April 13, 2022

In the wake of surprising media mergers, purchases, emerging platforms and inevitable closures, digitally focused firms have turned to consolidating brands. What benefits will be reaped from those moves remain to be seen.

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 also inked recent advertising partnerships with well-known audio brands, like “Gastropod” and “The Longform Podcast,” that further bolster its bet on the future of on-demand audio.

Ray Chao, general manager of audio for Vox Media, said that agreements 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 expending time and energy hiring a marketing staff.

“If you think about the (Vox Media) editorial brands, I think of those as verticals, and I think of audio and podcasts as a horizontal that cuts across the entire company,” Chao said. “A lot of our editorial networks have a podcast and, within those verticals, the people working on podcasts are almost all editorial people — producers, hosts, sound engineers. They’re focused on making the shows. And, at the horizontal level, we’ve centralized a set of resources to support the podcast business, which includes ad sales, marketing and audience development. Of course, we tap into company resources like finance and legal and I see my role as really bringing those different business functions together.”

Neither Gastropod nor  Longform have had products altered by those shifts. The little “Vox” logo atop the Longform avatar and the word “Eater” crowning the Gastropod logo might be the most noticeable signs of change. But there are cross-promotional ads showcasing interrelated Vox Media shows, in addition to ads
such as the mattress spots that marked podcasting’s earlier era.

Consolidation has been a part of the media business since its inception and, can in part, explain the vast reach of behemoths like Gannett and Condé Nast. That business tack has unified products that initially were designed to function independently. Within Vox Media, New York magazine’s Grub Street, a vertical focused on restaurant-related news, and Eater now coexist with Gastropod, which covers the science and history of food. Chao said there’s no imperative for disparate, but topically related, brands like that to work together. But there could be benefits.

“I think there are certain categories that have a stronger fit with Vox. In the Gastropod example, we saw a really great opportunity where Eater only had one podcast; they hadn’t done a podcast that was more produced and narrative in format. Gastropod’s not narrative, but it’s produced — it’s not a chat 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 subjects, and they tell stories that have a surprising alignment. So, we brought Gastropod in, and we struck a strategic partnership with them.”

He described a hands-off mentality regarding editorial products — newly acquired or otherwise — saying that journalists and producers should make those decisions. They should also decide if, and when, collaborations across brands occur, according to Chao.

In addition to paid advertising on its podcasts, the company is examining subscription audio, something not wholly dissimilar to Slate Plus, where paying listeners gain 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 public relations contact for the company declined to share subscriber numbers for CAFE Insider, but pointed to reporting by Nicholas Quah on Vulture (another Vox Media product) that indicates Bharara had “tens of thousands” of paying subscribers prior to the acquisition.

Chao said other audio properties would roll out similar products later this year.

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

“Even in a world where we’re seeing what looks like old patterns of consolidation with new players, we are still in the early stage of trying to understand how magazine-like properties … generate revenue and keep their audiences,” said Patti Wolter, a professor at Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism. “That’s its own shakeup.”

That might account for Dotdash, a digital organization, purchasing Meredith Corp., with holdings that include People, Entertainment Weekly, Southern Living and Travel + Leisure, one of the more traditional magazine companies still kicking around. Likewise, BuzzFeed bought HuffPost in 2020 and acquired Complex Networks in 2021, enabling the company to go public via a special purpose acquisition company. Since December, when its stock began trading at about $9 per share as BZFD, the price has fallen and now is in the $5 range. It has prompted employees of the company to claim BuzzFeed “bungled’ its initial public offering and ostensibly disallowed them from benefiting financially.

Wolter did note that any overlap in brands’ subject matter might positively impact the business side, giving companies the ability to offer advertisers more reach across “multiple platforms and properties.”

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

It’s been about two years since Vox and New York media merged, making a storied print magazine part of a growing digital concern. Today, New York magazine remains the only print product within the Vox Media portfolio. But David Haskell, the magazine’s editor-in-chief, said that support from the larger company during a tough time — the pandemic ramped up not long after the companies solidified their deal — had been helpful.

There were pandemic-related layoffs across Vox Media. And, while a Vox Media PR representative said the company wouldn’t share specific employee numbers, they’re currently staffed up to pre-pandemic levels after reducing the workforce by 6% in 2020.

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

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

There are all those food properties, after all. But Haskell points to what he perceives as a differentiation of logic, purpose and audience for each. The same might be said for the raft of political coverage across Vox Media brands as well

It’s that sort of reasoning which helped insinuate Curbed, a digital outlet focused on real estate that was a part of Vox Media at the time of the merger, into the New York brand. The fact that Haskell previously studied architecture at Cambridge University likely didn’t hurt. The editor said Curbed fit naturally among New York’s five other verticals, each something of a standalone digital magazine, and provided an opportunity to discuss “design, urbanism and real estate” with more regularity and nuance.

Media consolidation spans news and entertainment as demonstrated by The New York Times’ purchase of the viral online game Wordle in late January. While the shifting fortunes of various conglomerates remains uncertain as bets are placed on audio and intellectual property being developed into streaming video and film, Haskell remains bullish on his publication’s future.

“When I think about New York magazine and growth opportunities, I’m not actually thinking in terms of subject area conquests,” Haskell said. “I think we have the tools and properties within New York magazine to cover everything that we want to cover. As I hope we grow and evolve, it’s more about doubling down on our authority within the current structure.”

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

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Dave Cantor is a Chicago-based writer and editor, who's been published in The New York Times, JazzTimes and sundry other publications.
Dave Cantor

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