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

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

Media conglomerates are being constructed out of media brands. Getty Images
Headshot of Sara Jerde

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.”

Take an example like Dotdash, a company focused on evergreen content. It’s still in the market for brands even after acquiring four this year, including Brides (a magazine from Condé Nast) and, most recently, liquor.com, a site focused on the adult beverage industry. “We’re not going to do anything too small. And we’re not going to buy anything distressed. We’re not buyers of broken,” said Neil Vogel, CEO of Dotdash.

Vogel also said he’s not worried about competition for ad dollars when going up against media conglomerates. They might even be good for the ad ecosystem, he argued, serving as a natural course correction in the industry as these media mergers combine resources and pave a pathway to profitability, without the high-pressure stakes of meeting investors’ demands made in the funding rounds that gave them life.

“If you’re concerned with profitability, you’re probably not going to sell that incredibly complex ad deal at below market price,” Vogel said. “It will help, in my opinion, restore the value for this type of advertising for advertisers.”

Media buyers have said they’re eager to see what the merged media companies can offer with the additional resources to make better, customized content. Specifically, many said they’re eager to see what technology comes out of the Vox Media and New York Media merger, the custom production out of the Vice Media and Refinery29 consolidation, and the diversified Group Nine portfolio that includes the PopSugar audience.

“The programmatic space is big right now, but really getting these customized opportunities is so important,” said Jenny Lang, senior vice president for digital innovation and strategy at media strategy firm Magna.

A successful media company needs scale and investment, including the data to show potential clients and the talent to fuel the operation, said Hearst Magazines president Troy Young. “When you add operational and partnership expertise,” he added, “it becomes a very expensive endeavor—one that continues to force consolidation within our industry.”


@SaraJerde sara.jerde@adweek.com Sara Jerde is publishing editor at Adweek, where she covers traditional and digital publishers’ business models. She also oversees political coverage ahead of the 2020 election.
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