On the Condé Nast Ars Technica acquisition

So the hot news in the blogosphere this week has been the acquisition of Ars Technica by Condé Nast. TechCrunch broke the story on Friday, but there was no official word from Ars until yesterday due to an embargo. Anyway, in that time, there has been quite a lot of discussion on the valuation of “blogs” — or the overvaluation thereof, as the thinking in the blogosphere seems to be.

Silicon Valley Insider:

Ars’ 8-person news operation will be folded into Wired Digital, which is run by CondéNet.

This is almost, but not quite, correct. Ars will remain its own brand, and will retain its own staffing. Ars will not be “folded” into Wired, though they will continue to exist under the Wired Digital umbrella (which is turn is owned by CN). In a very real sense, they will be friendly competitors. This is not unlike two newspapers owned by a larger parent company competing with one another in overlapping geographic territories. (A common practice in traditional print media.)

I guess I’m a little bit stuck on calling Ars a “blog”, however. Ars is a news site with real, investigative reporting and thoughtful analysis, longer, multi-page in-depth investigative and explanatory pieces and guides, and has been around since before people had even heard the word “blog”. If anything Ars is a news site and a focused blog network all rolled into a single brand. (As opposed to the old Weblogs, Inc. model where each blog was separate and had its own flavor.) The journals section of the site combines six different journals under one umbrella — each of which has a large enough audience on their own to be considered very successful. Particularly Infinite Loop and Opposable Thumbs.

On the $25 million

There was a collective gasp in the blogosphere over the price commanded by Ars. Frankly, I’m not really sure why. When I first heard the number, I thought it was low, given the amount of traffic that Ars gets, which is different than the traffic that sources that measure such things think.

The usual suspects like Comscore and Alexa are referenced as though they’re absolutes. The truth is that Alexa is horribly inaccurate, as anyone who runs a website with a tech-savvy audience will tell you. (Who do you know that uses the Alexa toolbar?) Nonetheless, these same sites will turn around and quote the stats as though they’re somehow magically more meaningful for another web property. It doesn’t really make a lot of sense if you stop and think about it.

Maroon Ventures:

Some key stats:

  • Purchase Price $25,000,000
  • Monthly Unique Visitors: 1,500,000
  • Monthly Pageviews: 4,000,000

Okay, let’s have some fun. Let’s assume that this acquisition helps set the market price for the internet blog pure play. What it this acquisition telling us?

  • Value of the Monthly Unique User: $16.65/unique
  • Value of the Monthly Pageview: $6.25/pageview

Unfortunately, these numbers aren’t correct, no matter what TechCrunch would have you believe, but to be fair to Chris, Ken hadn’t posted the official word until yesterday. As far as TechCrunch is concerned, more diligent reporting would have led to Federated Media’s information page on Ars for potential advertisers — so they should know better.

Here’s the official word on the acquisition, straight from the horse’s mouth:

We have an amazing community, both in terms of its size (5+ million readers, as tracked privately by Quantcast) and in terms of its contributions (12 million posts, thousands upon thousands of news tips, recommendations, and corrections). Our community is unparalleled, in my not so humble opinion, and it’s a big reason why this year we’re serving more than 30 million page views each month. (I’ve seen lots of folks citing Comscore numbers… they’re horribly, horribly wrong).

Now you might think that the $25 million isn’t so unreasonable. Taking a look at the old Federated Media advertising numbers[1], you can see that Ars commands about $38 per thousand pageviews.

30,000,000 / 1,000 * $38 * 3 ads on each page = $3,420,000

That’s $3.42M per month in advertising revenue that Ars is generating. Yes, FM takes a cut of that, but Ars has other, smaller revenue sources, such as affiliate referal dollars and Ars-branded merchandise for sale, so we’ll call the difference a wash.

Now that’s revenue, not profit. There’re 8 full-time employees, as well as webhosting for the main site, the cost of the CDN (they’ve been using CacheFly to serve all static content), the cost of the discussion forums (currently a hosted solution: groupee’s eve product) as well as several ICs that do web development, CMS development and other technical work for them.

A typical business acquisition is 3-5x annual profit[2], so that means the four main founders (Ken, Jon, Ben Rota, and Panders) were taking in an annual profit of ~$6.25M per year split however they were splitting it.

Final thoughts

I often wonder why such blatantly incorrect numbers are often bandied about when the truth is usually freely available if you look for it. It’s no secret just how many pageviews Ars has been doing: they’re posted on Federated Media’s website for anyone who wants to advertise there. And you can bet your shiny metal ass that they’re accurate — and more likely (*gasp*) conservative. When millions of dollars are changing hands on a monthly basis, there are very accurate accounting measures going to be built in so buyers can have faith that they’re getting what they pay for.

And for those wondering whether Ars is or is not going to jump the shark, I have two thoughts for you:

First, this isn’t the first time Ars Technica has been part of an online network. Early readers of Ars may recall that Ars was once part of the now-defunct Maximum PC network. Then, as now, the larger and more focused you are, the more you command in CPM rates.

Second, having known Jon and Ken since 2000, I can say with a great deal of personal conviction that Ars isn’t going anywhere, and that thing most certainly will change, but they will change because that’s what the guys steering the ship (Ken, Jon, and possibly Eric) want — not because it’s what Condé Nast wants. So if you see something change in the future, you can feel free to continue pointing the finger at the founders, not at Condé Nast. ;)

Footnotes:
[1]I’ve linked to a screenshot because the original FM link will inevitably disappear in the near future as Ars Technica will no longer be outsourcing their advertising to Federated Media.

[2]This will obviously change depending on your industry.

2 thoughts on “On the Condé Nast Ars Technica acquisition

  1. thanks. i learned more from this post than the downloadsquad report. yours is investigative by definition, digging into FM, not simply linking and some commentary. (disclaimer: i didn’t know who FM was. shows how uninformed I am of the behind the scenes workings.)

    interesting/funny how there are some old biz eating web biz situations lately, the timing i mean. comcast, cbs, aol.

    how important is it to pay attention to all these M&A?

    ars technica is not related to arse technica is it?
    :]

    w

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.