Old Media Buys New Media in 2015

The last quarter of 2015 saw a flurry of notable media acquisitions. Time, Inc. shelled out a reported $20 million for Zooey Deschanel's HelloGiggles in October-and was also rumored to be circling Jane Pratt's xoJane, ready to make another purchase. A week or so before those announcements hit the street, Condé Nast bought Pitchfork. If you don't already see the trend, I'll spell it out for you: Old-media companies with big money are buying upstart digital media properties.

Of the digital media standouts getting snapped up by big name publishing powerhouses, Pitchfork has the longest, most storied history. Well before WordPress made it easy for anyone with an internet connection to start an online publication, Pitchfork was a success. The site for cool kids who love music, it got its start way back in 1996-when I was still in high school, using AOL to chat with my friends and tying up my family's home telephone line. That is an impressive record in the digital age. I mean, just think: Pitchfork survived the legendary tech bubble of the late 1990s!

xoJane is headed by Pratt, who got her start in print media. She is the Jane behind Jane magazine, but has made a successful jump into digital media. I must admit, a couple of years ago, I was basically obsessed with xoJane, which has all but mastered the first-person confessional essay. (What I learned, above all else, from xoJane is that people will admit almost anything if you give them an outlet.)

HelloGiggles has another famous lady behind it, but this one doesn't have a publishing background at all-she's the adorkable Zooey Deschanel from New Girl, Siri commercials, and-my personal favorite-Elf. Deschanel isn't the only celebrity getting into the publishing game. Blake Lively launched, and then shuttered, Preserve-which was a similar, but less successful version of Gwyneth Paltrow's Goop. Meanwhile, Lena Dunham launched Lenny, a newsletter. And because I don't quite have my finger on the pulse of the entertainment industry, I'm pretty sure I'm missing a few examples.

Virtually everyone is in on the publishing game, but not everyone is winning it. Publishing has never been easier, but being good at it-and managing to make a profit-has never been more difficult. This is exactly why old media and new media still need each other.

Time has been carefully creating an all-digital niche with sites such as The Drive and The Snug. Now, it's focusing on young women-a popular demographic in the digital world. Sites such as Jezebel, the Daily Dot, and Bustle are already pursuing young women with the single-mindedness of a creepy guy in a bar who just wants to buy you a drink. Time is smart not to try and launch a new site in an already crowded field. Instead, it's buying the sites-and the eyeballs-it needs.

Condé Nast seems to have a similar strategy. From Vogue to Epicurious, from The New Yorker to Brides, Condé Nast is home to big names, but they are legacy brands. Its audience skews older-with plenty of help from Golf Digest and W-but with the acquisition of Pitchfork, it will get an (almost) all-digital brand, with street cred, plenty of web smarts, and a younger, hipper audience.

Meanwhile, the new media brands get the backing of huge enterprises with the kinds of far-reaching ?resources and deep pockets that even the most successful new media brands have trouble attaining. xoJane has been searching for a buyer since Say Media set it free (the media company is focusing on the software side of its business). Pratt is no dummy. She knows that if she wants to grow the site, she needs financial backing.

There will be a lot for both sides of these acquisitions to learn from each other. New media is good at being nimble. Pitchfork, for example, has its own music festival. xoJane has run sponsored posts, and it actively cultivates a community atmosphere in which readers are encouraged to participate in open threads, and even pitch their own "It Happened To Me" stories. In other words, it knows how to "do digital," which even venerable companies such as Time and Condé Nast can benefit from. Each of these giants of the publishing world has its own web and mobile properties to be proud of, but can still use an infusion of new, digital blood.   

Related Articles

Over the past 2 decades, traditional journalism organizations have seen their market share hammered by startup digital alternatives that use technologies, business models, and channels that were unimaginable in print's heyday. The loss in print ad revenue, the growing appetite for real-time mobile news, and the challenge of engaging an always-on, perpetually distracted audience have exerted significant pressure on the viability of legacy new organizations. But an increasing number of publishers see the wisdom of applying the same startup mindset used by the newcomers as the key to fighting back. Could thinking and acting similar to a startup be the key to ensuring publishing longevity?