Media Mergers Aren’t New. So Why Are Publishers Consolidating Now?

Companies came together in the '90s for different reasons than today

a colorful pyramid being built piece by piece
Media conglomerates are being constructed out of media brands.
Getty Images

Perhaps it was promising, years ago, to see the media industry booming thanks to investments by venture capital-backed funders and large media conglomerates hoping to cash in early on promising new digital media titles.

But now, it’s the time in the industry’s life cycle for those same flashy digital media titles to increasingly borrow moves from the old folks—specifically, consolidation.

Acquisitions and mergers aren’t a new concept for the media industry. Publishers have long chased ad dollars with scale and will likely continue to do so. However, more than ever before, consolidation can serve as a way to weather the storm, band together and share resources in a challenging media environment with ever-evolving consumer behaviors.

“These deals ... are simply a reflection of a rapidly changing competitive media landscape,” said Mark McCareins, professor at Northwestern University

“These deals and more to come are simply a reflection of a rapidly changing competitive media landscape,” said Mark McCareins, professor at Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University.Until the pond is dry [and] until the fish that are left in the pond aren’t too attractive, people will continue to look at the candidates that are still present.”

In the last few days, the latest fish to swim together include Vox Media and New York Media, Vice Media and Refinery29 and Group Nine and PopSugar. They join a landscape with multiple players already operating under this model.

In recent years, Bryan Goldberg, CEO of Bustle Digital Group, has pieced together his own collection of lifestyle and, now, tech-focused brands. Dotdash, the media organization specializing in evergreen content formerly known as About.com, has quietly built up its portfolio, and G/O Media (formerly Gizmodo Media Group) not so long ago purchased several brands from Univision. New Media hopes to acquire Gannett, then merge with Gatehouse, the latest in a string of major deals including like Time Warner and AT&T and Disney and 21st Century Fox. The list goes on.

“To grow scale through mergers and acquisitions increases the audience base, brings in new users and advertisers,” said Danielle Sporkin, U.S. head of integrated planning at media agency OMD USA. “It potentially gives them a leg up in trying to compete for dollars against major players in this space.”

However, there’s nothing to guarantee that once these consolidations happen, the brands won’t be wound down. G/O Media, for example, just shuttered political news site Splinter after acquiring it and a handful of other brands from Univision earlier this year.

Consolidations, though, don’t always mean cuts. The move to share resources could help publishers reach new audiences and advertising dollars.

Media is a cycle

The trend of media mergers started in the 1990s, which saw movement from the likes of Warner Brothers and Time Inc. (which became Time Warner Cable), Viacom acquiring Paramount, then Time Warner Cable merging with Turner.

Driving the consolidation in the industry is changing consumer behavior, said Bart Spiegel, U.S. media and telecommunications deals partner at PricewaterhouseCoopers. “Given the pace of change in this industry, this could require market players to quickly shift capital to address changing consumer preferences and maintain their position in the market,” Spiegel said.

As media companies also look to diversify revenue streams and rely less on advertising and more on subscriptions, the space could change even further.

"Those media companies that can't advance in this digital age will dissipate," said Deb Schwartz, CFO of Bustle Digital Group

The strategy for each consolidation is largely driven by who is at the wheel.

Owners range from private equity firms Boston-based Great Hill Partners that owns G/O Media, to Group Nine Media, which has raised millions of dollars in venture capital, and a billionaire-backed operation like Time, The Washington Post or The Atlantic.

“What we are seeing is the industry moving in the right direction. Consolidation is not only beneficial for the industry but essential [to creating] an ecosystem with scaled, sustainable and profitable players,” said Deb Schwartz, chief financial officer of Bustle Digital Group. “In 2020, we will continue to see even more mergers and acquisitions, and those media companies that can’t advance in this digital age will dissipate.”

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