Digital media companies pump the brakes on their rush to go public as SPAC market cools

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Jonah Peretti, Founder and CEO, Buzzfeed, speaks at the Wall Street Journal Digital Conference in Laguna Beach, California, U.S., October 18, 2017.
Lucy Nicholson | Reuters

This was the supposed to be the Summer of Digital Media.

Amidst a boom of special purpose acquisition companies (SPACs), companies including Buzzfeed, Vice, Vox, Bustle and others targeted this summer as a likely timeline for going public.

Five months into the year, executives and advisors now think that’s not going to happen.

A major slowdown in SPAC issuance, driven by new accounting guidance by the Securities and Exchange Commission, has forced many digital media companies to reassess their timeline on going public, according to four people familiar with the matter.

Buzzfeed is still expected to find a SPAC partner later this year, said three of the people, who asked not to be named because the discussions are private. But other companies, such as Vice and Bustle, that thought there may be a path to going public on their own in the coming months have pulled back, said the people. Vice was in advanced talks to merge with 7GC & Co Holdings, The Information reported in March, but those talks have stalled, according to people familiar with the matter.

Spokespeople at Buzzfeed and Vice declined to comment.

SPAC slowdown

A SPAC raises capital in an initial public offering as a so-called blank check company without a target acquisition in mind. The investors then use the cash to take a private company public, with additional funding from institutional investors, known as a PIPE — private investment in public equity.

Earlier this year, with so many SPACs entering the market, digital media companies seemed assured of finding a shell company with associated additional equity. But given the dramatic SPAC slowdown of the past month, PIPE investors, which include institutional investors such as Fidelity, Blackrock and T. Rowe Price, are becoming more picky about choosing SPACs with which to invest.

That run to quality has tamped down expectations among digital media companies hoping to ride the SPAC wave to give liquidity to long-term shareholders.

Buzzfeed may be the only significant digital media company to go public this year, said three of the people. Jonah Peretti has no interest in selling Buzzfeed or relinquishing his CEO role, so he’s looking for targets with founders or executives who are willing to work together while giving up operational control, two of the people said.

Group Nine has founded a SPAC where the digital media company, which owns properties such as PopSugar, The Dodo and NowThis, will merge itself with a target of its choosing. Buzzfeed may make sense a target for the Group Nine SPAC — especially because Group Nine CEO Ben Lerer has told investors he may be willing to step aside as chief executive, as CNBC reported earlier this year — but no deal is imminent, the people said. Buzzfeed has held talks with 890 5th Avenue Partners Inc., a different SPAC, Bloomberg reported in March.

There are few, if any, companies comparable to Buzzfeed that trade publicly. It’s unclear if there will be robust PIPE interest in digital media companies, which have only recently become profitable and whose projected growth rates can’t match industries like electric vehicles and biotech, which have fostered several SPACs.

Vice slowed down its process to go public after PIPE candidates balked at its finances, one of the people said. Vice’s revenue was $580 million last year, down from $604 million in 2019, according to The Information. 

Still, digital media may have a path forward via SPAC if investors come to see their trajectories as safer, steadier bets than more fanciful, higher-growth companies.

“Major ad spenders want to diversify,” said Bustle CEO Bryan Goldberg in January. “Right now is a good moment for digital media.”

Bustle, which owns sites geared to women such as Elite Daily, Nylon and Romper, has spoken with several SPACs but has no plans to go public alone at the moment, said a person familiar with the matter.

Buyers become sellers

Several digital media companies want Buzzfeed to go public first so they can see how investors value it before they make a decision to go public themselves or look to sell, two of the people said.

But those same companies may also be facing a harsh reality — that they’re simply too small with unremarkable growth profiles that won’t interest public market investors.

As a result, some companies will become increasingly desperate to sell to either Buzzfeed or Group Nine’s SPAC, if they are the only buyers with publicly traded currency, said two of the people familiar with the matter. Digital media companies could also merge with other peers, such as the news curation service theSkimm, but private mergers are often tricky to complete because there’s no public market to accurately dictate equity valuation.

It’s possible other legacy media companies may pick off one or two digital media companies. The Athletic is hoping to sell to The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal reported this week

But The Journal also reported that The Athletic’s first plan — merging with digital media company Axios and finding a SPAC to take them public — has fallen apart.

That’s emblematic of the broader state of play right now for digital media. The euphoria of January and February has given way to a sober May. Venture investors and early employees who have been stuck waiting for an exit for years will just have to keep on waiting.

WATCH: SPACs are here to stay for the long term, says Post Capital CEO.

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