Why it’s not all doom and gloom in digital media
Jonah Peretti, CEO and mastermind of BuzzFeed, is often looked at as something of a digital media prophet. (Sorry, Shingy.) Going back to his early experiments in viral content to his key role in developing Huffington Post to staring BuzzFeed as a new-style of digital media company, Peretti has earned a reputation for seeing around corners. That’s why the industry took notice at the tail end of 2017 when Peretti, a perennial optimist as all entrepreneurs are seemingly required to be, bluntly declared “media is in crisis.”
The following year seemingly bore that out. With Facebook and Google vacuuming up digital ad revenue, and Facebook seeing no requirement to financially support publishers, digital media companies like BuzzFeed hit a wall. The flameouts of 2018 — Little Things, Mashable, among others — were a harbinger of more carnage to come. 2019 saw Peretti’s pronouncement hit home as BuzzFeed cut 15 percent with fellow digital media star Vice also cutting, alongside cutbacks at Huffington Post and, most recently, New York Media.
The cuts cast a pall over many industry discussions. Pessimism about the future of digital media — media’s never been easy — is en vogue. After all, this turmoil is happening against the backdrop of a historically good economy that’s now in its ninth year of expansion following the financial crisis. What will happen when the economy inevitably turns?
But the cuts also obscure some bright spots. Media is not a monolith. Not every publisher is the same, and many have far different characteristics from BuzzFeed and Vice. The easiest culprit to identify in the most high profile cases is the large infusions of venture capital these companies have taken. In BuzzFeed’s case, nearly $500 million at a peak $1.5 billion-plus valuation. Vice has taken on an eye-watering $1.4 billion — and is now on the hunt for $200 million more, according to a report by The Information — at a peak valuation of $5.7 billion. The pressure to reach these lofty valuations undoubtedly led to some odd strategic decisions. (See pivots to video.) But VC is not all to blame.
In fact, even in these high profile cases, real and substantial businesses are being built. Leave aside Vice for a minute since it is, in all aspects, a unique and messy case. BuzzFeed is not a failing company by any measure. Peretti himself spent his recent trip to SXSW extolling the “really strong future for digital media” — and he brought some receipts. BuzzFeed claims it will bring in $200 million in new revenue from new business lines over last year and this year. He boasted about bringing in $300 million from platform payments in the fourth quarter. These are, of course, cherry-picked figures. BuzzFeed is not yet profitable (on a full-year basis). Earlier in 2018, on the Digiday Podcast, Peretti told me BuzzFeed has “proven it can be profitable.” That proof will come in a larger increment than a particular month or one quarter.
But the figures Peretti did share shed light on an uncomfortable truth of the cutbacks: Many digital media companies, including BuzzFeed and Vox, simply needed to get their cost bases under control. Vox had cut back a year ago in areas, laying off 5 percent of staff, and The New York Time reported Vox ended 2018 in the black. Even Vice is claiming it will reach profitability next year.
Other publishers are showing the way to profitable, sustainable businesses. DotDash revamped into verticals from its catchall origins as About.com, and is now boasting $131 million in revenue an a healthy $21 million earnings before interest, depreciation and amortization. DotDash CEO Neil Vogel likes to loudly say media isn’t dying, only bad businesses are. Similarly, Business Insider is proving a lot of doubters, myself included, very wrong. Sure, Axel Springer badly overpaid for BI back in the frothy days of 2015, but the company has managed to thread the needle of being both a scale play that attracts a healthy ad business and vertical enough to make subscriptions work. BI parent Insider is crossing the $100 million in revenue mark and Axel Springer has reported it to be profitable.
Outside of the big guys, plenty of niche media companies (Digiday included, I should add) are building profitable, diversified businesses. Business-to-business has long relied less on advertising and more on an array of services. Subscriptions get plenty of buzz these days but have long been a cornerstone of B-to-B models. Same goes for events. The Financial Times buying events-heavy tech media play The Next Web is a sign of events rising in importance.
Verticalization and diversification is no safe harbor, admittedly. There’s no off-the-shelf playbook in a turbulent environment. The cutbacks at New York Media, which long ago split into verticals and focused on business lines like commerce and tech licensing, is a fresh sign of that. But all hope is not yet lost on the road to sustainable media. There is less talk among publishers of hoping for a platform windfall based on ephemeral audiences ginned up on Facebook and elsewhere. More are instead focused on the nuts and bolts of their businesses. PopSugar CEO Brian Sugar, for instance, has adopted the moniker “Chief EBITDA Officer” to make clear his singular focus. Media execs could do worse than follow such an example.
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