Eclipse looms for newspaper giants buying a place in the digital sun – The Guardian

On the one hand, the bad times are rolling for news on screens. Ad blocking is knocking a hole in revenue streams – billions of dollars lost globally, according to the World Association of Newspapers and News Publishers, which reckons that 48% of American digital ad cash is at risk already.

More than that, Facebook and the social mob are becoming a news hub of their own for hundreds of millions of (often young) users – potentially eclipsing the value of discrete news websites. One damned thing as well as another.

And then, alas, there’s a financial crisis that never seems to go away. If digital ad growth stalls and print ad revenues carry on subsiding, then where, pray, is future survival?

But here, most curiously, is the other hand: the latest forecasts from eMarketeer researchers show mobile advertising overtaking print ads in the UK as they head for £3bn this year, a 20% slice of the entire advertising cake. More than that, chief executives of growing companies and voracious venture capitalists appear not to have factored any pessimism into their blithely buoyant calculations.

Business Insider, a bright net operation only eight years old, was scooped up last week by Axel Springer, the giant German newspaper company which couldn’t afford the Financial Times but managed to make a bid valuing the Insider at an outsize $442m (£300m). Fortune magazine stacked that against the $250m Jeff Bezos paid for the Washington Post – its print run, its area position, its legendary reputation, its global reach – only a couple of years ago. But then look at recent valuations of other web-only whizzes, BuzzFeed at $1.5bn, Vox at $1bn, Vice at $2.5bn to as much as $4bn, and expect to find your eyes watering.

Not all of these plum targets – Business Insider among them – have managed to make an assured profit yet. The Insider’s current revenue – estimated at $50m a year – puts it way behind the digital take of newspapers in the Mail and Guardian bracket. No one knows what the generation of young business people who grew up with its bright, sassy coverage will do when they turn middle-aged.

Everyone knows that other startups with a clever idea can raise the cash to push it off its perch – and that other big names in this digital news pack are similarly vulnerable and similarly vague when it comes to citing precise statistics.

But none of this seems to matter much when giant legacy companies – not just Springer, but enterprises such as NBC Universal – decide to buy themselves a place in the digital sun. No one cites the real value of brands – such as the Huffington Post – that can be snaffled up by ailing monsters such as AOL.

No one seems to register the grisly prophesies from Shane Smith, grand master of Vice: “There’s a lot of money sloshing round in the system and obviously valuations are high. God knows when the next recession is coming.”

But everyone, in their hearts, knows that bust still follows boom. Everyone knows that brands that are created to be sold and make quick fortunes are flimsy things. Everyone knows that money can’t buy you success right off the shelf. And everyone ought to put one hand together with another.

The ad blockers of this world are destructive forces, undermining the revenue base of so much news coverage. But there’s no block at all on seeing the danger, confronting it, planning around it – and finding a way to survive.


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