Media matchmakers: The 2024 uncoupling edition

This editorial series examines industry trends across the media, media buying and marketing sectors as 2023 closes and the new year begins. More from the series →

Consolidated media was the name of the game for the better part of a decade as publishers looked at scale as a way to compete with the behemoth platforms for ad revenue. That consolidation mindset was further spurred in 2021 as publishers, rich from the pandemic false spring, looked to invest their wealth in various M&A opportunities.

But the following refreeze of advertising budgets made 2022 and 2023 less-than-stellar for revenue, leaving some publishers possibly regretting their acquisitions, expansions and going public via SPAC. 

In this edition of media company matchmaker — the uncoupling edition — I take a look at which of the recently merged companies are in the most likely position to break up in the coming year and predict who some of their rebounds might be.

Popsugar and Vox Media 

Acquired by Group Nine in 2019 and then again as part of Vox Media’s purchase of Group Nine at the end of 2021, PopSugar has changed hands more than the usual amount of times over the past four years. But it doesn’t look like the lifestyle brand should get comfortable just yet. 

Last month, an undisclosed number of PopSugar staffers were laid off from Vox Media, which also laid off 130 staffers in January and had multiple other rounds of layoffs in 2022 as well. It appears, though, that PopSugar was the only team impacted by the November layoffs, raising the question about whether Vox Media sees a future with the lifestyle site.

This wouldn’t be the first time that Vox Media spun off one of the Group Nine assets. In April, the news and politics video brand NowThis became an independent media company backed by nonprofit civic engagement group Accelerate Change. And while PopSugar may not find a suitable nonprofit backer to support its independent endeavors, Vox Media still may be inclined to release the title from its portfolio. 

As for possible suitors, BDG may seem like a compatible option if not for the revenue challenges that the Bustle and Elite Daily publisher is facing. Perhaps Gallery Media could be a good fit as the publisher of a similar lifestyle title PureWow and given the fact that it’s a subsidiary of Gary Vaynerchuk’s VaynerX. Either way, it’d probably be a risky bet for any digital media company to tack on another lifestyle title next year.

BuzzFeed and Complex Network 

Not much more needs to be said that hasn’t already been reported on these two. BuzzFeed is allegedly already searching for a buyer for Complex Network (minus the First We Feast brand and its “Hot Ones” show franchise) and live shopping streetwear brand NTWRK was rumored to be in line for that position. 

BuzzFeed Inc went public via SPAC in December 2021, acquiring Complex Networks for $300 million at the same time and things really couldn’t be looking worse for this duo. BuzzFeed Inc’s shares hit an all-time low of $0.27 in November 2023 and while the company has avoided delisting on Nov. 27 thanks to a 180-day extension to raise its stock price above $1, it’s evident that the social-first formula that the media company was born and raised on is no longer working in the company’s favor.

To get some quick cash, selling its arguably most valuable asset — Complex Networks — to NTWRK may be the only way through this financially fickle moment in time, though it’s looking like BuzzFeed will only get about half as much it paid for Complex if this deal goes through, according to The Information.

The good news is that the pairing of Complex and NTWRK looks good to media buyers. One buyer told Digiday on the condition of anonymity that a lot of their clients are still interested in taking part in ComplexCon and having another way to scale those commerce opportunities through NTWRK makes a lot of sense. 

Will this deal actually workout next year though? Time will tell. 

G/O Media and Quartz

G/O Media acquired Quartz in April 2022 at a time when the business publication was reportedly suffering. The New York Times reported that Quartz lost $6.9 million in 2021 and that prior to the sale, the site wasn’t supposed to break even until this year. Quartz also removed its paywall in April 2022, despite relying in part on a subscription business, and as of May, Adweek reported that traffic to the site has continued to decline.

Quartz’s former CEO and editor-in-chief Zach Seward left the publication he co-founded in June this year and announced this month that he was joining The New York Times as the news org’s first editorial director of artificial-intelligence initiatives.

While the “last one in, first one out” theory doesn’t apply to G/O Media’s cost-cutting strategy (ahem, Jezebel), it would stand to reason that if further overhead reductions take place, a business publication could, in theory, find another home under Axel Springer, or next to Axios or even under Penske Media Group. 

Though I wouldn’t be surprised if G/O Media slashed first and thought later. After what happened with Jezebel last month — shuttering the feminist website, claiming the company couldn’t find a buyer, but less than a month later it was bought and resurrected by Paste Magazine — I actually wouldn’t be surprised if all of the brands under the G/O Media umbrella staged a coup d’état to overtake the CEO Jim Spanfeller á la Defector Media. 

Bonus pairing: Forbes finally finds its Daddy Warbucks 

Sadly for Forbes, the 28-year-old billionaire that led a group of investors to purchase the media company wasn’t able to make the deal happen by the Nov. 14 deadline this year. Austin Russell, founder of video software company Luminar and a 2022 Forbes 30 Under 30 honoree couldn’t raise the $800 million bid, partially due to concerns over Russian influence within the consortium. 

Perhaps going the rich owner route is still the best option for Forbes, however, given its rolodex of billionaires compiled within its various lists and event franchises.

Last year, I mused that Amazon founder Jeff Bezos would be a possible candidate to buy Forbes, given the Washington Post owner’s interest in media. But after a couple tumultuous years filled with layoffs, a c-suite clearout and revenue declines that dragged Bezos into the WaPo offices, the billionaire is likely too sick of the media business to buy another publication. 

Other media-minded billionaires that could possibly take pity on Forbes, however, is Time owners Marc and Lynne Benioff who purchased the magazine in 2018 for $190 million. And while Time may be a little less business-oriented than Forbes, the overlap of their lists, events and other franchisable businesses is rather remarkable. And if media execs are to be believed, franchises and events are going to be the most important assets a publisher can have for generating advertising revenue and audience appeal in 2024.

https://digiday.com/?p=528774

More in Media

Publisher execs talk AI licensing deals, new applications for AI in latest earnings calls

Publicly-traded media companies touted new deals with generative AI tech companies and other new applications for the technology in their Q1 2024 earnings calls.

Transparency shift: CMOs navigate new norms in agency profit models

Many CMOs seem to be okay with their agencies finding new ways to increase margins, as long as the process is transparent, or at least openly acknowledges a lack of transparency.

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

Publishers’ Q1 earnings show some promise in the digital ad market.