Media Briefing: The media industry’s top takeaways from 2023

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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 →

There will not be a Media Briefing next week due to Digiday’s holiday break.

This week’s Media Briefing takes a look at the top trends from 2023 and how media companies fared in light of a less-than-stellar ad market.

  • 2023 in review
  • AI-created fake news is on the rise, NowThis has a new CEO and more

2023 in review

Amid the frustrating ad market and lackluster year, some key trends standout that help to summarize how the media industry fared in 2023.

From the MFA debacle to AI experimentation to a prolonged era of layoffs, here are some of the top takeaways and major themes from Digiday’s reporting over the course of the year. 

Results from the year

First, let’s sum up the year’s performance which really seems to run the gamut depending on where you fall in the media industry. 

While digital publishers like BDG reportedly saw revenue declines of 10-15% year over year, others experienced year over year growth in total revenue. The Atlantic’s CEO Nick Thompson, for example, contextualized his company’s annual revenue as “phenomenal,” ending the year up over 2022, though he declined to share exact revenue figures. 

The latest round of earnings reports from publicly traded publishers showed similar discrepancies for just how much or how little their companies were impacted by the volatility of the ad market. The New York Times and Dow Jones reported year over year revenue increases in the third quarter of 2023 by 9.3% and 4%, respectively, but Gannett and BuzzFeed’s earnings told a different story with the companies’ quarterly revenue declining by 8.4% and 29%, respectively, year over year.  

Speaking to 2023 on the whole, Josh Stinchcomb, global CRO of Dow Jones and The Wall Street Journal, classified the year as “a bit of a mixed bag” but ultimately felt as though the media company “fared as well, if not better, than most.” 

Audiences in flux

One of the bigger frustrations of the year — and something many publishers pointed to as a catalyst for revenue decreases in 2023 — was declining referral traffic from both search and social platforms. 

The reported reason for lost referrals is that the platforms are working harder to keep users locked on their social media feeds. As a result, referral traffic from X (née Twitter) was down as much as 72% year over year, while referral traffic from Facebook declined as much as 84% year over year in August. 

Even referral traffic from Google started faltering this year for a select number of publishers. Though some reported slight increases from this referral source, two publishers reported that a series of algorithm updates in 2023 left referral traffic down by almost 70% for a couple of their brands with little insight as to why.

“Social has struggled for all publishers this year [specifically] with Facebook and we’ve been a strategic partner of [Facebook’s] really ever since 2011. With the closure of Instant Articles, that lopped off a lot of revenue from many publishers and then, secondarily, their change in algorithm to downscale news as a topic itself, we’ve been challenged by that as well,” said Zach Leonard, The Independent’s global COO and president of North America.  

Thompson said that while The Atlantic’s on-site audience did decrease year over year, its audiences on Apple News and the publication’s app did increase, helping to mitigate some of those lost referrals. Overall, however, net audience was down for the year. 

MFAs became the common enemy 

Made-for-advertising sites, now commonly referred to as MFAs, took center stage in the digital advertising and media spheres this June thanks to the ANA’s Programmatic Media Supply Chain Transparency Study. The report revealed that 21% of the industry’s programmatic spend was directed to MFA sites, which largely is classified as wasted ad dollars due to MFAs’ reliance on vanity metrics like viewability and click-through rates for measuring campaign performance. 

Once the report was out, much of the ad tech industry started viewing MFA sites like a bed bug infestation. Holding companies and SSPs alike started partnering with Joune Media or other vendors to identify waste in their clients’ programmatic spending and even adopted inclusion list strategies, which not only eliminated MFAs from their media mixes, but any non-approved, non-premium websites from their media mixes.  

In October, a group of industry trade orgs made up of the ANA, the 4A’s, WFA and ISBA, released a definition for MFA sites to try and quell the confusion and pseudo-panic that occurred over the summer. The problem though, is that the definition was meant to allow for some flexibility, leaving a degree of gray area. As a result, some Black-owned and minority-owned independent media companies were feeling unfairly classified as MFAs and fearful of conducting any sort of traffic buying, which had been up until this point, a standard practice in the media industry.  

The fallout of MFAs also led to a surge towards attention metrics for assessing campaign performance. 

One media buyer told Digiday on the condition of anonymity that “most of our clients have moved away from looking at clicks [as a measure of campaign performance] … We used to all the time, [but] it’s now very rare.” 

Forbes’ CRO Sherry Phillips added that this trend of dropping vanity KPIs is likely going to continue into 2024. “Next year, our partners are going to be very focused on performance metrics. It’s not going to be as loose. They really want to see that ROI. First-party [data] is going to be a huge part of that,” she said. 

AI experimentation 

Generative artificial intelligence was the hottest new technology on the market in 2023 and publishers found ways for it to do everything from write an article (albeit with some major flaws) to making the media sales cycle even shorter. 

Gannett, The Arena Group and several other publishers experimented with publishing AI-generated articles this year (though some were caught sneaking AI-generated stories by as human-written), and that led to a lot of union action around where the line needs to be drawn before AI starts taking journalism jobs. 

Despite the experimentation, even the publishers started going head-to-head with AI companies over copyright concerns that they were stealing publisher content to inform their large language models and the chatbots were subsequently passing on the information to users as its own. Not only did the publishers consider this stealing, but it also posed risks to traffic declines

On a brighter note, sales teams within media companies found ways to use AI to streamline some of the more mundane tasks like RFP summarization or looking back through old pitch decks. Though even that application required some safety nets to cover the clients’ and sales teams’ assets.

What we’ve heard

“We made a profit in September, we made a profit in October [and] we’re very close to a profit in the fourth quarter.”

Justin Smith, co-founder and CEO of Semafor on the latest episode of the Digiday Podcast

Numbers to know

10-15: The number of articles that Mail Online plans to put behind a paywall on a daily basis once it launches its subscription business in January. 

$20,000 – $900,000: The amount of money that affiliate network Howl owes in various delinquent payments to at least four publishers.

20-40%: The amount of referral traffic that news publishers estimate they’ll lose from Google due to the platform’s new AI-powered search tool. 

240: The number of employees at the Washington Post who took the voluntary buyouts, reaching the company’s goal and ultimately avoiding layoffs.

What we’ve covered

Time appoints its first chief events officer as publishers double down on events in 2024:

  • Time today has announced the newly created role of chief events officer, in a move that’s emblematic of the media industry’s fervor towards events revenue heading into 2024. 
  • Bloomberg and Semafor, in addition to Time, spent 2023 intentionally carving out events as a core part of their business operations. 

Learn how publishers invested in growing their events businesses here.

YouTube postpones co-viewing measurement plan:

  • Having received pushback from ad buyers, YouTube decided to push back its co-viewing ad measurement plans.
  • Agency executives who have been briefed on the matter by YouTube said they hope the delay will provide opportunity for the video platform to address some of their issues with its co-viewing measurement plans, fine-tune its methodology and share details of that methodology with ad buyers.

Read more about YouTube’s delay here

A Q&A with YouTube’s Mary Ellen Coe on the video platform’s big year:

  • With a business stretching from short-form video to traditional TV programming, YouTube presents something of a Rorschach test for the TV, streaming and video industry. 
  • In light of YouTube’s big year, Digiday spoke with YouTube chief business officer Mary Ellen Coe about how the platform’s business evolved in 2023 and what it has in store for 2024.

Hear from Coe about her 2024 plans for YouTube here.

What we’re reading

Anyone can make a propaganda site with AI: 

Since May, the number of sites publishing AI-generated fake news using articles has increased by over 1,000%, according to a report by the Washington Post. 

At odds with their union, New York Times staffers form an independent journalistic caucus: 

Dozens of journalists at the Times have banned together to create a group within the NewsGuild-CWA that is meant to take a stand on journalistic independence following concerns that the labor union representing the Times has veered toward advocacy, The Wall Street Journal reported. 

NowThis taps its first CEO since going solo:

After being spun off from Vox Media in April, NowThis finally has a new chief executive, according to Adweek. BDG and Overtime veteran Sharon Mussalli will become the CEO of the news and politics video publisher, which is now owned by nonprofit Accelerate Change. 

The Athletic is now on Apple News+ with Wirecutter soon to follow:

The New York Times Co. has agreed to add its sports publication The Athletic to the Apple News+ subscription bundle and early next year, its product review site will join the bundle as well, Variety reported. As for the marquee newspaper product, subscribers will not see The New York Times articles on Apple News+ any time soon.

For Threads, integrating with the fediverse may take the better part of a year: 

After two days of testing cross-platform posting, Instagram’s head Adam Mosseri revealed that it will take more effort to achieve interoperability with other social media platforms, The Verge reported.

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