Financial Services

How a new breed of media companies is convincing people to pay for news again

Comcast Ventures had seen enough. Years of researching business models, seeing their own portfolio’s performance and watching digital media startups struggle had made an impression. For 2018, the venture capital firm made a decision: it would no longer put money behind advertising-driven media companies no longer made sense.

“Starting an ad-supported business is really, really tough,” said Daniel Gulati, a Comcast Ventures partner, in an interview. “As a general thesis, we are not actively looking to invest in seed companies that have an advertising-based business model.”

It’s a shift in thinking for Comcast Ventures, which has put money behind advertising-based models before, including 2009 and 2010 investments in Vox Media and a small 2016 funding of finance news network Cheddar. (Comcast Ventures is owned by Comcast, which also owns CNBC parent company NBCUniversal.)

The reason for the shift comes down to two tech giants: Facebook and Google. The duopoly has dominated digital advertising and both companies are only increasing in scale and market share.

Their targeting capabilities, given all of their data, is “second to none,” Gulati said. “As their growth accelerates, the opportunity for new companies diminish.”

As a result, subscription fees are hot — a return to how most media (newspapers, magazines, cable TV) prospered for decades.

This week alone, New York Media, the owner of New York Magazine, announced its sites would be paywalled. That was soon followed by paywall announcements by Verizon‘s Yahoo Finance and Atlantic Media’s Quartz. Bloomberg, Axel Springer’s Business Insider, Conde Nast’s Vanity Fair and Wired, and a bunch of other online magazines introduced or hardened their paywalls this year. The New York Times, Wall Street Journal (owned by News Corp), The Financial Times (owned by Nikkei) and The Washington Post (owned by Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos) made that decision even earlier.

“For many years, the popular narrative has been that readers simply weren’t willing to pay for content online,” said Eric Stromberg, a venture capitalist at Bedrock Capital.

“The only way to win was to build an engine of free articles that were monetized through ads and shared on social networks. Paywalls wouldn’t scale. You were destined to have a niche audience if you had a paywall. We’re starting to see a shift. I expect we’ll see it more powerfully over the next few years.”


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