"Everyone's for sale": Digital-media darlings prepare for a long winter

But in reality, these companies have their own unique headaches. Vice is staring down stalled growth, as well as viewership struggles at the flagship cable channel it launched in 2015. The company’s defenders would point to its large global footprint and diversity of revenue streams—that includes an HBO show and other licensing deals, a creative studio, an I.P. library, and a scripted-programming arm. Indeed, Dubuc appears to be moving Vice further away from the notion that it is a “digital” enterprise at all. As the Journal recently reported, the plan she has outlined to the company’s board of directors involves consolidating Vice’s many Web verticals and focusing instead on growing its creative agency, Virtue, as well as making a greater number of shows and movies for third parties. But Dubuc has her work cut out for her. Asked about the company’s astronomical $5.7 billion figure at Vanity Fair’s New Establishment Summit on October 9, she replied, quite carefully, “I’m not gonna speculate on what Vice is worth. Valuations are set at a moment in time.”

BuzzFeed, once a stubbornly pure native-advertising proposition, has likewise recognized the need to branch out. In addition to now running traditional banner ads, BuzzFeed is offering exclusive member content for $5 a month; getting paid to produce shows for Netflix and Facebook; opening a toy store in New York and selling cookware in a collaboration with Walmart; and playing the affiliate marketing game, in which a Web site takes a cut whenever, say, readers click a link to an Amazon product and hit “Add to Cart.” At the very least, it all appears to be a promising start to turning around the company’s revenues: sources told the Times that revenues are expected to surpass $300 million this year, up from a disappointing $260 million in 2017.

In multiple conversations I had for this piece, Vox Media seemed to be the horse that people were most willing to bet on, in part because it didn’t take as much money or drive its valuation as high as BuzzFeed or Vice.