Axios Media Trends

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March 30, 2021

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⚡️ Situational awareness: The creator economy is booming, and unicorns abound.

  • Substack is raising $65 million in new venture capital funding that would value the company at around $650 million.
  • Cameo this morning raised $100 million at a $1 billion valuation.
  • Patreon is valued at $1.2 billion after raising $90 million in September.

1 big thing: Streamers chase current events

Data: Parrot Analytics; Chart: Danielle Alberti/Axios

Documentaries were the fastest-growing genre on streaming last year, as more news companies leaned into licensing deals with streamers around current events.

Why it matters: Data from Parrot Analytics shows that there’s an appetite for news-adjacent content on-demand.

  • "While current events have always been fodder for entertainment programming, we’ve seen a rise in consumers’ appetite for content based on real-world events," says Jana Winograde, President of Entertainment at Showtime Networks Inc.

Driving the news: New series and documentaries — both scripted and unscripted — are getting optioned around events as recent as the Capitol siege and Wall Street's GameStop saga.

  • On the scripted front, Winograde says Showtime is developing a limited scripted series about the Capital riots from the same creators of Showtime's miniseries "The Comey Rule," based on James Comey's 2018 book "A Higher Loyalty: Truth, Lies, and Leadership."
  • On the unscripted front, Winograde says "we were thrilled with the consumer response" to Showtime's non-fiction projects "KINGDOM OF SILENCE" about Jamal Khashoggi's murder and "Outcry" a true crime documentary.
  • Both Discovery+ and Hulu are airing documentaries about the saga around GameStop and Wall Street's populist revolution from ITN Productions and ABC News, respectively.

Showtime has also just ordered the limited-series SUPERPUMPED based on New York Times reporter Mike Isaac’s bestselling book Super Pumped: The Battle For Uber. Hulu has just unveiled a documentary about WeWork's corporate drama.

  • Netflix recently debuted "Operation Varsity Blues," a scripted series about the celebrity college admission scandal.
  • HBO Max and Netflix have each debuted documentaries about the perils of social media with "Fake Famous" and "The Social Dilemma."

By the numbers: Demand for documentaries has started to outpace the supply of documentary series available to consumers, according to Parrot Analytics.

  • From Jan 2019 to March 2021, the number of documentary series increased by 63%. But demand grew by 142%.

Between the lines: The evolution of streaming and technology has made it easier for studios and news companies to quickly turn around shows based on events shortly after they occur.

The bottom line: ”We have also found evidence that documentaries are increasingly becoming a useful retention tool (for streamers)," says Alejandro Rojas, Director of Applied Analytics at Parrot Analytics.

2. NEW: Spotify acquires Locker Room as first foray into live audio

Illustration of podcast symbol with headphones on and smiling
Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

Spotify announced Tuesday it's buying Betty Labs, an app developer, and a live audio app developed by Betty Labs called Locker Room.

Why it matters: The deal marks Spotify's first foray into social audio. The company said last month that it was looking at ways to make its podcast more interactive between creators and listeners.

Details: Sources say the scope of this deal is much smaller than some of Spotify's other recent acquisitions. Betty Labs employs less than 20 people, per LinkedIn.

  • Locker Room is a live social audio app where fans can talk about sports. Spotify said in a statement that in coming months, it will "evolve and expand" Locker Room into "an enhanced live audio experience for a wider range of creators and fans," including in genres like music, and cultural programming.
  • The acquisition will allow creators of all kinds to host anything from debates to live concerts.

More details.

3. NEW: Entercom rebrands to take on Spotify


Entercom, the publicly-traded radio and podcast company, is rebranding as "Audacy" to help establish itself as a modern audio company.

Why it matters: Prior to the rebrand, Entercom's consumer-facing audio products had different names and access points, making it difficult for the company to compete with the likes of unified audio brands like Spotify.

  • "We've outgrown our name," CEO David Field tells Axios. "It no longer fits who we are or where we are headed."
  • Moving forward, the company's stock ticker will be "AUD."

Details: The company's consumer-facing radio and on-demand audio app, RADIO.COM, will be rebranded "Audacy" and will become the central home to all of Entercom's radio and podcast content.

Go deeper.

BONUS: Podcast roll-ups

Data: Axios research; Chart: Axios Visuals
Data: Axios research; Chart: Axios Visuals

4. Editors bolt G/O Media

Since its sale to private equity firm Great Hill Partners in 2019, G/O Media (formerly Gizmodo Media), has lost a slew of top editors from its news and information sites.

Driving the news: Two editors-in-chief have left or announced departures from G/O Media in the past week.

  • 2021: The Root's Danielle Belton announced she was leaving for HuffPost last week.
  • 2021: Lifehacker editor-in-chief Alice Bradley left last week. (Jordan Calhoun will succeed her.) Lifehacker's previous editor-in-chief Melissa Kirsch left for the New York Times in May 2020.
  • 2021: Kotaku editor-in-chief Stephen Totilo left for Axios.
  • 2020: Gizmodo editor-in-chief Kelly Bourdet left for CNN.
  • 2019: Jalopnik's longest serving editor-in-chief Patrick George left in December 2019. Interim editor Mike Ballaban left the following April.
  • 2019: Deadspin's staff left en masse following the resignation of the outlet's editor-in-chief Megan Greenwell in response to a directive to the outlet to only cover sports and sports-adjacent topics.
  • 2019: AV Club executive editor Laura M. Browning and managing editor Caitlin PenzeyMoog left the outlet shortly after the deal.

Yes, but: Turnover is common in digital media.

  • A G/O Media spokesperson says the company has hired 40+ people (in business and editorial) over the last quarter, and has another 25 open roles.

5. Telcos ditch skinny bundles

Data: MoffettNathanson Research; Chart: Axios Visuals
Data: MoffettNathanson Research; Chart: Axios Visuals

The live TV "skinny bundle" is proving to be a much tougher business to crack than telecom providers and tech giants initially expected.

  • "The challenge they all face is they are not really for die-hard sports fans because sports have become too expensive," says Rich Greenfield, Partner at LightShed Ventures.

Driving the news: T-Mobile announced a major deal with Google that will, among other things, see the mobile carrier give up on running its own cable rival “TVision“ and instead resell YouTube TV, Axios' Ina Fried reports.

  • The move is essentially a recognition that T-Mobile US was not going to be able to take on the existing TV providers.

Be smart: "I think non-Hulu and non-Youtube TV (skinny bundles) are going to have a rough future," says Greenfield.

  • AT&T said last month it would spin out its digital skinny bundle service "AT&T TV," along with the rest of its video businesses.
  • Sony shut down its skinny bundle service PlayStation Vue in 2019.
  • "Google and Hulu live can afford to never make money because there is larger goal — for Google it's to transition ad buyers into the YouTube world and cross sell with YouTube and for Hulu it's to support/prop up ESPN," he says.

6. Billionaires step in to save local news

illustration of a news stand carrier filled with money
Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

A slew of wealthy individuals are making offers that threaten to derail a deal between Tribune Publishing and private equity giant Alden Global Capital.

Why it matters: Alden Global Capital is a hedge fund known for cutting journalists at local papers to maximize profits.

  • Last month it said it would buy out the remainder of Tribune Publishing, the parent company to the Chicago Tribune, New York Daily News and other local papers, in a deal valuing Tribune at $630 million.

Details: On Monday, The Wall Street Journal reported that a Florida investor named Mason Slaine, who is a minority investor in Tribune, was willing to put up $100 million in a bid for Tribune being led by Maryland hotel magnate Stewart Bainum Jr.

  • Slaine is eyeing ownership of Tribune’s two Florida papers, the Orlando Sentinel and the Sun Sentinel in Fort Lauderdale.
  • Bainum Jr. originally said he would buy the Baltimore Sun, The Capital Gazette in Annapolis, and a few other smaller Maryland papers from Tribune for a reported $65 million to spin the news group into a non-profit.
  • He has since offered to pay roughly $680 million for the takeover of Tribune, per The Wall Street Journal.
  • On Saturday, The New York Times' Marc Tracy reported that Swiss billionaire Hansjörg Wyss was joining Bainum Jr. in his bid for the Tribune papers, with plans to own Chicago Tribune.
  • Over the weekend, The Morning Call, a paper representing Lehigh Valley, Pennsylvania that's owned by Tribune Publishing, reported that a Manhattan investor was the mystery bidder behind a $30-$40 million offer for the paper.

Go deeper: Billionaires scoop up news outlets as new form of philanthropy.

7. Valuation nation

Data: Axios research; Chart: Axios Visuals
Data: Axios research; Chart: Axios Visuals

News Corp announced Thursday that it has agreed to acquire Investor's Business Daily for $275 million because of its booming digital subscription business.

  • The company continued its deal spree Monday, announcing the acquisition of the books & media segment of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

Why it matters: Media valuations are tricky in the digital era. Newer entities can be valued at over $1 billion while storied newspapers, rich in history and trust, can be worth next to nothing.

8. Media giants face Archegos nightmare

Data: FactSet; Chart: Axios Visuals
Data: FactSet; Chart: Axios Visuals

Stocks for ViacomCBS and Discovery plummeted Monday in the wake of a dramatic fall-off in a handful of stocks owned by a hedge fund manager named Bill Hwang, Axios' Felix Salmon and Courtenay Brown report.

What's happening: Hwang was making highly leveraged multi-billion-dollar bets on companies including TV giants like ViacomCBS and Discovery.

  • When those stocks started to fall, Hwang's fund, Archegos, was forced to liquidate the positions at any price, and both companies ended up losing about half their value as a result.

9. 1 fun thing: America gets a much-needed distraction

Data: Keyhole; Chart: Danielle Alberti/Axios

The ship stuck in the Suez Canal brought a change of pace to the news cycle last week, Axios’ Neal Rothschild and I write.

  • The ship garnered an estimated 1.8 million social media posts and 25 billion potential impressions, according to data from Keyhole.

Why it matters: After a prolonged period of domestic turmoil — COVID, polarized politics, a racial reckoning, an insurrection and a crisis at the border, the internet rallied around a common cause: freeing the boat.

By the numbers: Social media activity around the stuck boat surpassed other major topics last week, including the migrant crisis, March Madness and debate about the filibuster.

  • Between the lines: While the incident had major ramifications for the global economy, much of the online activity was lighthearted and meme-driven.