The year 2019 was a period of slowdown around the globe. The impact was felt in the news media industry, which had already been going through a not-so-easy transition period from print to digital. Lower spend from advertisers, along with other factors such as reduced consumer spending and increased costs, made it rough for several of the largest publishers.
From The New York Times, which witnessed a 6.7-percent fall in advertising revenue in its third quarter of FY ‘19, to DB Corp. in India, whose advertising revenue declined by 11.2 percent in the second quarter of FY ‘20, the trend was more or less consistent around the globe.
Nonethless, it was not all doom and gloom. Reviewing the data from a few listed media companies, it can be seen that 2019 was also a year where encouraging trends such as growth in digital subscriptions were witnessed.
The New York Times
In the case of The New York Times, Mark Thompson, president and chief executive officer, described the third quarter of FY '19 as “the best-ever third quarter for new digital news subscriptions, the fourth best quarter in the history of its pay model and a very encouraging quarter for the company as a whole." The company stood at more than 3 million subscriptions for its digital news product, more than 4 million total digital subscriptions, and 4.9 million total subscriptions.
Subscription revenue grew by 3.7 percent from the corresponding quarter in 2018, thanks to the growth in the number of subscriptions to NYT’s digital-only products. Revenue from NYT’s digital-only subscription products increased by 14.5 percent and total revenue increased by 2.7 percent.
However, the growth in the number of digital subscriptions did not carry over to advertising income. Despite being one of the most successful publishers in shifting from print to digital, advertising revenue at NYT saw a decline of 6.7 percent in the quarter. Digital advertising revenue, which currently constitutes 48.1 percent of NYT’s total advertising revenues, alone decreased by 5.4 percent. Print advertising revenue fell by 7.9 percent.
According to the company, the decrease in digital advertising revenue primarily reflected lower direct-sold advertising on its digital platforms, partially offset by growth in podcasts. “Like other publishers, we’re seeing continued turbulence in the digital advertising space,” Thompson said.
Germany-based Axel Springer found its revenue development weaker than expected, but its total revenues remained stable with an organic growth rate of 0.2 percent (adjusted for consolidation and currency effects.) Revenues from digital activities increased organically by 6.1 percent and expanded their share of total revenues from 69.2 percent in the prior-year period to 73.4 percent.
According to the company, the unexpectedly slow revenue development was caused by macroeconomic developments, combined with the digital tax that was introduced in France.
On September 30, 2019, Axel Springer announced extensive restructuring measures for the News Media National subsegment. Dr. Mathias Döpfner, chief executive officer of Axel Springer SE, said, “We are now setting an even stronger course for long-term growth. We want to be the global market leader for digital journalism and digital classifieds.”
Like the NYT, Schibsted saw its digital subscription revenues growing and digital advertising revenues weakening in Q3, hampering its operating margins. While operating revenues increased by 6 percent, online revenues from its Nordic operations grew by 4 percent.
The company said the reduced digital advertising revenues were a result of the strong market contraction following the regulatory tightening of the gaming industry in Sweden. “In Q3 we also experienced declining digital advertising revenues at VG in Norway in a competitive market,” the company statement said.
“In news media, the revenue decreased due to a decline in advertising revenues, partly curbed by strong growth in digital subscription revenues. This also impacted the EBITDA negatively in the quarter, somewhat balanced by an increasingly good cost control,” it said.
Singapore Press Holdings
Singapore Press Holdings recorded net profit of $213.2 million for FY '19, but driven by higher income from property. The media segment went through a rough patch, with its revenues falling by 12 percent. Print advertising revenue decreased by 14.9 percent and total circulation revenue declined by 7.3 percent.
Thanks to innovative products such as the news tablet, the digital segment saw some healthy growth. Daily average newspaper digital circulation recorded an increase of 19.3 percent, while newspaper digital ad revenue grew 6 percent year-on-year.
“The news tablet campaign, which was launched in March with the Chinese newspapers, has gained over 10,000 sign-ups, of which three-quarters are new subscribers. The latest campaign, launched in September 2019, was for Berita Harian, which has also received a strong response. The media segment is also investing in data analytics for better understanding of the audience and customers,” the company said.
However, with advertisers cutting back on advertising spend against the backdrop of an uncertain macroeconomic outlook, revenue remains a challenge for SPH in the media segment.
DB Corp, which publishes Dainik Bhaskar, India’s largest circulated newspaper, saw a decline of 11.2 percent in advertising revenues in Q2 FY ‘20. Circulation revenue fell by 2.4 percent and total revenue fell by 9.2 percent. The company attributed the results to the lacklustre market conditions primarily because of the economic slowdown, resulting in weak demand and tepid consumer spending
Sudhir Agarwal, Managing Director, DB Corp Ltd, said, “While we too have witnessed the impact, our innovative product strategies and growth-led initiatives aided in not only maintaining market leadership in all our major markets but also gaining share in newly forayed markets.”
While the results of last year didn’t give much to cheer about, publishers are more or less optimistic about the coming year.
“We remain confident in our strategy, which has a particular focus now on major advertising relationships like the recently announced multi-year deal with Verizon, one of the largest commercial agreements in our history, and on new advertising opportunities like podcasting, where we are seeing spectacular growth,” NYT’s Thompson said. The company is expecting a challenging fourth quarter, largely because of comparisons to a very successful Q4 of 2018 and forecasts of a 15-percent fall in digital advertising. The silver lining continues to be digital subscription revenues, which are expected to rise by about 15 percent.
In the case of SPH, it has announced that the group will be streamlining its media operations in line with a new integrated sales approach. This is expected to result in a rationalisation of its media sales and content teams and see an approximate 5-percent reduction in staff numbers across the media group.
Meanwhile, DB Corp pins its hopes on cost control measures and softening newsprint prices. “Further, the initial signs of festive demand are positive and we are cautiously optimistic about growth revival,” said Agarwal.