How Vox Media’s Growth Explains What Happens When Digital Media Companies Combine

In the wake of surprising media mergers, takeovers, emerging platforms and inevitable shutdowns, digital-focused companies have turned to brand consolidation. It remains to be seen what benefits will be derived from these moves.

Following The New York Times’ purchase of The Athletic, a network of city-based sports websites, Vox Media acquired Group Nine, another suite of sites that includes The Dodo and Now This, earlier this year. The company has also signed recent advertising partnerships with well-known audio brands, such as “Gastropod” and “The Longform Podcast”, which further strengthens its bet on the future of on-demand audio.

Ray Chao, general manager of audio for Vox Media, said deals like those recently announced by the company can help producers, journalists and creators focus on their craft, instead of worrying about the business side of things or spending time and energy hiring marketing. Staff.

“If you think of editorial brands (Vox Media), I think of them as verticals, and I think of audio and podcasts as a horizontal that runs through the whole company,” Chao said. “A lot of our editorial networks have a podcast, and in those verticals, the people working on podcasts are almost all editorials – producers, hosts, sound engineers. They focus on making the shows. And, horizontally, we’ve centralized a set of resources to support the podcast business, which includes advertising sales, marketing, and audience development. Of course, we draw on corporate resources such as finance and legal and I see my role as really bringing those different business functions together. »

Neither Gastropod nor Longform had any products altered by these changes. The small “Vox” logo atop the Longform avatar and the word “Eater” crowning the Gastropod logo might be the most notable signs of change. But there are cross-promotional ads featuring interrelated Vox Media shows, in addition to commercials.
like the mattress stains that marked the earlier era of podcasting.

Consolidation has been part of the media industry since its inception and may partly explain the wide reach of behemoths like Gannett and Condé Nast. This business approach has unified products originally designed to operate independently. Within Vox Media, New York magazine’s Grub Street, a vertical focused on restaurant news, and Eater now coexist with Gastropod, which covers food science and history. Chao said there was no imperative for disparate, but thematically related brands like this to work together. But there could be benefits.

“I think there are certain categories that fit Vox better. In the gastropod example, we saw a really great opportunity where Eater only had one podcast; they hadn’t done a podcast anymore. produced and in a narrative format. Gastropod isn’t narrative, but it’s produced — it’s not a talk show,” Chao said. “We saw an opportunity: it shares a similar journalistic sensibility with Eater. Obviously a high quality show, and they actually cover a lot of the same topics and topics, and they tell stories that have a surprising alignment, so we brought in Gastropod and entered into a strategic partnership with them.

He described a hands-off mentality regarding editorial products – newly acquired or not – saying journalists and producers should make those decisions. They should also decide if, and when, cross-brand collaborations happen, according to Chao.

In addition to paid advertising on its podcasts, the company is looking at subscription audio, something not quite unlike Slate Plus, where paying listeners get access to bonus episodes and ancillary material tied to various shows. . Vox Media’s acquisition of Preet Bharara’s CAFE studios in spring 2021 gave the brand its first subscription audio offering with CAFE Insider.

A company PR contact declined to share CAFE Insider’s subscriber numbers, but pointed to Nicholas Quah’s report on Vulture (another Vox Media product) that says Bharara had “tens of thousands.” paid subscribers prior to the acquisition.

Chao said other audio properties will launch similar products later this year.

Vox Media – and really any publishing house in its own right – has systematically branched out into as many different forms of media and entertainment as possible. In addition to streaming “Explained,” a documentary series on Netflix, a deal was announced Jan. 17 with CNN+ to turn the tech-focused “Land of the Giants” podcast into a show for the subscription streaming platform launched this week. spring.

“Even in a world where we see what looks like old consolidation models with new players, we are still at the beginning of our attempt to understand how magazine-like properties…generate revenue and retain audiences,” said Patti Wolter, a professor at Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism. “It’s his own redesign.”

That could explain Dotdash, a digital organization, which bought Meredith Corp., with stakes that include People, Entertainment Weekly, Southern Living and Travel + Leisure, one of the most traditional magazine companies still in business. Similarly, BuzzFeed bought HuffPost in 2020 and acquired Complex Networks in 2021, allowing the company to go public through a special purpose acquisition company. Since December, when its stock started trading at around $9 per share as BZFD, the price has fallen and is now in the $5 range. This prompted company employees to claim that BuzzFeed “botched” its initial public offering and ostensibly barred them from benefiting financially from it.

Wolter noted that any overlap in the subject matter of brands could have a positive impact on the business side, giving companies the ability to offer advertisers greater reach across “multiple platforms and properties.”

“You used to have publishing houses that had TV channels as a separate arm,” she said. “The arms and the tentacles are changing, and it makes sense that some of these digital companies…look at what makes sense for their portfolio.”

It’s been about two years since Vox and New York Media merged, making a legendary print magazine part of a growing digital concern. Today, New York magazine remains the only print product in Vox Media’s portfolio. But David Haskell, the magazine’s editor, said the support from the biggest company during a difficult time – the pandemic escalated shortly after the companies solidified their deal – had been helpful.

There have been pandemic-related layoffs at Vox Media. And, while a representative from Vox Media PR said the company would not share specific employee numbers, they are currently staffed down to pre-pandemic levels after cutting staff by 6. % in 2020.

After finalizing its deal with Group Nine this year, Vox Media laid off about 3% of its workforce, citing layoffs.

“In my world here, Jim (Bankoff, co-founder and CEO of Vox Media), has a very clear intention to grow Vox through acquisitions, if you look at the company’s mandate. But very carefully, so that the editorial products that come in are set up to be successful. It’s done with a sort of primary focus on the brand and its audience,” Haskell said, discussing the recent flurry of media acquisitions and mergers. .

There are all these food properties, after all. But Haskell emphasizes what he sees as a differentiation in logic, purpose, and audience for each. The same could be said for political coverage of Vox Media’s brands.

It’s that kind of thinking that helped insinuate Curbed, a real estate-focused digital media outlet that was part of Vox Media at the time of the merger, into the New York brand. The fact that Haskell had already studied architecture at Cambridge University probably didn’t hurt. The publisher said Curbed fits naturally among New York’s five other verticals, each a stand-alone digital magazine, and provides an opportunity to discuss “design, urbanism and real estate” with more regularity and nuance. .

Media consolidation encompasses news and entertainment, as evidenced by the New York Times’ purchase of the viral online game Wordle in late January. While the changing fortunes of various conglomerates remain uncertain as bets are placed on audio and intellectual property developed in video and film streaming, Haskell remains optimistic about the future of its publication.

“When I think of New York magazine and growth opportunities, I don’t really think in terms of domain wins,” Haskell said. “I think we have the tools and properties within New York magazine to cover everything we want to cover. While I hope we grow and evolve, it’s more about doubling down on our authority within the current structure.

Correction: This story has been edited to correct the spelling of Ray Chao’s name.

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