May 28, 2024 - Business

Media giants swim uncharted waters

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Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

Amid a weak ad market and the threat of AI, media companies are shifting their strategies to depend more on readers' dollars and less on ads.

There's just one problem. Who's going to pay?

Driving the news: That was the biggest question coming out of the Washington Post's highly anticipated "Build It" strategy presentation last week.

  • The Post's new CEO Will Lewis laid out his vision to put subscriptions at the center of the Post's business, but he didn't provide a clear picture of who those subscribers will be in terms of demographics or interests.
  • The new plan includes a premium paid tier called Memberships, a subscription tier for professionals called Post Pro, a consumer subscription product called Post+ and a Flexible Payments option for a wider set of more casual readers.
  • While the presentation went into great detail about tactical efforts to grow, including improving its search engine optimization strategy, leveraging AI and creator tools, and expanding live events, there wasn't as much discussion about the company's editorial focus and audience.

The big picture: Data shows that subscription media growth has slowed as publishers struggle to replace customers who canceled their Trump-era subscriptions.

  • For the Post, the next big challenge is figuring out who that new audience will be. The paper, sources told Axios, is still trying to figure that out.
  • The company lost $77 million in the past year, Lewis said. Total revenues have declined 12% since 2021. Digital revenues have declined 14% in that time. There's been a 50% audience drop-off since 2020.
  • The New York Times has grown its subscription offering by focusing on products catered to progressive elites, such as opinion content and news-adjacent lifestyle services like cooking and games. The Wall Street Journal has doubled down on business professionals.

Yes, but: The Post, owned by billionaire Jeff Bezos, has the luxury of time and patience from its benefactor.

  • Other companies, like CNN — whose parent Warner Bros. Discovery is scrambling to pay down debt — will have to do more with less.
  • CNN's CEO Mark Thompson has teased a subscription strategy for CNN — putting its star talent at the center of major editorial verticals like climate and health — but the company's business is still mired in cable bureaucracy, making it hard to implement any major changes quickly.

Meanwhile, the field is getting crowded.

  • Vox.com announced a new membership model last week. Axios is also experimenting with a new membership model. Puck's entire business is centered around a membership plan.

What to watch: Many of these newsrooms find themselves in an unusual predicament: Their editorial products continue to win prestigious awards and accolades, even as their businesses are in survival mode.

  • Case in point: The Washington Post won three Pulitzers this year — the most of any outlet, tied with the New York Times. The Los Angeles Times, which is still not profitable as it faces its own business crisis, won a Pulitzer this year. CNN won its first Oscar last year.
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