Dec 8, 2020

Axios Media Trends

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  • ICYMI — Axios’ first investigative report: How a suspected Chinese spy targeted California politicians. Read, watch, listen

🚨Situational awareness: MSNBC vet Rashida Jones will be the first woman of color to lead a major cable news company when she becomes president of MSNBC in February.

1 big thing: STAT plans major expansion after banner year

Illustration: Eniola Odetunde/Axios

STAT News is planning a big expansion next year, thanks in part to explosive growth during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The big picture: The health, medicine and science outlet brought in over $10 million in revenue this year — up about 66% from last year, executives tell Axios.

  • It plans to increase staff by roughly 40% next year to help launch new data products, events and custom reports.

STAT was one of the first U.S. outlets to begin seriously covering the pandemic in January. A boom in traffic has prompted the company to begin accepting donations.

  • STAT co-founder and executive editor Rick Berke says the company has received "tens of thousands" of donations this year, a surprising standalone revenue stream for the company.

The company is planning to launch two new products catered to high-end users next year — a data product for subscribers and an expansion of its paid research reports on topics like remote patient monitoring and Chinese biotech.

  • STAT is in talks to license the rights to its 80-minute documentary film about a double-amputee and MIT scientist who creates brain-controlled robotic limbs.

The big picture: STAT owners John Henry and Linda Pizzuti Henry funded the creation of STAT in 2015 after the pair purchased The Boston Globe and a few other smaller properties from New York Times in 2013 for $70 million.

  • In an interview, Pizzuti Henry, who was named CEO of the Globe this month, said STAT helps to diversify their portfolio of mostly Boston-based outlets.
  • "Having a mix of audiences that we can appeal to is important," she said, recognizing that the pandemic has been a boon to STAT, but tougher on local media.

What's next: Pizzuti Henry says that she and her husband, who are also principal owners of the Boston Red Sox, have no plans to sell STAT, and that they are doing research now to invest in other new niche media startups.

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2. Hollywood engulfed by streaming drama

Photo illustration: Aïda Amer. Photo: David Livingston/GC Images

The release of the entire Warner Bros. 2021 film slate on HBO Max at the same time that the films debut in theaters has sent Hollywood into a frenzy.

Why it matters: Creators feel misled about its release strategy and worry that a simultaneous release could mean less cash for them.

  • Christopher Nolan told The Hollywood Reporter yesterday: "Their decision makes no economic sense, and even the most casual Wall Street investor can see the difference between disruption and dysfunction.”
  • Nolan pushed theaters to open Labor Day weekend to debut his film "Tenet," but its performance was so bad it pushed studios to delay more releases.

The big picture: The pandemic has caused entertainment giants to embrace streaming faster than most were prepared to do, resulting in lots of reshuffling at top companies and heightened tension between studios, creators, and theaters.

  • There's been major clashes at AT&T over whether top execs were right to dismantle operations at WarnerMedia — including its crown jewel HBO — in an effort to build a broader competitor to Netflix, per CNBC's Alex Sherman.
  • Disney's focus on Disney+ has put Hulu on the back-burner, per the FT.
  • ViacomCBS has started axing some of its smaller streaming services to focus on Paramount+ next year.

Yes, but: Disney, ViacomCBS, and others all face the same dilemma: While their futures are tied to streaming, their current profits are tied to businesses in terminal decline — theaters and traditional television.

What to watch: Discovery+ launched with lots of positive press this week. The streaming service aims to be complimentary to platforms like Netflix, by focusing on unscripted series.

3. Congress considers relief for small theaters
Data: Yahoo Finance; Chart: Andrew Witherspoon/Axios

Congressional aides tell Axios' Alayna Treene and me that the stimulus proposal put forth by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, which already has President Trump's seal of approval, would provide $15 billion in grants to independent performance venues and movie theaters.

Yes, but: The relief would only be available to companies with fewer than 500 full-time employees, about 60% of the movie theaters in the U.S.

  • A separate $908 billion proposal from a bipartisan group of lawmakers, which is still being negotiated, is expected to include similar language that would target its relief to smaller venues and theaters struggling to stay afloat.

Be smart: Stimulus talks are ongoing, and nothing is final.

The bottom line: There is little appetite among lawmakers to help large, publicly traded theaters, who have more access to capital than smaller venues.

  • For the major exhibitors not covered by the relief package, their fate hangs on the prospect of a vaccine. Despite vaccine hopes, theater stocks have tumbled lately in response to news that studios are planning more streaming releases.
4. Parenting publisher hits pandemic profitability

Vinit Bharara. Photo via Some Spider Studios

Some Spider Studios, one of the largest digital media publishers for parents, will bring in $35 million in revenue this year, $5 million of which will be profit, a source familiar with its finances tells Axios.

  • Digiday had previously reported that the company, which is home to big internet parenting brands like Scary Mommy, The Dad and Fatherly, was expecting to hit $50 million in revenue this year prior to the pandemic.
  • That's now become its goal for 2021, along with $10 million in profit.

Details: The 120-person company is run by Vinit Bharara, who launched Some Spider Studios in 2014 with $5 million of his own capital after selling, the site he co-founded, to Amazon for more than $500 million in 2010.

  • Most of the company's money comes from advertising, but the company does have growing events business linked to Scary Mommy and a budding commerce business.
  • Some Spider Studio brands collectively have about 30 million followers across social media. Scary Mommy is by far the biggest, especially on Snapchat.

What's next: Sources say that next year, the company is hoping to make more acquisitions and possibly build a commerce platform for families.

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5. Ad market is recovering, thanks to Big Tech
Data: Magna; Chart: Andrew Witherspoon/Axios

The ad market only ended up falling about 4.2% in the U.S. this year, thanks to digital media.

  • Analysts were initially expecting double-digit growth declines, but stronger-than-expected spend in social media and digital video helped to stabilize the ad sector as a whole.

The big picture: Tech giants like Google, Amazon and Facebook showed resilience this year, thanks in large part to the explosion of e-commerce, says Vincent Letang, EVP and director of global forecasting for Magna Global.

  • Those firms grew their digital ad revenues by more than the 8%, far outpacing most traditional and digital publishers.
  • "One could say digital media grew thanks to the COVID crisis," says Letang.

What's next: While traditional ad mediums are expected to return to pre-pandemic growth levels, more dollars overall are going to continue to flow back into digital media.

6. Pubmatic targets $115 million IPO amid ad tech boom

PubMatic, a programmatic advertising company, is looking to raise around $115 million when it files to go public this week, sources tell Axios.

Why it matters: Despite the ad market slump, the pandemic has been great for ad tech, because it's helped to accelerate the demand for new ad formats in mediums like streaming and gaming.

  • The ad tech sector has also been resilient during the pandemic, thanks in large part to the explosive growth of e-commerce and businesses moving online.

The big picture: Ad tech companies may see going public as a more viable way to raise money than pursuing venture capital deals, as many investors have cooled on the space, Abeed Janmohamed, director of M&A advisory joint venture Waypoint Partners and VOGL, told Business Insider's Lara O'Reilly.

7. More than half of media jobs lost this year are in news
Data: Challenger, Gray & Christmas; Chart: Andrew Witherspoon/Axios. Newsroom jobs include jobs in digital, print and broadcast. "Other media jobs" include jobs in television/film/streaming production, advertising, and book publishing.
8. 1 2020 thing: TikTok mega-star pivots to VC investing

Photo: RNewsfoto/Triller

Josh Richards is joining Remus Capital, an early-stage venture capital firm, as a Venture Partner, Axios has learned.

  • Richards, 18, has more than 22 million followers on TikTok and is an angel investor, and the Chief Strategy Officer at Triller.
  • Remus invests in startups that cater to Gen-Z, like boutique fitness app ClassPass.

Why it matters: So much of being a good early-stage investor is about having a unique network to find hot companies early—so it’s no surprise a VC firm sees value in an influencer like Richards, who, along with his TikTok following, has already ventured into podcasts and is working for Triller. 

  • Equally unsurprising is that young TikTok stars like Richards want to use their fortunes to become professional tech investors.
  • They’ve grown up with smartphones and have been exposed to the culture of investing through collaborations with even bigger stars and celebrities.
  • They live in Los Angeles, which has a local tech industry of its own right (not to mention tech role models like Snap’s Evan Speigel).

Details: Richards rose to fame this year alongside several other young, male creators as members of the "Sway House," one of the prominent TikTok creator collaboratives, headquartered in a mansion in Bel Air.

  • Richards and fellow "Sway House" TikTok stars Bryce Hall and Griffin Johnson have already used some of their TikTok earnings to invest in a few early stage media and tech startups.
  • Richards left the Sway House earlier this year to focus on investing and other projects. He will still serve as CSO of Triller, the rival TikTok app.

The big picture: Financial advice on TikTok is a growing theme, for better or worse. Young TikTok users, bored at home during the pandemic, have taken to trading apps like Robinhood this year for retail trading, sometimes getting themselves into financial trouble.