Media Briefing: Musical chairs among the media industry executive suite

This week’s Media Briefing takes a look at some of the recent C-suite changes in the media industry and what the publications are hoping to achieve by a changing of the guard.

Just past the midway point of 2023, the executive levels of many media companies look a lot different than they did at the beginning of the year. 

Many new C-level appointments were made over the course of the last seven months, in large part due to a recalibration among publishers like The Washington Post, Vice Media Group and Gannett to focus on the areas of the business that are generating revenue, like subscriptions, when other business lines, like advertising, underperform. Or perhaps these changes have taken place in an effort to make a company more attractive to prospective buyers as gossip circulates the M&A rumor mill. 

Either way, whether a media company has brought in fresh blood or practiced some bloodletting tactics so far in 2023, this is what this high-level game of musical chairs indicates for those companies, and the media industry, at large. 

Gannett 

Gannett has been on a mission to increase the share of its digital business within its overall revenues and in the second quarter, digital revenue represented 39% of the company’s total haul, an all-time high, according to CEO Mike Reed during the company’s earnings call

To continue increasing that share of revenue, the company is focusing specifically on improving the average revenue per user of its digital subscription business and its digital marketing solutions business, LocaliQ, both of which saw year over year revenue growth during the second quarter of 17.3% and 4.4%, respectively. 

Gannett announced the hires of four new leadership roles during the company’s second quarter earnings call last Thursday: 

  • Chris Cho, president of Digital Marketing Solutions 
  • Imtiaz Patel, Gannett Media’s chief consumer officer
  • Kristin Roberts, Gannett Media’s chief content officer
  • Jason Taylor, Gannett Media’s chief sales officer

The hires of Patel and Roberts are both specifically focused on content output and increasing the audience engagement on the local and national news sites in order to translate that traffic into digital subscriptions. Meanwhile, Taylor and Cho are focused on building more sponsorship opportunities across the local media sites and in the company’s events business, given that digital advertising and marketing services revenues are still trudging along (this business saw a 11.4% year-over-year decrease in Q2.) 

The Washington Post

The Post rapidly lost several top execs over the past year, including its chief communications officer, chief information officer, chief product officer and chief revenue officer, culminating with its CEO and publisher Fred Ryan stepping down from his role in June. Until a permanent appointment is made, Patty Stonesifer was announced as the interim CEO. 

Stonesifer has previously served on the Smithsonian Institution’s Board of Regents as well as led a local Washington charity organization while also serving on Amazon’s board of directors for just about three decades. The Post was purchased by Amazon founder Jeff Bezos in 2013.  

The former two roles indicate that Stonesifer is experienced in charitable giving, which the Post doesn’t practice as a private media organization (unlike The Guardian or other philanthropic-based media outlets), but there are some possible lessons to be learned from Stonesifer in regard to generating reader-funded support via its subscription business. 

In July, three other appointments were made to fill some of those other gaps in the C-suite: 

  • Johanna Mayer-Jones was promoted to chief advertising officer  
  • Alex MacCallum was named chief revenue officer
  • Vineet Khosla was hired as chief technology officer 

Khosla’s background is in consumer-facing businesses like Uber and Apple while Mayer-Jones and MacCallum both spent their careers in media, ranging from the Financial Times and The Wall Street Journal for the former and The New York Times to CNN for the latter. All are likely to re-focus the Post’s growth efforts on subscriptions, which have been stalled out around 2.5 million for the past two years, as well as generate more advertising interest for a news organization heading into a U.S. presidential election year. 

Vice Media 

Vice has been experiencing more of a bloodletting than a refresh as of late. 

On the first of the month, it was announced that Katie Drummond, svp of global news and entertainment, Jason Koebler, EIC of Motherboard,and Matthew Schnipper, senior director of global news operations, were all stepping down from the company, after it was sold in a post-bankruptcy sale to a group led by Fortress Investment Group. 

In February, the company had an even bigger C-suite shake up when CEO Nancy Dubuc stepped down after nearly five years at the helm. Her suspected task when hired in 2018 was get the company sold, the New York Times reported, but by early 2023, the most realistic path for the company was filing for bankruptcy. Co-CEOs were named as Dubuc’s replacement: Bruce Dixon, previously CFO, and Hozefa Lokhandwala, previously chief strategy officer. 

What’s to come of the company now that it’s under the ownership of Fortress is yet to be determined, but the likelihood will be an effort to right the ship when it comes to executive-level compensation, given the company was handing out bonuses totaling $11 million to leadership in the year leading up to the company filing for bankruptcy. 

Vox Media 

Vox Media nabbed one of Vice’s former advertising heads, Geoff Schiller, naming him the successor to chief revenue officer Ryan Pauley who was promoted to president, revenue and growth of the company. 

Schiller had held a version of this role for some of Vox Media’s brands – the Group Nine portfolio – earlier in his career and had left Group Nine after it was acquired by Vox Media in 2022. Schiller is focusing on the brand studio and business revenue operations. Having sold Vice Media’s video inventory for some time, the likelihood is that he will be focused on monetizing Vox’s video products in his new role. 

Jackie Cinguina was promoted to chief marketing officer and Lauren Rabaino was promoted to chief operating officer as well during the June announcement. Rabaino is tasked with overseeing product, analytics and technology, among other things, according to Axios, which indicates a renewed focus on the company’s first-party data offerings.

IT is also part of Rabaino’s oversight and less than a month after her appointment, it was announced that Vox Media stopped using its proprietary CMS Chorus, which it formerly sold licenses to as part of its software-as-a-service business. 

What we’ve heard

“We’ve seen some softer traffic trends in the entertainment category … We’re concerned about the … ongoing [Writers Guild of America strike and SAG-AFTRA] strikes. They’re leading to reduced advertising for new shows.” 

— Christopher Halpin, evp, CFO and COO of IAC during the company’s Q2 2023 earnings call

Mixed feelings about H2 revenue

BuzzFeed, Gannett, IAC and The New York Times shared different expectations for revenue growth for the second half of 2023 during their second-quarter earnings calls which took place over the past week.

While Gannett and The New York Times were optimistic about overall revenue growth in Q3, BuzzFeed and IAC are less convinced that tides will turn for the better by the end of this quarter. 

“We expect to continue to rebound in digital advertising,” Doug Horne, Gannett’s CFO, said in an earnings call on August 3, adding that the poor performance of digital advertising in Q3 and Q4 2022 will offer favorable year-over-year comparisons in the second half of 2023. 

The New York Times expects to see year-over-year increases across several businesses in Q3, including digital-only subscription revenue by 14-17%, total subscription revenues by 8-10% and digital advertising revenues in the mid-single digits range. Total advertising revenues are expected to remain flat, but this is an improvement from its second-quarter performance.

BuzzFeed and IAC are still bracing for a soft ad market in the second half.

In his letter to shareholders, IAC CEO Joey Levin said Q3 performance “so far has been mixed, with growth in the broader Meredith sites and strong Amazon Prime Day sales offset by traffic softness in the entertainment category and certain partner sites.”

IAC expects a year-over-year decline in Dotdash Meredith’s digital revenue in Q3 – but less of a drop than the 10% year-over-year decline in Q2, Levin wrote. 

BuzzFeed is projecting Q3 revenue to be in the range of $73-$78 million, or 25-29% lower than Q3 2022, CFO Felicia DellaFortuna said in an August 8 earnings call.

“Looking into Q3, the media environment remains challenged. We expect year-over-year trends in overall revenue to be similar to Q2, as the headwinds we saw on advertising revenues persist,” said BuzzFeed president Marcela Martin. — Sara Guaglione

Numbers to know

$19.5 million: The amount of money The Atlantic booked so far this year in advertising and events revenue, marking 60% progress on its way to its $32.5 million goal in 2023. 

$2 billion: The amount of money Penn Entertainment is paying to use ESPN’s name in its online sportsbook business. The deal will ensure that ESPN receives $1.5 billion over the course of the 10-year agreement and $500 million worth of purchase shares in Penn. 

9.19 million: The total number of digital-only subscribers The New York Times reported to have by the end of Q2 in its latest earnings report. 

$10 million: The amount of money Puck raised in a Series B funding round, making the company’s new valuation in the mid-$70 million range.

What we’ve covered

Here’s what ad and media execs really mean when commenting on a whirlwind Q2:

  • Another earnings window, another round of contrasting outlooks on what is an undeniably tumultuous period for advertising and media. 
  • Here’s a breakdown of some of the biggest offenders — of what they said and our interpretation of what they were actually getting at.

See what media execs are claiming in this latest round of earnings here

Podcast networks report Q2 revenue growth, with positive signs for continued improvements in 2023: 

  • iHeartMedia, Spotify and Acast reported revenue growth between 12% and 31% year over year in their podcast businesses during the second quarter of 2023. 
  • During the three companies’ earnings calls, podcast execs discussed how they’ve shifted their strategies to be more mindful of overhead spending amid the podcast bubble bursting.

Learn more about podcast networks’ latest results here.

Why protecting paywalled content from AI bots is difficult business:

  • People have used OpenAI’s ChatGPT to bypass publishers’ paywalls
  • But are publishers even able to protect their subscription businesses against generative AI chatbots siphoning their subscriber-only content?

Read more about how publishers are taking on this challenge here

Why some publishers are reducing their podcast slate to try to grow their audio businesses: 

  • From Spotify to NPR, podcast networks have cut their slate of shows. 
  • For some podcasters, reducing the number of shows they produce is part of a strategy to refocus their audio businesses on flagship podcasts to grow their listeners and revenue.

Learn how podcast publishers are growing their audiences despite having fewer shows here.

Digital ad revenue is still down but digital subscription revenue is a bright spot in Gannett’s Q2 earnings: 

  • The plateau of Gannett’s digital-only subscription business finally took a turn for the worse when it comes to total number of subscribers. 
  • Despite that, revenue for the digital-only subscription business grew in Q2 by 17.3% year over year and 5.9% quarter over quarter. 

See more findings from Gannett’s latest earnings report here.

What we’re reading

Canadian publishers are pressuring the government to stop Meta from blocking news: 

Following the passing of the Online New Act in Canada, which would require companies like Meta and Google to pay publishers for linking to articles on their platforms, Meta said it was removing all news content from its platforms in the country. Now, several Canadian news publishers and broadcasters are asking Canada’s competition regulator to stop Meta from blocking access to news, according to a report from The Guardian. 

Publishers are able to block OpenAI from scraping their sites: 

Publishers can now disallow OpenAI’s GPTBot crawler from scraping their websites’ Robots.txt files or block its IP address altogether, according to The Verge, which will prevent the AI technology company from using content on those sites from informing its AI model.  

Barstool Sports founder Dave Portnoy regains sole ownership of the media company from Penn Entertainment: 

After buying Barstool Sports in a two-part deal, which began in early 2020, for a total of $551 million, Penn Entertainment has decided to relinquish ownership of the media company back to the company’s founder, Dave Portnoy for $0 upfront but 50% of any future sale of the company, Axios reported. In a video announcement on Twitter, Portnoy said the regulated industry was too challenging for Barstool to operate in because of the founder’s controversial history. 

BuzzFeed’s Q2 earnings reveals the company is burning through cash: 

BuzzFeed’s second quarter ended with $41.3 million in cash and cash equivalents in the companies’ bank accounts, after having burned through $14.5 million already this year and ending the quarter with a net loss of $27.8 million, The Wrap reported. 


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