Media Briefing: Publishers are counting down to the end of Q4

This Media Briefing covers the latest in media trends for Digiday+ members and is distributed over email every Thursday at 10 a.m. ET. More from the series →

In this week’s Media Briefing, media execs air their frustrations with the fourth quarter, which is once again, lacking in luster.

  • Publishers say Q4 ‘sucks’
  • 3 Qs with Mirror Digital’s Sheila Marmon
  • Condé Nast layoffs, publishers and AI continue to go head to head and more

Publishers say Q4 ‘sucks’

Just one month in, the fourth quarter is already not turning out to be quite as lucrative as publishers had hoped, a notably somber realization for a quarter that is traditionally the breadwinner when it comes to ad revenue. 

“It sucks out there,” is the shared mentality among publishers this Q4, which was put into succinct words by one particular media exec who spoke on the condition of anonymity in order to air their frustrations freely. 

As a result, in-quarter selling is once again critical this quarter, turning the last three months of the year into a mad dash to win as many ad deals as possible, according to five publishers who spoke to Digiday for this story. Quick-turn programmatic spots and gift guides sponsorships are central to wrapping up this quarter’s ad sales, but the hope is that these bottom-of-the-funnel campaigns can be left behind once 2023 comes to an end, they said. 

“It feels like the ability to see into the future diminishes every year. So we’re definitely still selling into this quarter. Deals are still happening,” said a second media exec who spoke with Digiday on the condition of anonymity last week.  

The second exec added that, historically, Q4 inventory largely gets sold out via direct deals with advertisers and agencies. But this year, programmatic guaranteed deals, while still direct, have increased in volume, giving the sales team more leeway to crank out last-minute campaigns. 

“It’s been a slower year in general. Q4, I think everyone had hoped in the first half that we’d have this major comeback [like] we’ve seen in Q4s in the past,” said Lindsey Abramo, CEO of World of Good Brands, which publishes Hunker and Well+Good among other titles. This year, however, Q4 has “sort of stayed the same steady drumbeat” as the rest of the year. “It didn’t nosedive by any means, but it didn’t pop the way that I think that we all had hoped [it would, like] we’ve seen in the past.” 

The first exec agreed that there has not been a Q4 pop. “Some of the declines that we had in the first half of the year just never really made themselves up in the third and fourth quarter,” they said. And despite projecting that their publication’s revenue will be down by an undisclosed amount this year, they added that there are still areas of optimism for driving ad revenue in 2024. At least “we’re not Vice or BuzzFeed, thank god.”

The Daily Upside’s founder Patrick Trousdale said that the ice is thawing at the very least when it comes to proactive selling. “Client responsiveness over the last month has picked up significantly. Two or three months ago, the number of outbound [messages] it would take to get a conversation going was significant. Now we’re having a lot more receptivity to conversations,” he said. 

Overtime, on the other hand, is pacing to have year-over-year revenue growth in 2023, even though the digital sports publisher has not been immune to the fact that “the fourth quarter is a challenge for everybody,” according to chief revenue officer Rich Calacci. He declined to disclose how much revenue is estimated to increase this year, but pointed to specific ad categories that stayed strong during the recession scare that helped keep Overtime’s revenue on the up and up. 


It appears to be a mixed bag for publishers when it comes to which ad categories are spending this quarter and which are lagging behind their typical spend for Q4.  

The first exec said that auto, pharma, food, beauty and retail were “doing fine” right now, but tech, travel and fashion are not.

Meanwhile, Calacci said that while ad revenue from the auto category is up year over year so far this quarter, “generally speaking, you’d want to see more automotive spending in Q4, just by virtue of launches,” he said. 

Part of what’s helped to insulate Overtime’s business during the tough ad market, Calacci said, is its target audience demographic of 18-to-34-year olds, which are less likely to be impacted by increasing interest rates on major purchases like homes and cars, but tend to partake more in discretionary purchases for categories like fast food and retail, two categories that like to advertise with Overtime. 

Fast food, insurance, fashion, beverages and snacks are all other growth categories for Overtime, Calacci added. Even streaming and entertainment ad revenue is pacing up this quarter and likely to carry into Q1 despite the still-unresolved actors’ strike, largely due to campaigns promoting sports, which was not impacted by the strike.

The financial services category – which has been equally troubled thanks to the Silicon Valley Bank collapse at the beginning of this year – is starting to come back on the direct-to-consumer side, according to The Daily Upside’s Trousdale. While clients in this category took a “big break” in Q2 and Q3 of this year, “we are seeing a return of some of our long-term investing and finance-oriented [clients] in Q4.” 

Brand awareness is brewing

Increasingly this year, programmatic and other scale-oriented campaigns have been harder to compete for as a publisher, so during client conversations in fourth quarter, publishers are simultaneously using the opportunity to begin whetting the whistles of advertisers for high-touch, bespoke offerings like events and branded content that can kick off right away in 2024. 

Experiential and innovative uses of generative AI in brand campaigns are two bright spots on RFPs that the first exec said they can still compete for, adding that “advertisers continue to come to us for things that Google, Facebook, linear [TV] networks and other big platforms out there just don’t do or can’t do. And that’s what we continue to carve out for ourselves.”  

Trousdale said that part of The Daily Upside’s Q4 outreach strategy included trying to capture agency budgets for the quarter, but it’s been tougher than expected to gain runway there. Most of the responses from those attempts have been agencies telling Trousdale’s team to wait until Q1 when taking “risks” on new partnerships will be easier to approve. 

Beauty and wellness advertisers are still prioritizing tangible KPIs like conversions and transactions this quarter, but under the surface of the Q4-specific campaigns, Abramo said clients are starting to think about brand awareness opportunities, particularly tied to WGB’s experiential brand, House of Good. 

“I’m not seeing a ton happening in Q4, but we’re talking about it for next year. I’m welcoming the conversation because we haven’t had [brand awareness campaign] conversations in quite some time,” she said.

What we’ve heard

“The technology around the open programmatic market, and our ability to ensure quality ads and experiences come through within the app, have become far more sophisticated since we had turned it off … once we had real confidence that that was something that we really had a lot more control over, it led us to bringing [open programmatic ads] back into the app.”

Joy Robins, global chief advertising officer of The New York Times, on the latest episode of the Digiday Podcast. 

3 Qs with Mirror Digital’s Sheila Marmon on the impact of keyword blocklists on Black-owned media

The media reckoning in 2020 put a spotlight on the historic inequalities Black-owned media companies faced, but there are still a number of challenges. One of them is the issue of keyword blocklists and brand safety verification technologies that disproportionately disadvantage minority-led media publishers, according to half a dozen execs at Black-owned publications that spoke with Digiday over the past few weeks (look out for that article coming soon). 

Sheila Marmon founded Mirror Digital in 2012 to help connect minority-owned media companies with Fortune 500 brands, and now has a network of over 1,000 media brands and creators. Marmon spoke to Digiday about why keyword blocklists are still an issue for Black-owned media companies – and what she’s trying to do about it. — Sara Guaglione 

This conversation has been edited and condensed. 

This is a topic we’ve been discussing for years. Why do you think it’s still an issue?

Because you need people from diverse communities helping to build the systems. So when you think about who’s working on these algorithms at DoubleVerify and IAS, there’s not a lot of diversity across those teams. So until people of color have a seat at the table in developing the inputs that go into these systems, we’re going to continue to be reactive and have to fight them on the back end… [We are thinking] about how we can [provide] our cultural relevance and cultural perspective to help the ad verification companies… take those into account when they’re building the algorithms themselves. [Otherwise] we’re fighting fires as they flare up, instead of getting to the root cause.

You mentioned that your approach to improving this problem is two-fold. Can you explain?

Some of the things that we did were help explain cultural contexts. For example, the word “bomb” is in the title of [one of our] publisher’s names. And so the site would be indiscriminately blocked. It meant “bomb,” like, “you look bomb,” it didn’t mean an explosive device. So really starting to help them understand some of those cultural nuances… There are all of these slang terms that we spent a lot of time speaking to senior management and agency leadership, helping them understand that kind of cultural conversation is happening in these spaces and being part of that helps them be more relevant. 

The second thing that we continue to talk a lot about is that you’ve got to just update your keyword blocklist… Making sure that these keyword blocklists are looked at as living documents, and that you update them on a quarterly basis or on some cycle so that they stay relevant.

Has there been any progress yet, from what you’ve seen?

Since 2012, we’ve been working on this. We’ve been having these conversations. We’ve been educating people. And so I think at this point, the relationships have been deepened between some of the publishers and the ad verification partners. And so we have a more direct feedback loop to give them information and help them adjust when we notice that there are problems, but we still have to get further upstream.

Numbers to know

600-plus: The number of staffers in The New York Times’ Tech Guild that walked out on Monday to protest the company’s return-to-office policy remote-work policies. 

<$140 million: The amount of money that e-commerce company Ntwrk is expected to pay to acquire Complex Networks from BuzzFeed Inc, less than half the price of $300 million that BuzzFeed acquired the company for in 2021. 

5%: The percentage of staff that Conde Nast is laying off, affecting about 270 employees, with declines in digital advertising and social media traffic being cited as the reasons for the cost cuts.

~2: The number of weeks that was granted to Austin Russell, Luminar Technologies CEO, to scrounge up the $800 million bid to purchase Forbes. The original deadline, set in May, was Nov. 1. 

$19 billion: The amount of money that X is valued at, according to stock grants handed out to employees on Monday, down substantially from the $44 billion purchase price Elon Musk paid a year ago.  

What we’ve covered

How podcast networks use existing feeds to improve engagement and discoverability for new shows:

  • Podcast networks are distributing new shows through existing feeds for large podcast franchises to find new audiences.
  • Wondery, Sony, Paramount and NPR, are doing this for limited series and franchise extension episodes. 

Read more about how podcast networks are generating audiences for new shows here

How National Geographic is using its contributor network to refresh its social media channels:

  • TikTok, Instagram and YouTube Shorts are feeding the appetite for short-form vertical video among social audiences, and a brand like National Geographic has to grapple with how that fits with the high-resolution, visually stunning imagery and video.
  • Social media is core to both National Geographic’s revenue and audience growth strategies, so staying on top of the shift is paramount.

See how the 135-year-old brand is relying on its contributor network to create social content here.

A definitive ranking of publishers’ revenue sources as Q4 rolls on, per new Digiday+ Research: 

  • Digiday found that publishers have only increased their reliance on direct-sold ad revenue since last year. 
  • Publishers’ reliance on branded content also saw a big jump from last year.

Learn more about which revenue sources were most important for publishers here.

As news aggregator referral traffic slips, publishers turn their attention inward:

  • Traffic sent from news aggregators to publishers’ sites is stalling, according to four publishing execs and data from analytics firm Chartbeat. 
  • As a result of the declines, some publishers are now reevaluating their content distribution and revenue share deals with news aggregators.

Read more about publishers’ new approach to news aggregators here.

What we’re reading

AI is coming for product reviews: 

Writers and editors of Gannett’s product review site Reviewed called out leadership for using generative AI to create product reviews. The New York Times reported that upwards of 40 Reviewed employees claimed they did not recognize the bylines on a slew of stories that were published last week, though Gannett claims AI was not used to create the product reviews. 

The Guardian claimed that Microsoft’s AI-generated poll damaged the publication’s reputation:

A poll made by Microsoft’s AI technology popped up on a story about a woman’s death, asking readers to vote on how they think the woman died, which the Guardian said led to an angry response from readers, according to the publication. 

Sources are hesitant to talk to Forbes reporters over ownership concerns:

Concerns about Forbes’ prospective new owners, which includes Russian business tycoon Magomed Musaev, are keeping sources from talking to the publication’s reporters, Semafor reported.

Many media barons are vying for The Telegraph now that it’s up for sale:

Rupert Murdoch, Mathias Döpfner and Lord Rothermere are all reportedly considering the purchase of 168-year-old conservative paper The Telegraph, according to Vanity Fair.   

AI chatbots are scraping news content the most: 

The New York Times reported that news publishers are being targeted by AI chatbots more than generic or general interest publishers to inform the large language models they are built upon, according to News Media Alliance, a trade organization that represents newspapers.

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