As legacy news companies suffered tremors over the past decade, money from venture capitalists poured into upstarts that promised to leverage a keener understanding of online reading habits to create a giant-killing class of new media ventures.
Today, the money is starting to dry up. Big ambitions have been downsized. And the tremors that continue to shake many newspapers are now moving through new media companies.
Among those facing head winds are BuzzFeed, Vox and Vice. Another one, Mic, last week abruptly laid off most of its staff — and the company that a year ago was valued at $100 million garnered a fire-sale offer of $5 million for its remnants.
The numbers tell the story: Investors closed 27 deals worth about $206 million in 2014 but are on track to close just 19 such deals worth $130 million this year, according to PitchBook, a private capital market data provider.
One reason for the wariness among venture capitalists is many sites relied on Facebook and Google to build their audience. But just as many financiers were pressing to see more tangible financial results, Facebook changed its algorithm to favor posts from friends and family rather than news organizations.
Some new digital media firms saw audience declines. Others scrambled to alter their business models on the fly, making expensive bets on video that did not pan out.
The most recent example of industry troubles is Mic, a millennial friendly news site, which was recently sold to Bustle Digital Group, a publishing company focused on female readers. Last year, the site received $25 million from venture investors, giving it a valuation of more than $100 million, according to PitchBook. A year later, it was sold to Bustle for a reported $5 million.
“Our business models are unsettled,” Mic publisher Cory Haik wrote in a letter to staff, most of whom were laid off as part of the deal. “If anyone tells you they have it figured out, a special plan to save us all, or that it's all due to a singular fault, know that is categorically false.”
Bustle has not announced its plans for Mic, one of the sites that tried to make the difficult pivot to video.
“Instead of creating high-quality products that readers and consumers of news wanted, these new media companies were chasing Facebook’s algorithms and pivot-to-video,” said Raul Fernandez, vice chairman of Monumental Sports & Entertainment and a longtime investor in online media. “This has led many of them to run out of capital without finding the correct balance of talent to produce compelling content.”
The disruption comes at a time when Facebook and Google are eating up most of the money spent on advertising on digital media — about two-thirds of Internet advertising and growing, by one estimate.
”Media as a sector is under a lot of different types of challenges,” said Jim Bankoff, chairman and chief executive of Vox Media. “Whether you are Thomson Reuters, Conde Naste, whether you are Mic or a linear cable company, the industry is being disrupted through technology that is giving consumers choices and that leads to change, giving advertisers new choices that lead to change. You see that disruption everywhere in the sector.”
“It’s not just financial disruption,” Bankoff said. “There’s a lot of things going on. Threats to journalists. These are tough times across our whole industry. And whether you are a company that was started 100 years ago or a company started 10 years ago, you are not immune.”
While spending on digital advertising has quadrupled since 2010, an increasing proportion is directed to Google and Facebook. This year, Google, including YouTube, received about 44 percent of digital ad dollars, according to eMarketer, a digital research firm. Facebook has about 21 percent.
“This is a big deal: The Platforms are the FAANG companies (Facebook, Amazon, Apple, Netflix and Google),” said Peter Horan, a venture capitalist and head of Horan Mediatech Advisors. “They have put themselves in between media companies and both their readers and advertisers. It’s important to remember that these companies are in an arms race among each other.”
Mic is not the only new media company to struggle recently. In November, Disney said it would write down the value of its investment in Vice Media by $157 million. Vox is expected to miss projections this year.
After reportedly missing revenue projections last year, BuzzFeed launched an aggressive effort to diversify its revenue, including selling cookware at Walmart and consulting with other companies, including Maybelline, to develop new products with viral social media potential. The company drove $36 million in sales to retail partners like Macy’s, Amazon and Walmart through a new affiliate marketing program, according to a company spokesman.
These companies correctly identified weaknesses in legacy media companies, and readers responded well to them, Horan said. But growth rates have started to slow, he said.
“Companies like Vice, BuzzFeed, Mic, Little Things were not actually committed to making money in the media business,” Horan said. “Their premise was that they could achieve escape velocity with their audience and revenue growth and either go public or get acquired.”
“The public has gotten more and better content than they would pay for or that ads could support,” Horan said. “It was therefore not a priority to make money.”
All publishers, both new and traditional, have had to grapple with a shifting market from desktop computers to mobile phones and from display ads to video, which is depressing advertising rates, industry analysts say. New technology also has made it easier for advertisers to target specific consumers, making it harder for publishers to charge premium prices for placement on their sites, they say.
These shifts are helping to depress some advertising rates, analysts say. “There is tremendous price pressure and too much inventory,” said Douglas Arthur, an analyst for Huber Research Partners.
To be sure, some investors still see opportunity in the market. Jon Miller, a digital media veteran, started hunting for digital media properties earlier this year with the backing of TPG, the giant private equity firm. “Everyone is for sale,” said Miller, a former AOL and News Corp executive.
Despite recent industry hiccups, Miller said he sees a formula for building successful digital media companies, including finding diverse revenue streams and showing value that cannot be re-created by others. “What makes you not substitutable for an audience? Because then you are not substitutable for advertisers,” Miller said.
Some digital media companies are starting to turn to subscription models rather than finding their audience on social platforms created by tech giants such as Facebook. “It will be difficult for media companies to survive without a balanced revenue stream that includes reader payments, event and e-commerce referral fees,” Horan said.
Earlier this year, the Athletic, a sports site, closed a $40 million venture deal that valued the company at $200 million, according to PitchBook.
The site’s founders, Alex Mather and Adam Hansmann, who have no journalism experience, patterned The Athletic after Strava, an app for fitness gurus, where both previously worked.
The three-year old site, which has 300 writers, currently relies on subscription revenue. “We admire the Netflix, Spotify premium models without ads,” Mather said.
“Advertising pushes companies further and further away from their constituents, the end user.”
Both said they have no plans to include advertising, at least in the short term. “There aren’t many media companies out there that are able to build a powerful, scalable advertising business,” Mather said. “We would rather just focus on our users and not chase Facebook and Google.”
Mathers and Hansmann will not disclose how many subscribers the site has but say they are profitable in many of their early markets, including Chicago and Toronto, and have plans to expand even further. Most subscribers, more than 90 percent, renew their subscriptions after a year, which investors like, they say.
“The only way to survive and hopefully thrive,” Bankoff said, “is to do your best and embrace the reality of what’s going on. Ultimately, what will win is quality work, a strong, diversified business model and a culture that respects one’s audience, one’s business partners and one’s employees. We are optimistic about the future.”
Now, people are looking for quality journalism, which increasingly exists behind a paywall or requires a subscription, Mather said.
“Our investors, they have seen a pendulum swing in what users want,” he said.