Dec 15, 2020

Axios Media Trends

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Situational awareness: There have been at least 117 verified cases of a journalist being arrested or detained on the job in the U.S. in 2020 — up more than 1200% from 2019, according to a new report. Most arrests occurred during the BLM protests this summer.

1 big thing: What's next for David Bradley

Photo illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios. Photo: Marvin Joseph (The Washington Post)/Getty Images

David Bradley says he is committed to owning and growing National Journal — the first media company he ever purchased — for at least the next 10 years, according to a memo obtained by Axios.

Driving the news: Bradley says his family is selling its controlling interest in National Journal's lucrative research business, Ballast Research, to Falfurrias Capital Partners (FCP), a Charlotte-based private equity firm that invests in growth-oriented, middle-market businesses.

  • Roughly 25% of National Journal's staff (40 people) will go with Ballast as part of the divestiture.
  • Bradley will remain a key investor in Ballast and says his family will still have a significant stake.

The big picture: Over the past few years, Bradley has sold either his majority stake or full stake in most of the titles that once made up Atlantic Media Inc., including The Atlantic, Government Executive and Quartz, leaving National Journal Group as the only business left within Bradley's media empire that he still fully owns.

  • At one point in 2013, Atlantic Media Inc. was bringing in over $100 million, including $43 million from The Atlantic and $37 million from National Journal, according to a source familiar with the company's finances.

The big picture: The smartphone era ushered in a slew of new competitors to the political reporting space that forced National Journal to pivot its business over the past ten years to focus on custom research and consultative services that served Washington opinion leaders.

  • In effect, it started to look more like the DC-based consulting businesses that Bradley originally founded and sold to afford his venture into media.

By the numbers: Today, National Journal splits its revenue between subscriptions and consultative services.

  • The company is profitable, Turpin says. He notes that Bradley has consistently invested in the business since 2016.
  • The company shuttered its historic print magazine in 2015. Journalism is still a paid subscription service it offers to opinion leaders, but it's no longer the sole driver of its business.

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Editor's note: David Bradley is an investor in Axios.

2. SPACS could fuel next round of digital media wars

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

Digital media companies are looking to consolidate with the help of SPACs (special purpose acquisition companies), an increasingly popular alternative for businesses to raise money via a public offering, without undertaking a traditional IPO process.

  • Group Nine Media is considering using a blank-check company to acquire some of its competitors, The Wall Street Journal reports.
  • Bustle Digital Group CEO Bryan Goldberg told The Information in September: “We would be logical candidates for something like a SPAC.”
  • Buzzfeed CEO Jonah Peretti has said he is looking to roll up more sites under his empire aside from HuffPost. There's been reports that he may possibly look to do so via an SPAC.

Other media companies are using private investment to fuel new acquisitions.

  • Axel Springer, the German publishing giant that owns Insider Inc., told The Information last month it wants to use money from its new shareholder, private equity giant KKR, to expand its U.S. footprint via acquisitions.

The big picture: Amid the pandemic, most digital companies that aren't rooted in high-growth areas, like podcasts, newsletters and streaming, have taken a hit.

  • Many firms are now eyeing more consolidation as a means to expand into high-growth areas, or increase their scale.
  • The pandemic-driven push to consolidate via SPACs or private funding follows a wave of big, digital media mergers last year.

What's next: Buyers are eyeing several targets including Vice (which now includes Refinery29), Bustle Digital Group (which is already a roll-up of many different sites like Nylon, Zoe Report, Bustle and others), and The Skimm.

Go deeper: TV companies and streamers are also getting in on the SPAC action.

3. Scoop: Vox Media Studios targeting $100 million in 2021 revenue

Vox Media website

Vox Media Studios, the video and audio production arm of Vox Media, is planning to bring in $100 million in 2021 revenue while producing twice as many shows as 2020, according to sources familiar with the company’s plans.

Why it matters: Vox Media hasn't been immune from the pandemic’s financial headwinds on digital publishers, but the studio revenue would be a huge number for the company, considering it reportedly expected $300 million in 2020 revenue.

  • Today, 60 people work for Vox Media Studios full-time, with some additional project-based employees for certain show-teams.

Details: Vox Media Studios plans to double its slate of programming to roughly 20 shows, spanning 8 distributors, including Hulu, Netflix, YouTube Originals, AppleTV +, HBO and more, per sources familiar with the company's plans.

  • Several of the company's biggest shows have been renewed for 2021, including its Netflix "Explained" series, its Emmy-nominated YouTube Originals series "Glad You Asked" and "Little America," on Apple TV+.

What's next: In the future, Vox Media Studios wants to start building out more TV and streaming franchises for brands it acquired via the New York Media merger as well as some of its original Vox Media brands like The Verge.

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4. Scoop: Rolling Stone, Billboard, Vibe merge business operations

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

Penske Media Corp. (PMC) is planning to merge the back end functions of three of the top music news publishers in the U.S., according to two sources familiar with the company's plans.

Why it matters: The Justice Department is still investigating the deal between PMC and rival MRC to create a joint venture that houses most of the country's biggest music and entertainment news brands, sources tell Axios Margaret Harding McGill and me.

  • Sources say the DOJ is specifically eyeing the anti-competitive nature between owning two of the biggest entertainment-focused properties, Variety and The Hollywood Reporter.
  • The company is not planning to do the same type of back-end combination of those two outlets, according to sources.

Details: The merging of operations on the back end includes business functions like ad sales, marketing and brand partnerships.

  • Brian Szejka, formerly publisher of Rolling Stone, was named the Head of Global Brand Partnerships for all three publications about a month ago.

Between the lines: A source familiar with the transaction says the Justice Department is still reviewing whether or not such a merger between two of the biggest entertainment media companies is anti-competitive and should be approved.

  • Antitrust officials are reviewing the merger's impact on ad sales and quality of coverage, a person familiar with the transaction said.

The big picture: Over the past few years, Jay Penske, Chairman and CEO of PMC, has quietly amassed more than 20 titles for his media empire across entertainment, music, fashion and art.

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5. Breakout year for creator economy
Data: Apptopia; Chart: Axios Visuals

Nearly every major app geared towards content creators has seen significant percentage increases in downloads this year, according to data from Apptopia.

  • Cameo expects to make $100 million from video transactions this year, a spokesperson tells Axios. Over 1 million Cameo videos have been sold-to-date, Tens of thousands of talent now use the app to sell videos.
  • Substack has more than 250,000 paid subscribers and that its top 10 publishers collectively earn more than $10 million a year. 
  • Patreon is now valued at $1.2 billion, after raising $90 million in September. More than 6 million people pay creators through its service globally.
  • OnlyFans will earn $300 million in profit this year, per The Information. The subscription service lets creators monetize exclusive videos, sometimes racy ones.
  • Twitch has doubled the number of streamers on its platform during the pandemic.

Be smart: Other apps where creators play a central role are experiencing explosive growth, per AppTopia. Those apps include Webtoon, an app for digital comic artists and Caffeine, a live streaming and chat app, and Bigo Live, a Chinese live-streaming app.

The big picture: TikTok's number of global downloads this year was so big we couldn't fit it on the same chart as its peers above. TikTok's success has led to a mad dash in mobile video investments by competitors.

  • Reddit acquired Dubsmash, the short-form video app akin to TikTok, the company Monday.
  • Snapchat last month launched its TikTok competitor, called Spotlight.
  • Facebook launched its competitor, called Reels, in August.
6. Sports podcast company Blue Wire raises series A

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

Blue Wire, a sports podcast company, has raised $5 million in its series A round, founder Kevin Jones tell Axios. The company, which focuses on long-form sports narrative podcasts, now hosts more than 140 podcasts with over 20 million downloads for the year.

Details: The round is being led by Dot Capital, which led its $1.2 million seed round in February. Dot is being joined by Bettor Capital, Side Door Ventures and Forty5 Ventures.

  • The money will also be used to build out the company's studio and to finance the creation of a yearly slate of 8-10 original podcast series.
  • The company is pitching original long-form podcasts to be optioned for film and TV, including its hit original series American Prodigy.

"Podcasting is becoming the new books," says Jones.

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7. Antitrust suits could be biggest threat yet to Facebook's business
Data: Company filings; Chart: Axios Visuals

Facebook's user growth and bottom line have historically been resilient in the face of external pressure, but the historic lawsuits brought against Facebook last week could be the first serious threat to the tech giant's booming business.

What's next: The Federal Trade Commission said Monday that it's launching a new inquiry into the privacy and data collection practices of major tech firms like Amazon, TikTok owner ByteDance, Twitter, YouTube, Facebook and others. There are already more than a dozen active Big Tech probes by U.S. regulators.

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8. 1 fun thing: Inside Disney's plans for streaming domination
Data: Company filings; Chart: Axios Visuals

In just over a year, Disney+ has gobbled up 86.8 million subscribers, making it nearly half the size (45%) of Netflix, which launched its streaming service over a decade ago.

  • Disney announced more than 100 new projects last week, mostly for Disney+.

Be smart: Disney's more than $100 billion in media deals over the past 15 years (Marvel, Pixar, Lucasfilm, 21st Century Fox) have cemented its position as the top content creator in Hollywood, putting rivals in a tough position.

  • NBCUniversal said Monday it would make the first two seasons of “The Office” available for free with ads on its streaming service Peacock.
  • Peacock's parent Comcast said the service has nearly 22 million sign-ups, but it doesn't distinguish how many of those sign-ups are paid subscribers.

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