The State of Media 2020

MA Family is a team of communication experts with a deep understanding of tech and venture capital. We're researching communications in the widest possible sense and have now decided to share some of our materials publicly. Hope you'll enjoy it.

"The art of storytelling is incredibly important. Learning to tell a story is critically important because that’s how the money works. The money flows as a function of the story”. – Don Valentine, Founder of Sequoia Capital

The media industry is going through radical changes enabled by the shifts in its distribution model and the resulting incentives. Any brand or personality interested in getting publicity through the media is facing much tougher competition. These changes started with the mass adoption of the Internet. They include the massive switch to subscription pricing and paywalled content and the rise of single-author publications via blogs, newsletters, and podcasts.

More from Less

Two trends - the consolidation of media and an exodus of writers - are happening simultaneously. The number of traditionally reputable publications and the amount of journalists working for each has decreased, and the alternative channels that are emerging work on very different rules. The chances a reporter would write about your product until you’ve already proven it is lower than ever.

First, the Internet and global distribution enabled by it directly drives this consolidation. Earlier newspapers had geographic monopolies, so the media organizations in New York City and Los Angeles didn’t compete directly. Now they do, so the most significant media conglomerates with better cost structures can grow bigger and bigger. 

The media environment is consolidating through mergers and acquisitions.

Just in 2019, we have seen four notable purchases: 

  • Vice acquired Refinery29. According to sources, the deal is valued at about $400 million and includes mostly stock with some cash.
  • Vox Media acquired New York Media, including The Cut, Grub Street, Intelligencer, The Strategist, and Vulture.
  • Group Nine acquired PopSugar. The Wall Street Journal reported an all-stock transaction that values PopSugar at more than $300 million.
  • Bustle acquired Mic, Flavorpill, Inverse, Nylon, and The Outline (which has since been shut down). Earlier, it also acquired The Elite Daily, The Zoe Report, and Mic Network.

The buyers then strive to optimize their holdings and improve the secured assets’ performance, which are often losing money, at least according to insiders. That leads to layoffs, decreasing the number of writers these outlets have while the remaining ones are asked to write more.

“It’s not just about traffic or eyeballs; it’s about profitability and a sustainable business model,” said Roddy Moon, Managing Director for technology, media and telecoms at KPMG.

From 2008 to 2019, overall newsroom employment in the U.S. dropped by 23% – a loss of about 27,000 jobs – according to a Pew Research Center analysis of Bureau of Labor Statistics data.


In 2020 COVID-19 affected the media field. We’ve heard from multiple reporters that they were tasked with covering the pandemic-related news regardless of their specialization. The pandemic has already led to numerous media business layoffs, even though the purge started much earlier.

  • The New York Times announced in mid-June that it has laid off 68 people, many from its advertising team.
  • Vice Media laid off 155 employees (around 10%)
  • Vox Media laid off 70 employees (around 6%)
  • BuzzFeed laid off 43 employees (around 17%)
  • Quartz laid off nearly half of its staff
  • Fortune laid off 35 employees (around 10%)
  • The Guardian laid off 180 employees, including 70 in its editorial department 
  • BBC announces further 70 job cuts in its news division, months after announcing it was laying off 450 people 
  • The Athletic cuts off 46 employees, including journalists and others in its business department (around 8%) 
  • The Atlantic laid off 68 employees 

It comes to the point where these changes directly affect the ratio of PR managers to journalists. According to the Bureau of Labour, there are over 81,200 PR managers just in the US and only 37,140 journalists. 

When you want to share an announcement with journalists, you’re facing tougher-than-ever competition — reporters, editors, and correspondents on average receive up to 500 pitches per week. To secure results, you should do the homework, assess what kinds of things reporters are writing about, and what you need to provide to get noticed. 

We often talk to journalists informally. We’ve heard writers of some of the best brands in the business refer to it as a “high stress” industry with high turnover, expressing how unsafe it seems at times and how many people are at a crossroads with their careers. Certain media publications issue KPIs, such as the number of articles to publish per week, which doesn’t help much.

Things our fellow reporter talked about a few years ago turn into reality now. There’s going to be more focus on two types of content:

  1. Breaking news: national news, politics, or Tier-1 culture news
  2. Evergreen content: deep-dives into companies and industries, ratings instead of reviews, and analytical pieces

Reporters don't just want to write about interesting things, but interesting things that will last. Therefore, the things you do should be exciting, unique, and long-lasting. 

Subscriptions and Paywalls

Online advertising was the only revenue channel for online newspapers, but recently more and more of them have started turning to subscription models. Google and Facebook have commoditized the web for advertising, so newspapers are struggling to sell ads directly at the premium and have to work with third-party ad networks. 

Newspaper advertising has been significantly affected by COVID-19. The New York Times reported that advertising revenues had dropped by over 15% between Q1 2019 and Q2 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Subscriptions represent a more reliable and predictable revenue source, enabling deeper connections between the publication and its reader. No wonder that basically, every major news website has some sort of a paywall right now. 

  • Quartz established a metered paywall on May 15, 2019
  • New York Media announced its sites would be paywalled on November 12, 2018
  • Yahoo Finance announced its paywall on November 13, 2018
  • Bloomberg launched a paywall on May 2, 2018
  • Vanity Fair launched a metered paywall on April 24, 2018
  • Wired started closing some articles under the paywall on February 1, 2018.
  • Business Insider announced its paywall on Nov. 10, 2017 
  • The Athletic was launched in 2016 as a subscription-only sports website. It has over 1,000,000 paid subscribers
  • The Washington Post established its paywall on June 12, 2013
  • The New York Times launched its paywall on March 28, 2011
  • The Wall Street Journal has (almost) never been free to read online. When the full website — then called the Wall Street Journal Interactive Edition — officially debuted online 24 years ago, it was free for a few months
  • The Financial Times paywall has been around since 2002

While some publications simply close a part of their posts and articles behind the paywall, others use it as an opportunity to differentiate and bring additional types of content. TechCrunch announced Extra Crunch, its subscription product, on February 12, 2019. The core content TechCrunch is known for remained free and accessible to everyone, while Extra Crunch started producing more evergreen materials.

“In addition to cutting closer to the bone on the topics we already cover daily, we’ll be tackling a lot of the practical nuts and bolts issues that confront founders, entrepreneurs, analysts, and tech workers - from issues like inclusion and diversity to navigating hiring, legal and product decisions to mental health and wellness in high-performance environments” – TechCrunch announcement.

As a result, Extra Crunch now has a symbiotic relationship with TechCrunch – they share the same audience but have distinctive brands. This particular subscription model doesn't turn people away because it's not about closing existing content but adding new unique pieces. Now, most long-form interviews, bylines, and thought pieces are published on Extra Crunch.

The New York Times is one of the biggest benefactors of these radical changes. In 2015, The New York Times declared itself a subscription media company. In 2019 it firmed up its goal: 10 million subscribers across all products by 2025. It added over 669,000 in just the last quarter. Total revenues for Q2 2020 decreased 7.5% to $403.8 million from $436.3 million YoY, while subscription revenues increased 8.4% and advertising revenues decreased 43.9%.

Even though The New York Times employs almost 1,700 reporters, it still makes more revenue per each of them than any other major publication. 


"The gulf between The Times and the rest of the industry is vast and keeps growing: The company now has more digital subscribers than The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post and the 250 local Gannett papers combined, according to the most recent data. And The Times employs 1,700 journalists — a huge number in an industry where total employment nationally has fallen to somewhere between 20,000 and 38,000". – Ben Smith, Media Columnist at The New York Times

“The New York Times is going to basically be a monopoly,” predicted Jim VandeHei, the founder of Axios

In June 2013, Jessica Lessin left The Wall Street Journal to create a new subscription-based news website for tech-based executives. It’s now called The Information. It puts quality over quantity, pursues industry scoops, and keeps the publication ad-free, instead charging $399 a year for complete access. The Information achieved profitability in 2016 and expects $20 million in sales by the end of 2020. What’s even more important, it’s become increasingly influential in the tech and venture capital industries, with each of their insider stories widely discussed.  

Be on the lookout for new media publications even if they haven’t yet become household names among your friends. More niche publications have concentrated audiences relevant to you. 

The Lack of Trust

People don't seem to trust the media too much right now. 59% of Americans don’t trust the media, and 38% can recall a specific recent incident that caused them to lose trust in the media. 

But people trust personalities. Howard Stern made a 5-year deal with Sirius XM in 2004 for $500M. It required Stern's fans to buy satellite receivers and pay for a subscription service to continue listening to him – it’s a testament to Stern’s popularity that this worked. Howard is still making $90 million a year from this deal.

Writers' Publications

The modern technology stack enables them to become one-person publications, something unimaginable thirty years ago when every journalist had to write for some outlet. 

Blogs and newsletters allow writers to circumvent Google, Facebook, and Twitter feed algorithms to reach their audience directly.

Podcasts are built upon the RSS technology that isn't controlled by any centralized entity. 

Newsletters

As the journalism industry collapses, writers are turning to newsletters to continue writing and make a living

Thanks to subscription services such as Substack, Revue, Ghost, and patronage platforms like Patreon and Ko-Fi it's easier than ever for writers to forgo traditional publications and monetize their writing directly. Substack, launched in 2017, lets anyone launch a free newsletter while also offering a premium tier, typically starting from $5 a month. It has attracted journalists such as Casey Newton (The Verge), Alex Kantrowitz (BuzzFeed News), Matt Taibbi (Rolling Stone) and Andrew Sullivan (New York Magazine) and raised a $15.3 million Series A led by Andreessen Horowitz. 

While traditional publishers remain at the mercy of the display advertising market and social media algorithms, newsletters instead rely on reader loyalty and old-fashioned word of mouth. In the first three months of the pandemic, the overall usage of the Substack platform doubled, and revenue increased by 60%. 

Most of these writers don’t have editorial on top of them. Their new publications’ revenue doesn’t directly depend on page views but the loyalty of their readers. They don’t have to cover everything happening in the world to push volume. Instead, they focus on the things they’re deeply passionate about. 

These newsletters are read by early adopters and industry professionals and often surface new concepts and companies earlier than anyone else. You might benefit a lot from getting a feature in them, but you’ll have a hard time aligning your announcement and content with them. See the point on “evergreen content.” 

Roam Research, a seed-stage personal knowledge management startup recently valued at $200M, wasn’t covered in the media at all until it got into the spotlight of multiple tech influencers writing blog posts and newsletters.  

Examples

That emerging media field is diverse, ranging from illustrative one-person publications to entire editorials with dozens of employees distributing content through novel channels. 

Morning Brew

Morning Brew is a newsletter-focused media company launched in 2015. It now has 2 million subscribers, brings in more than $20 million in revenue, and employs 45 people. Recently it hired a Head of Product to lead their new and future subscription products. Business Insider parent Insider Inc. is reportedly in talks to acquire a controlling stake in a newsletter startup that values the company at over $75 million.

Stratechery

Ben Thompson has been writing Stratechery, his blog focused on business strategy, since 2013. Stratechery costs $12 a month or $100 a year, and his estimated revenue exceeds $3,285,351 for 2020. Ben is considered one of the most influential tech space analysts, highly praised by well-known startup founders and investors. 

Everything

Everything is a bundle of various writers on Substack. It is the first bundled offering there that operated even before Substack added that functionality natively. Dan Shipper and Nathan Baschez started it and now includes several writers focused on various topics. The bundle allows them to provide more value for the money, the concept Nathan explained quite early in his newsletter. Essentially any old-fashioned publication is a bundle, just way bigger and diversified.

“We don’t feel like we’re inventing anything new; we just re-discovered what a lot of writers figured out a long time ago,” says Shipper. “We’ve just found in our own experience that writing this together has made it both more fun and made the quality of our work higher.” 

Big Technology

Alex Kantrowitz left BuzzFeed News to start his publication on Substack. He was a senior technology reporter for BuzzFeed News and wrote the book Always Day One. 

"I’m calling it “Big Technology” because I’m going to focus primarily on the tech giants: Amazon, Apple, Facebook, Google, and Microsoft (which I cover in-depth in my book, Always Day One). And also because Big Technology evokes all the other BIGs — Big Government, Big Pharma, etc. — where politicians, advertisers, and the media play a game behind the scenes that’s seldom revealed. I want to cue you in. 

Big Technology will be unafraid, not beholden to narrative, corporate interest, or ideology. It will be personal, a conversation between me and you, the subscribers. It will be consistent, at least one free article per week to start, and a paid option later on. And it will be fun." – Alex Kantrowitz



There’s a common theme across all of these publications and many others we haven’t mentioned. They aren’t going to cover every funding round or product launch out there. But they are often interested in writing a profile on a great company or having an interview if you genuinely have something interesting to share.

Podcasts

Podcasts are yet another independent channel that has been growing dramatically in the past few years. According to Edison Research’s Infinite Dial report, more than half of Americans have now listened to a podcast, and an estimated 32% listen monthly (up from 26% last year). Spotify’s known investments in podcasts come to $696 million.

  • Spotify acquired Anchor and Gimlet Media for $349M.
  • Spotify acquired the Parcast Network for $55M.
  • Spotify acquired The Ringer, a media company known for its culture website and massive podcast operation headlined by The Bill Simmons Podcast.
  • Spotify acquired The Joe Rogan Experience to make it an exclusive podcast. The Wall Street Journal reports that the deal between Spotify and Rogan is worth more than $100 million. 

Podcasts have turned into a standalone self-sustaining medium. The largest one can showcase you and your ideas to millions of people, but you need to understand the kind of content they’re looking for. They are also a native medium for long-form content, specifically interviews. If you want to spread your own words – it’s one of the best options. 

How to Adapt

External communications and public relations have a simple purpose – raising awareness about the company, its products, and initiatives – and several objectives we often discover while talking to our clients. 

  1. Acquire customers
  2. Attract the attention of potential inventors and prospective partners
  3. Create an image of established companies for candidates interested in working for you.

To achieve these goals while competing with all other players on the market for the same limited attention, it’s imperative to understand and utilize novel channels. 

By the moment they’re well-understood and quantified, it’s already too late, and you have to catch up.

The most important things to remember are:

  • There’s a Cambrian explosion of new publications and novel media channels.
  • Writers and not publications now can establish their brand and build their personal audience.
  • It's increasingly important to follow their stories and understand what kinds of things they are writing about.
  • The awareness of the company starts with its own media presence and the public brand of its founders.


Ideally, you already should have an established brand, personal or the company’s one, to get coverage. Elon Musk doesn’t need the media; the media needs him. If he wants to make a statement, he can just tweet it to his 38M followers. Of course, none of us are actually Elon. But anyone can start building their own personal platform much earlier than the launch of the product.

For instance, you can look at Fast, a company building a 1-click checkout and login for ecommerce websites to compete with Amazon on the ease of use. Its founder, Domm Holland, came to the US from Australia and had zero connections in the Bay Area startup network. His primary advantage was his natural ability to propel the company’s story and build an organic following that eventually led to notable hires and a $20M investment from Stripe – long before the product was launched, which only happened on September 2, 2020.

Once you become a phenomenon, the media will have to cover you. So be it. 




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