October 4, 2022

Hard News Struggling to Keep People’s Attention

The hangover from Trump losing the election in 2020 continues to give headaches to news organizations. Press Gazette analyzed the 50 biggest English-language news sites in the world and saw that many had seen a reduction in traffic in August year-over-year. According to the piece:

Visits to nytimes.com were up 65% year-on-year to 637.8 million while visits to dailymail.co.uk were up 6% to 416.1 million, according to data from digital intelligence platform Similarweb.

Among the top 50 as a whole, fastest-growing was the US edition of The Sun (64 million visits, up 118%), echoing the site’s strong growth in the US market as well. News Corp launched the US digital version of the popular UK tabloid in 2020 and the site has seen steady growth since then, ranking twentieth in the US and 26 in the world.

Most everyone else is down. Fox News, down. BBC, down. Russian propaganda site, RT, down (though is anyone surprised about this?). None of this should be surprising, but there are some interesting things to glean from here.

First, the hangover is intense. After four years of hyper-partisan news and two years of the pandemic, I think people are more interested in anything other than news. Even things like the war in Ukraine, which likely had an early spike in interest, now appear to have lost people’s attention. That happens.

But, I think another thing is that we’re in a different economic climate. A year ago, the economy was much more robust, we had only just peaked in the stock market, and people were getting jobs left and right. Now, we have inflation, and there’s concern about going into recession. So, people’s focus is on more pressing things than the news.

Second, we’re seeing how growth investments pay off in two ways. For example, Press Gazette called out both The Sun and The New York Times. For the former, it’s creating a lot more content since it has been expanding significantly into the United States. And since it traffics in clickbait chaos, I’m not surprised that investing more money will help it see an increase in traffic. I imagine this is also why the New York Post is seeing its traffic rise.

For NYT, there’s some subtlety here, though. At the beginning of the year, the Times acquired Wordle for “low seven figures.” For a little while, it stayed on its old domain name. But at some point, NYT migrated the site to NYTimes.com. Suddenly, you have an app with a ton of demand living on the same domain name as the news; therefore, is anyone surprised that Similarweb is reporting a massive jump in year-over-year traffic to NYT’s site?

Similarweb tracks visits, which in Google Analytics talk equals a session. A session is the number of times an individual visitor visits a site in 30 days (whereas a pageview is the number of pages those sessions see in a month). If I go to NYTimes.com today, and then I go again tomorrow, that’s equal to two sessions. And so, if 1 million people play Wordle every day, that would equal 30 million visits to NYTimes.com.

So, is it any wonder that NYT has seen a big jump in visits?

The long-term play makes a lot of sense here. If the Times can get more people to create accounts, they’ll be in an excellent position to promote other Games products requiring a paid subscription. So, while Wordle may not make direct revenue, if it can get these die-hards to create accounts and pay for other games, the Times will come out ahead.

How other publishers play in this world is complex, though. Simply copying the Times with games won’t get you there. It recognized earlier than everyone else that its business is subscriptions, not just news subscriptions. Therefore, trying to go after them now is not a great place to be.

Nevertheless, I think this explains why, of the top ten biggest news sites, the Times was only one of two that saw growth year-over-year. As it continues to expand its arsenal of products for people to engage with that rest outside of news, it will continue having opportunities to keep users on its site. At some point, the Times becomes a platform in and of itself. The question is when we’ll all start looking at it that way.

Is scale media best suited for a family business?

Last week, Axios’ Sara Fischer did two pieces in her Media Trends newsletter about Hearst. And in one of them, she wrote:

Hearst expects revenues to grow close to $12 billion this year, up slightly from the record $11.9 billion it earned last year, according to new figures from CEO Steve Swartz provided to Axios in an interview.

The 135-year-old company is owned by a family trust, in which only five of the 13 seats on the board of trustees are reserved for descendants of the Hearst family. The rest are made up of current and former Hearst executives.

The trust doesn’t expire until the last of William Randolph Hearst’s grandchildren who were alive at the time of his death have died.

First up is the news that Hearst continues to grow revenue. This massive private business is expected to increase revenue to $12 billion this year. While the growth is small in percentages, it’s still $100 million in revenue growth year-over-year. That’s bigger than many media companies, so that’s saying something.

But that last sentence in the quote stands out to me. The trust that owns the business expires when any grandchildren born before August 14, 1951, ultimately pass away. The Chairman of Hearst Corporation is William Randolph Hearst III, only 73 years old (born in 1949). And so, the trust can continue operating at its pace, irrespective of what investors might think.

And so, it makes me wonder… If you’re not family-owned, can you grow an ultra-scale, long-lasting media brand? For example, the New York Times is still majority controlled by the same family. The Hearst family has near control with 5/13 votes (it just needs two for a majority if they vote together). Both assets have unique voting structures to ensure that the family retains control.

Let’s look at a recent entrant to the space: The Information. Jessica Lessin owns this outright, and she invests her resources into growing it. Because she is operating on her timetable (life) versus an investor’s timetable, could she build a lasting legacy with a media asset that no one else can?

Media takes a very long time to reach scale. Some have figured out how to do it fast in the short term, but if you try for too long, you turn into BuzzFeed.

If I have to guess, when all of Hearst’s grandchildren pass away, we will start to see this business fragment. Management will try to unlock value in the various assets—TV, newspapers, magazines, etc.—and we will see significant divestiture. I often wonder if a scale business like this is truly the best from a financial perspective or if the scale is simply a vanity play. Would the assets generate more value on their own?

Nevertheless, it’s an interesting question. Will we ever see a return to these multi-generational media companies, or are those days behind us? If I have to guess, they’re definitely behind us. But it’s impressive, nevertheless, to see Hearst continue to grow.

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