Media Briefing: How the digital publishing industry has fared so far in 2024

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Between the changing timelines for third-party cookie deprecation, marketers’ uneasiness towards the programmatic market, AI companies’ rapidly growing interest in media companies and internal woes within publishers’ leadership structures, it feels as though the first half of the year flew by. But that’s not to say things didn’t ultimately change for the better compared to where the industry was in 2023. 

Now that we’re at the midway point of 2024, let’s look back at five of the top stories that defined H1.

The crumbling cookie deprecation timeline 

In January, it seemed as though Google was seriously pursuing its cookie deprecation plans by removing third-party cookies from 1% of its Chrome browser traffic. But by April, the tech giant revised its timeline from full deprecation by the end of 2024 to a big ole question mark. 

But that didn’t stop several publishers from continuing to test their cookieless targeting strategies. And some even reported positive results from these tests earlier this year, such as a 40-200% lift on CPMs when deterministic IDs (like Unified ID 2.0, RampID, ConnectedID and ID5) were present in the bidstream, compared to CPM rates of non-logged in users.  

That said, publishers’ tests of Google’s Privacy Sandbox seem to have stalled out as a result of the delay and over concerns of the offering’s “janky” tools, ultimately causing their time and attention to be allocated to other solutions.  

Forbes’ MFA debacle 

The buy side’s obsession with made-for-arbitrage sites spilled over from 2023 into the first half of 2024, and their concerns were only exacerbated by reports that publishers previously considered “premium” were actually guilty of operating MFA subdomains.

In April, Forbes was accused by advertising transparency vendor Adalytics of intentionally operating an MFA subdomain for years and placing ads on that subdomain without its advertisers knowing. 

This was just one chapter in the saga of distrust in the programmatic marketplace, and further reports issued by Adalytics and others revealed more might be going on in the bidstream unbeknownst to the buy side

AI licensing deal or lawsuit? Publishers choose their own adventure

Many publishers struck new content licensing and tech development deals with AI tech companies during the first six months of the year, including (but not limited to) Vox Media, The Atlantic, Dotdash Meredith and The Wall Street Journal’s parent company News Corp.

Much about the terms of these deals are hush hush, but at the very least we know publishers are able to secure a quick cash infusion. And some deals are even more lucrative, with the WSJ reporting in May that News Corp’s deal with OpenAI was valued at as much as $250 million over five years

Still, not all publishers have been swayed by checks of that size, including The New York Times Co, which has spent $1 million so far in its legal pursuit against OpenAI. And the Times isn’t alone in filing lawsuits against AI tech companies for copyright infringement. Nonprofit news organization the Center for Investigative Journalism sued Microsoft and OpenAI at the end of June. 

BuzzFeed and Complex split 

First reported at the end of last year that BuzzFeed was putting Complex Networks up for sale, those plans became a reality in February. 

The debt-logged digital publisher sold Complex Networks (sans First We Feast and its top franchise “Hot Ones”) to e-commerce and live shopping platform NTWRK for $108.6 million – a steep discount from the $294 million BuzzFeed paid in 2021. As for First We Feast, BuzzFeed currently has the price set at $70 million, per Bloomberg, but potential buyers have not emerged.

The sale was largely aimed at paying down BuzzFeed’s debts, which total more than $100 million. And currently, its activist investor – former presidential candidate Vivek Ramaswamy who has accumulated an 8.9% stake in BuzzFeed over the past few months – is using these debts as a play for control over the company. 

Newsroom shake-ups 

Several top editors have left their newsrooms this year, including The Washington Post’s Sally Buzbee, who served as editor-in-chief since 2021. 

When it was announced that the deputy editor of the Telegraph Media Group, Robert Winnett, would take over the top editor of The Post, many of the publication’s staffers expressed concerns, not to mention the probes into Winnett’s past reporting controversies, ultimately leading him to turn down the job

In April, The Daily Beast also underwent a leadership overhaul, in which media veterans Ben Sherwood and Joanna Coles were granted oversight of the digital tabloid in exchange for a minority stake. In the months following, newsroom staffers were offered voluntary buyouts (25 unionized staffers took the deal) and editor-in-chief Tracy Connor was replaced by Hugh Dougherty. 

What we’ve heard

“I suspect that 50% of the outcome of [conversations with marketers at Cannes] will land in the second half and the other 50% will be a seed for a longer planning schedule into 2025.”

Christine Cook, CRO of Bloomberg Media. 

Numbers to know

1: The number of years that Terence Samuel served as editor-in-chief of USA Today, before announcing this week that he is leaving the publication.

101: The number of years’ worth of content in Time’s catalog that OpenAI will have access to in order to train its large language model and inform answers to user queries on ChatGPT, thanks to its new content licensing partnership. 

What we’ve covered

The Trade Desk holds fire on full Yahoo suspension:

  • According to sources, media buyers can still buy Yahoo video inventory using The Trade Desk following a weeks-long dispute, including marketplace suspensions.
  • While exact details remain unclear, a gap has seemingly been narrowed over how video advertising inventory is represented, even after an earlier July 1 deadline.

See the latest on The Trade Desk and Yahoo stalemate here

Are cookie concerns, MFAs holding back publishers’ digital revenue?

  • Many publishers still depend on revenue from traditional channels in addition to digital ones, and fewer publishers get most of their revenue entirely from digital channels than they have in years past.
  • That’s according to a second-quarter survey of publisher professionals conducted by Digiday+ Research.

Read the latest survey results from Digiday+ Research here

Programmatic pushes its way into the upfront bazaar:

  • For its first several decades, the upfront marketplace was in some ways based on relationships between TV sellers and agency buyers. 
  • Now, however, there’s a new participant that’s quietly made its presence felt in the upfront — this year more than ever: programmatic investment. 

Learn more about programmatic’s growing role in the upfronts here

What we’re reading

Despite content licensing deals, ChatGPT is hallucinating links for its news partners: 

According to an investigation by Nieman Lab, ChatGPT has been creating fake links to stories supposedly by news publishers it has licensing deals with. Broken links to at least 11 publishers have been caught so far, including Business Insider, The Associated Press and The Wall Street Journal.

The California state Senate passed bill aimed at taxing tech platforms to fund news publishers: 

The bill, which would tax companies like Amazon, Meta and Google for data collected from California users, was approved by the state’s Senate last week, the Los Angeles Times reported. The money collected through this tax will be used as a tax credit for local news organizations to employ full-time journalists. 

Facebook is threatening to block news content from its platform in Australia again:

Meta is once again considering eliminating news content from its Facebook platforms in Australia if the government mandates that the tech company pay licensing fees to the media companies, Reuters reported. According to a law that went into effect in 2021, the Australian government has the right to set fees that U.S. tech companies must pay for sharing news outlet links, but so far, it’s not been tested. 

Is Jeff Bezos to blame for turmoil at The Washington Post? 

In an essay for The Atlantic, media reporter and commentator Brian Stelter explores how much of the organizational upheaval and financial woes are the fault of the news organization’s owner, Jeff Bezos. 

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