit of PTSD from last year,” Romero said.

What we’ve heard

“Is [a print magazine] a super profitable endeavor? No, it’s an expensive thing to produce … we can add these products on so that they are additional revenue, rather than our company being based around them, which is obviously not a sustainable business as we see all these other companies kind of flailing trying to cut down their print because it just costs too much.”

Emma Rosenblum, chief content officer of BDG on the latest episode of the Digiday Podcast, talking about Nylon’s return to print.

3 Qs with Yahoo Finance’s Tapan Bhat

Yahoo Finance is taking a new approach to revenue diversification this year, which involves fewer ads and a new tiered subscription offering launching on April 22.

By cutting down on the number of on-site ad spots by 40% in November 2023, Tapan Bhat, president and gm of Yahoo Finance, ad performance has improved, leading to click-through rates nearly doubling. He declined to share exact numbers. And starting next week, Yahoo Finance will offer a three-tiered subscription plan.

The subscription plans are designed for “everyday” investors, “experienced” investors and “active” investors, priced at $9.95 a month or $95.40 a year, $24.95 a month or $239.40 a year and $49.95 a month or $479.40 a year, respectively. – Sara Guaglione

This conversation has been edited and condensed. 

How has Yahoo Finance revamped its site to improve audience engagement and revenue diversification?

We streamlined our user experience. We cut 40% of our ads out because ads in some ways can be interruptive. We have things that used to be buried under two or three levels of navigation, just so we could get extra pageviews. We cut them all out. We pulled information forward … The ads actually click through at a much higher rate for the advertiser and when that happens, it’s reflected in the economics [and we can charge higher CPMs, for example].

How are you getting audiences to register on the Yahoo Finance site, and is this part of a strategy to capture emails and authenticate audiences?

When you register and you share your [investment] portfolio with us, we can give you analysis on the portfolio. We help tell [people] how the markets are doing, how it affects them and what they can do about it … So that’s an incentive for people to tell us who they are, so that they can get the full benefit of the tools [we offer]… One of the things that’s very unique about Yahoo Finance is…because we have Yahoo Mail, a lot of our people already come into Yahoo logged in. So we have a very high percentage of people who are logged in. We don’t share that number… but it’s extremely high.

Was the subscription created to make up for any ad revenue declines?

No, the subscription is not used to make up ad revenue shortfalls. They are two separate lines of business. Ad revenue is doing very well. Even by cutting out ads.

We don’t have a goal right now [for how many people we want to convert to subscribers]. My goal is to be the most useful site for people to find their financial information and find out what’s happening and build their wealth.

Numbers to know

60%: The amount that Axios’s events revenue grew year over year in 2023. 

25: The number of years that NPR editor Uri Berliner spent at the nonprofit broadcaster before resigning, following backlash of his essay claiming left-leaning bias tainted NPR’s coverage.

What we’ve covered

Publishers test new TikTok feature that adds links to organic videos:

  • TikTok is testing a way for publishers to attach links to organic videos, according to three publishers.
  • It remains to be seen how much traffic TikTok can actually drive for publishers. TikTok declined to comment on the feature or its ongoing test.

Read more about the new link tool here

Publishers take their focus off events as revenue dips

  • In the back half of last year, it looked like publishers were getting ready to dial up their events businesses as a means of driving more revenue outside of ads. 
  • But as 2024 rolls on, it looks like the industry might not be going down that path after all.

Catch-up on the latest Digiday+ Research here

Publishers bank on their own first-party data amid Privacy Sandbox concerns:

  • In this week’s Digiday+ Research Briefing, we examine publishers’ reservations about Google’s Privacy Sandbox, how subscriptions aren’t the revenue driver they once were for publishers and how X is once again telling advertisers it’s serious about brand safety.

See the latest insights from our publisher surveys here

How a revamped Green Media Product hopes to solve ‘problematic placements’:

  • The marketing industry’s efforts to showcase its environmental wares will peak as Earth Day 2024 (April 22) draws ever closer, with ad tech players eager to demonstrate their efforts to minimize the sector’s carbon footprint.
  • Ahead of this, Brian O’Kelley’s Scope3 unveiled GMP+, the latest iteration of its Green Media Product offering.

Learn more about the Scope3’s efforts to make programmatic advertising more sustainable here.

What we’re reading

To avoid delisting, BuzzFeed is pursuing a reverse stock split:

After trading below NASDAQ’s listing minimum of $1-per-share for almost a year, BuzzFeed’s board of directors is asking shareholders to authorize a reverse stock split, which reduces the number of shares that a company has, thus increasing the value per share, according to The Information. 

Joanna Coles and Ben Sherwood take stake in The Daily Beast:

Media mogul Barry Diller’s The Daily Beast has been struggling to turn a profit. To get it back on track to profitability, former media execs Joanna Coles and Ben Sherwood have been given a minority equity stake each in the digital tabloid, equivalent to about half of the publication’s value, according to The New York Times. 

The Intercept is losing about $300,000 per month: 

Semafor reported that The Intercept is running out of cash, approximately $300,000 a month, and is on track to have less than a million dollars in cash by November. If this keeps up, the publication could be out of cash by May 2025. 

News publishers ask government to investigate Google for blocking California-based media links:

According to CNN, the News/Media Alliance, which represents 2,000 news publishers, sent a letter to three governmental bodies asking them to investigate Google, CNN reported. They claim Google may have broken laws by limiting California residents’ access to news websites from search.  

The New York Times’ probe into Gaza coverage leaks is over: 

The Times concluded its investigation into whether its staffers leaked confidential information about its Gaza war coverage, but “did not reach a definitive conclusion,” The Wall Street Journal reported.

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