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Which publishers won the pandemic?

In this special episode, the Media Voices team take a look at which media companies and personalities have been the biggest winners and losers of the lockdown-era. From The Big Issue to almost every event company, we try to find the silver linings for publishers in what’s been a mostly awful year.

Chris Sutcliffe

Winner: The Big Issue

Right from the start, The Big Issue has been among the most badly affected and most quick to adapt of all media brands.

  • It launched a subscription product to help its distributors within a few short months
  • It negotiated to appear on supermarket shelves, keeping circulation revenue intact as footfall on the streets effectively vanished. 50% of its net proceeds went to supporting vendors who couldn’t safely sell the magazine any more
  • It launched new editorial products around the pandemic, including a podcast series – the Big Miss You – that was a celebration of the relationship between the magazine’s vendors and its customers

Ultimately that and its other efforts are transformational in their own right and delivered over £1m to its vendors. Editor Paul McNamee said: “I also remind them that it wasn’t The Big Issue’s money. It was yours. You and thousands like you who gave us a hand up when we had to put our hand out. You kept us here, all the way through every day and every week of the Covid crisis.”

Loser: Buzzfeed

Meanwhile in a gross deliberate effort to throw the baby out with the bathwater because the baby wasn’t earning enough money, BuzzFeed’s “commitment to journalism” has been belied by its treatment of union journalists and the HuffPost UK staff it jettisoned. Both companies have made deep cuts after years of phenomenal growth but falling online advertising revenues.

  • News as a product always sat awkwardly along the rest of BuzzFeed’s outputs – and while we can laud its launch of new verticals (food and sexual wellbeing eCommerce plays among them) its lack of commitment to journalism and the callous way it went about cutting some of the best journalists in the UK’s jobs is abhorrent

Esther Kezia Thorpe

Winner: Future plc

Future were fortunate that eCommerce accelerated during the pandemic, as that was an area they had spent the last few years investing in.

  • They had a quick response to the pandemic – they launched 3 new brands around gardening, fitness and what to binge watch in response to new lockdown behaviours
  • Their ad business hasn’t been hit as hard as other publishers due to its huge stable of niche titles, which are more immune to the boom and bust cycle
  • The publisher has also found cost savings following a successful integration of TI Media, which it completed in spring last year
  • They made two major acquisitions in the last year as well – GoCo Group of GoCompare fame, and Mozo, an Australian personal price comparison site. The plan is to actively build out price comparison as a revenue stream, as well as launch a finance content brand in Australia.

Future had estimated profits of over £83 million in 2020, and they also repaidfurlough cash in July. This success is carrying on into 2021 as they are expecting profitability to be ahead of current market expectations according to their latest trading statement.

One final note: it’s not all sunshine. There were job losses as part of the TI Media acquisition, they closed 6 print titles in early April 2020, and didn’t renew their Gizmodo UK and Kotaku UK licenses later in the year.

Loser: Travel mags that didn’t pivot fast enough

Travel has been devastated but that doesn’t mean travel mags had to be as well. Some have done well despite the pandemic by swiftly adjusting to changing audience needs.

  • LBGTQ luxury travel mag OutThere put their print issue on hold for a few months and went with an editorial theme of ‘The Experientialist’ to bring the world to their readers at home, using writers from all around the world, plus an online event series, awards etc. Online traffic doubled as a result, were able to keep revenue via luxury brands advertising as well as their own content studio
  • Skift again very smart, delayed their Skift Pro product until the summer and then pitched it as a ‘You need this info to do your jobs better and make smarter decisions as travel reopens’

But not all survived to tell the tale.

  • Family Traveller magazine went into liquidation in 2020 after revenue went from 100k a month to nothing (although this has now been bought by an investment group and are planning to relaunch)
  • News UK closed its Sunday Times Travel Magazine in August just as it hit its 200th issue. The mag had an average monthly circulation of 53,000 but had seen a collapse in ad revenue due to the pandemic. The Times said its closure was to focus on core digital travel products
  • Airline magazines have almost all been iced, with no plans yet about when they’ll return

A common theme seems to be that those who were 100% reliant on advertising revenue have really struggled, while those who have multiple revenue streams have been in a better position to adapt.

Peter Houston

Winner: Immediate Media

As a business centred around subscriptions, Immediate Media was well positioned to benefit from the subscription bumps of early 2020.

  • Tom Bureau says the business has a spring in its step after seeing growth in subscriptions and increased digital traffic
  • Now the business has 75 titles, with overall circulation up 9%, and print circulation up 14% – that’s in a market where average circulation was down 6%
  • They reach 75 million people each month compared to 40 million last year, and digital revenues continue to grow
  • Radio Times and Gardeners World have been particular highlights. The latter has seen a 31% growth in circulation and online traffic up 170%

This is in the context of some right-sizing at the start of the pandemic, when Immediate closed 12 titles and cut over 100 jobs.

Still, the publisher’s focus on their audience and investment in SEO have paid off. “Our purpose is to create happiness and enhance fulfilment for our consumers and if you can really do that then you’ve got a reasonably good place to build a business,” Bureau said.

Loser: Events companies

Publishers that had built out events as a significant revenue stream have been decimated this year.

  • Informa, the world’s biggest exhibitions group, has reported a loss of £1.1bn for 2020 as the coronavirus pandemic prevented gatherings around the world. Their revenues plummeted by 42% to £1.7bn during the year, compared with £2.9bn in 2019
  • B2B specialist Euromoney reported total revenues down 16% (£66m) for the year to the end of September 2020, with pre-tax profits falling by 45% to £57.4m

Although no one could have seen the total annihilation of in-person events coming, it emphasises the importance of having multiple revenue streams so that if one, two, or even three streams fail, you still have a business at the end of it.