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Don’t Give Up the Reins Just Yet: Three Ways Independent Media Brands can Survive Without Being Acquired

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From Time Magazine being bought over by SalesForce founder Marc Benioff to Mental Floss being snapped up by publishing platform Minute Media, over the last couple of months we have seen a number of media companies being acquired by larger players.  

Since the internet blew the traditional media’s advertising model out of the water, media companies of all shapes and sizes have struggled to stay profitable. This has led to newsroom cuts, closures, and in many cases, media brands being forced to accept acquisitions to remain in the game. However, many argue that if acquired by the wrong organization, media publications risk giving up the reins on their editorial, and losing control of the direction their brand moves in. 

So while media companies need to develop monetization tactics which allow them to stay profitable, current with technological trends, and able to employ top talent, what are some other ways to do so without handing over the reins to another company? : 

Create brand studios

With consumers reluctant to buy subscriptions, and averse to more ‘in your face’ advertising styles like pop-ups and autostart videos, many media companies have turned to native advertising to monetize. Native, or sponsored content is long form editorial which is not overtly promotional, and designed to mimic the style, and quality of the rest of a publishers content. 

This style of advertising has grown in popularity over the last few years, as it is proven to resonate better with readers, with 70% saying they would rather learn about products and services from high-quality content than traditional ads.

The most effective sponsored posts don’t go in for the hard sell, but instead draw the reader in with relevant, informative content that adds value. Examples include Orange is the New Black’s infographic on the realities facing female prisoners in The New York Times, or Mercedes Benz’s “The rise of the superhuman,” which discusses tech augmentation of humans in The Washington Post. 

While some media brands still accept submitted content from third-party ‘branded content marketplaces’ like Polar and PressBoard, others have taken a step further, by launching their own ‘brand studios’ to work hand in hand with marketers to create the right content for their target audiences. Examples include the New York Times Tbrand Studio and Forbes BrandVoice. 

While naysayers argue that branded content is less effective, The New York Times, reports that their audience spends as much time on sponsored articles as traditional news stories, making this an extremely appealing channel for marketers, and a profitable tactic for publishers.  

Recent estimates suggest the New York Times’ T Brand Studio is bringing in around $30–40m USD per year from branded content alone, and with other brands such as Forbes, Buzzfeed and Business Insider charging anything from $10,000-$100,000 per sponsored post, it is clear that sponsored content can offer a consistant revenue stream when done right. 

And it’s not only the world’s biggest media brands which are getting involved. Niche industry-specific publications, and up and coming online publications and blogs are increasingly offering options for sponsored content too, allowing them to bring in revenue, albeit at a more affordable price tag. 

This opens the door to growing companies, and startups, with tighter marketing budgets, to dip their toes into the pool of paid media without breaking the bank. 

Monetize data and access to audiences 

While the digital transformation has posed multiple challenges to media companies, it has also provided opportunities, such as allowing media companies to monetize from the wealth of data they now have at their fingertips. 

Aside from simply creating engaging editorial, most brand studios have data tracking systems in place to record engagement with different types of content, to drive future marketing behavior. 

This is one of the reasons why many brand studios are using more video in their sponsored content, and also including interactive elements embedded within content such as polls, or questionnaires. Video is particularly effective for measuring engagement, as brands are able to record exactly how long viewers watch for, which is why video first media brands such as Twitch, are investing so heavily in their data science teams. 

Data insights about what content types, channels, and themes are resonating most with particular customer demographics are extremely valuable to brands and their marketers, and they are willing to pay a pretty penny for insights or to be matched with the authors or influencers whose readers are following the most. 

But engagement data isn’t the only moneymaker. Leading publications are the gatekeepers to millions of readers around the world, which opens up other monetization options too. 

One method championed by legacy publications like The Guardian, and now being employed by up-and-coming publications such as EU-Startups, is posting job listings. This allows publications to charge brands for the ability to advertise on their job sites and to earn through featured ads on these pages. 

Or following suit with TechCrunch’s CrunchBase, publications can monetize from selling data about companies that have been featured on their publications. The brand has since released CrunchBase Pro which offers annual subscriptions to brands for data insights. 

Rising sites like Tech.Eu are also doing this on a smaller scale by selling whitepapers on startup trends and funding reports within their region, too. 

Cooperate more with outside players 

A recent Pew Research Center study highlights that at least 36% of the largest newspapers across the United States – as well as at least 23% of the largest digital-native news outlets – were forced to enact layoffs over the last year. These changes may help financially, but put increased pressure on the remaining editorial teams. 

However, if media brands open themselves up to accepting more contributed content, and cross-sharing information and content from other media brands, it can take the weight off existing editorial teams. 

Most growing media brands are heavily reliant on ‘in-coming’ press releases as a source of news, and many leading media brands like Entrepreneur Magazine, TNW, AdWeek, and Forbes accept guest contributions too. 

While some publications, like The Huffington Post have closed contributor networks in fear of spreading misinformation, for those brands who have enough editors to deal with screening and editing submissions, contributions can help continue with a steady flow of valuable, engaging content, without putting too much pressure on their writers. To reduce the flow of content which doesn’t add value, many publications offer editorial calendars for themes which they will focus on each month and offer clear submission guidelines.

Another option is for media brands to work more closely together in sharing information, and also syndicating content from other media channels. While news aggregator platforms have made this their business model, other leading publishers like TNW and Entrepreneur Magazine regularly syndicate worthwhile content from other media companies. 

For smaller independent media brands, the option also remains to take part in a media accelerator or incubation program. From Matter (US), the Digital News Innovation Challenge (Canada), the Stibo Accelerator program (Denmark) or the Baltic Media Accelerator (Russia), media accelerators which aim to offer support, funding, mentorship and guidance to growing media companies are emerging all over the world. 

There is no denying that times are tough for media brands nowadays. But while being bought out by a larger company in a different industry may sound appealing, in doing so many media companies risk losing control of the direction of their brands. Instead, media brands should look at the options they have available to them, from sponsored content to selling data, to cooperating more with peers.

And if a media brand does choose to go down the route of acquisition, they should make sure it is to an organization which shares their aims and values, and will help build up the brand better than it was before.

About the author


Craig Corbett

Article by Craig Corbett, Principal at ESPACIO media incubator and Publicize, a startup PR company.