Mar 3, 2020

Axios Media Trends

By Sara Fischer
Sara Fischer

Today's Media Trends is 1,936 words, a 7 minute read.

Situational awareness: Longtime MSNBC anchor Chris Matthews announced last last night that he will be retiring from his signature program, "Hardball," after a series of on-air gaffes and allegations of unwelcome comments towards women.

1 big thing: VOA journalists fight propaganda claims

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

Journalists within the Voice of America (VOA) are pushing back on the idea that their reporting could fall prey to political influence by the Trump administration.

  • Why it matters: Top VOA executives are concerned that alarmist reporting, some from progressive outlets, may have prematurely undermined the credibility of the agency.

Catch up quick: In the wake of Trump's 2017 inauguration, numerous reports suggested that the VOA — a 78-year-old, government-funded independent, international news agency — would essentially turn into a Trump administration propaganda arm.

  • Reports that the agency would fall victim to partisan control began to pop up after the Trump administration sent two officials to the VOA to conduct a transition team overview in early 2017.
  • "Retooled VOA set to be Trump-run US state media network," was the name of one MSNBC segment hosted by Rachel Maddow at the time.
  • While it's not unusual for administrations to send transition teams into the VOA, there were reservations about the qualifications of the two officials sent in, according to VOA sources.

Yes, but: VOA Director Amanda Bennett told Axios she's tried to get media outlets to accurately assess the VOA today, without much success.

  • "If you guys act as if we're already propaganda," Bennett said, "then how are you going to respect us or help us if something bad ever does happen to us?"
  • "At first I was worried like everybody else," VOA senior White House reporter Patsy Widakuswara told Axios. "Then I began to understand that so many things had to be done by the administration during the transition and that we were pretty low down the rung before he (Trump) even looked at the VOA."

Between the lines: Broader concerns about VOA independence arose after a legal provision changed governance over the agency from a board of non-partisan directors to a CEO selected by the president.

  • That provision passed during the Obama administration.
  • A CEO has yet to be confirmed. The Trump administration has twice-nominated Michael Pack, but it's been held up in the Senate confirmation processes. Pack is an American documentary film producer and media executive who has received pushback from some Democrats for his ties to Steve Bannon.
  • The Senate Foreign Relations Committee didn't respond to requests about the status of Pack's confirmation. The White House said it re-nominated Pack last week.

Between the lines: Sources inside the VOA say the agency has been operating as business as usual, without interference from the Trump administration.

  • "In terms of interference, I haven't experienced any," says Wei Lin, social media editor at the VOA's Mandarin service and a 20-year veteran of the VOA.
  • "I don't feel any different at all whether it's a Democratic or a Republican administration" says Dong Hyuk Lee, Chief of VOA's Korean Service, and a 14-year veteran of the VOA.
  • The VOA broadcasts in more than 40 languages and reaches an estimated weekly audience of 280 million.

Go deeper: More context on how the VOA operates

2. Coronavirus scare hits media, advertising industries

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

The New York Times said in a government filing Monday that it expects global advertising revenue to be down this quarter due to corporate uncertainty related to the coronavirus. The news caused shares of other media publishers to dip.

  • Why it matters: In times of uncertainty, media and marketing budgets are usually the first to get cut.

Be smart: Uncertainty in marketing around retail and consumer packaged goods, which are often linked to Chinese supply chains, as well as travel and entertainment, is hitting the advertising sector particularly hard.

The big picture: Analysts predict that the entire advertising ecosystem will likely be negatively impacted by the virus, based in part on how China's advertising market has reacted to the outbreak over the past few months.

  • "As we have seen in China, we would expect to see less travel, less manufacturing, reduced retail sales and cancellations of many forms of public entertainment," said GroupM's Brian Wieser, one of the top global advertising industry analysts.
  • In these situations, Wieser notes, where there's less travel and more need for information, media consumption at home will likely rise — potentially leading to a boost in some TV advertising sales. But outdoor advertising "may be worse off with lower levels of foot traffic in many places," he added.

What's next: Various media events and conferences have been canceled or are under pressure due to concerns around the virus.

  • Facebook and Twitter have both pulled out of SXSW, slated to take place next week in Austin, Texas.
  • Movie-going in China, the largest international box office, has been impacted by the virus, which has also put a dent in some expected U.S. movie studio revenues.
3. Pivot to software

Illustration: Rebecca Zisser/Axios

The business of licensing publishing software is growing increasingly competitive as more digital publishers look to raise money and develop more content management software and technology products.

Driving the news: Minute Media, a holding group that owns digital sports and entertainment websites like The Players' Tribune and The Big Lead, announced Wednesday that it has raised $40 million in venture capital, most of which will be used to expand its business by selling publishing software as a service.

  • Sources tell Axios that the company's post-money valuation is more than $500 million, driven largely by investor optimism in the company's tech business.

The big picture: Many modern media companies have built some sort of tech product, mostly publishing software, to license to other companies. Today, there are many companies that offer different publishing solutions.

  • The Washington Post created Arc, which is licensed to dozens of publishers, from small weekly publications to The Boston Globe.
  • Vox Media sells a suite of tech products ranging from its content management system, Chorus, to Coral, an open-source comments publishing platform that it acquired from the Mozilla Foundation last year. It also acquired a content management business called Clay when it bought New York Media last year.
  • Axios is reportedly looking to sell a new CMS-type of service to big companies, per Business Insider.
  • Hearst Media licenses MediaOS, a proprietary content management system that also serves as a data analytics platform.

Our thought bubble: Media companies have dabbled in software sales for a long time, and with the exception of some companies that have built hybrid media/tech services like Bloomberg LP, most have not been able to grow their non-media businesses to deliver on the promise of tech-style scale.

4. #WeBackJack goes viral after investor drags Dorsey

Photo Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios; Photo: James Brickwood/Fairfax Media via Getty Images

Twitter employees have taken to Twitter in a social media campaign showing support for CEO Jack Dorsey using the hashtag #WeBackJack.

The big picture: The campaigns comes days after activist investor Elliott Management has acquired nearly a 5% stake in Twitter, and believes the key to unlocking value is to replace Jack Dorsey as CEO, Axios' Dan Primack writes.

Why it matters: Elliott has become the top agitator in media and tech, and often gets what it wants.

  • AT&T was forced to make major changes last year after a six-week standoff with Elliott, which also targeted AT&T's CEO Randall Stephenson.

Elliott's complaint against Dorsey appears to be twofold:

  1. Dorsey only can devote part of his attention to Twitter, given that he also runs payments company Square (in which he has a larger financial interest). This is exacerbated by Dorsey's plans to spend much of 2020 in Africa, to better understand the continent's fintech revolution, which is more pertinent to Square than to Twitter.
  2. Twitter under Dorsey has experienced consistent executive turnover and has repeatedly dropped the product innovation ball, particularly in mothballing Vine, which was TikTok before TikTok.

The other side: Twitter's financial performance under Dorsey has steadily improved, even if not to levels of Elliott's liking.

The bottom line: Canning Dorsey could have ripple effects in Silicon Valley, where CEOs have been under increasing pressure to abandon dual-class stock structures.

5. Ratings are coming to eSports

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

One of the world's biggest eSports leagues is working with Nielsen to develop the first-ever comprehensive measurement system for viewership of esports broadcasts.

  • Why it matters: eSports audiences are beginning to outpace traditional sports viewers globally. Without a way to adequately measure those audiences and compare them to TV audiences, it's harder for brands and leagues to monetize those eyeballs.

Details: The League of Legends Championship Series (LCS), run by American video game developer Riot Games, is working with Nielsen to develop the first-ever official measurement system for esports broadcasts that mimics what's used to measure TV.

  • The new ratings system, called live+, captures live broadcast viewership and related on-demand or replay video afterwards.
  • Unlike traditional sports, eSports tournaments are watched after-the-fact because audiences are global and span different timezones, and because aspiring players like to rewatch games to learn from other gamers' techniques.
  • The ratings leverage the new industry standard for viewership reporting called average minute audience (AMA). AMA is a unit that is akin to how television audiences are measured. The eSports industry began to adopt AMA late last year.
  • This metric will parallel Nielsen’s live+ TV ratings, which aggregate live and on-demand viewership within a designated time window to present a more complete picture of TV viewership engagement.

Be smart: TV-like ratings are considered more accurate than the viewership metrics that the eSports industry had been previously using, like peak concurrent viewers or peak channels.

  • "In some ways, this is not revolutionary at all because it's done the same way as TV," says Nicole Pike, Managing Director, Nielsen Esports.

What's next: Other major eSports leagues are in touch with Nielsen about adopting the standard. Nielsen has partnered with Activision Blizzard and ESL over the past year to implement the AMA standard industry-wide. It expects other eSports leagues to adopt live+.

6. Super Tuesday: Bernie beats Biden online
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Data: NewsWhip; Chart: Chris Canipe/Axios

While Joe Biden has surpassed Michael Bloomberg as the Democrat getting the second-most online attention, he comes nowhere close to Bernie Sanders, whose stories have more interactions on social media than the rest of the Democratic field combined, according to data from NewsWhip exclusively provided to Axios. 

Yes, but: In the 3 days leading up to Super Tuesday, Joe Biden has more cable news mentions than Sanders.

7. Publishers invest in podcast companies

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

BBC Studios said Monday that it's investing in Pocket Casts, a free-to-download podcasting platform.

  • NPR, WNYC Studios and WBEZ Chicago are already investors.

Why it matters: The investment is likely a response to media companies wanting their own data, analytics and distribution outlets instead of Apple, which shares very little data with publishers.

The big picture: It's part of a growing trend of news companies eyeing investments in podcast companies to bolster their audio efforts.

Driving the news: The New York Times is in exclusive talks to acquire Serial Productions, the podcast studio that has attracted more than 300 million downloads, The New York Times' Ben Smith reports.

  • Smith says that the company's valuation could be around $75 million, which would be a hefty investment for The Times.
  • The Times has acquired smaller companies before, like influencer marketing agency Fake Love in 2016, and About.com for about $410 million in 2005.

Yes, but: One high-level source in the podcasting world emails Axios that they're skeptical that the deal will go through.

  • "They don’t need it. The Daily is heard by millions of listeners daily. Their other projects have been great. Serial will sell to someone needing a pod strategy or big win, is my guess."

Be smart: Recently, many of the big podcast exits were going to tech companies, like Spotify, but publishers have made investments in podcast companies as well over the past few years.

  • Slate Group was early to the game with its creation of Panoply, now called Megaphone, a podcast content company turned podcast technology company that now focuses on podcast advertising.
  • iHeartMedia bought podcast production company Stuff Media in 2018 for $55 million.
  • E.W. Scripps acquired podcast network Midroll in 2015.
8. 1 📺 thing: Another AT&T streaming service

AT&T is launching a new TV service and a series of offers it hopes will allow it to sell TV service even when people don't want to give up their current broadband provider, Axios' Ina Fried reports.

  • AT&T TV joins DirecTV, DirecTV Now, U-verse TV, HBO Now, HBO Go and HBO Max in the company's stable of linear and over-the-top TV services.

Why it matters: The streaming field is crowded, but some of the most lucrative customers are those willing to pay for live TV. This is AT&T's latest effort to go at that market.

Sara Fischer