The Drum's New Year Honors: The Players’ Tribune, WSJ, NYT, ByteDance and Dazn


By The Drum Reporters, Editorial team

January 3, 2019 | 15 min read

Media companies are retooling in an era of disruption. The Drum looks at the bold brands who are leading the way in this brave new world.

The Players’ Tribune

Already established in the US, The Players’ Tribune grabbed the attention of European audiences this summer when it published a series of unusually intimate articles purportedly authored by some of the biggest stars at the World Cup. The piece that put it on the map, Belgium striker Romelu Lukaku’s moving account of his impoverished upbringing in Antwerp, racked up more than 1.6m views and an almost unprecedented average time on page of more than seven minutes.

The website’s tried and tested formula – elite sports star bares their soul in an eloquently written first-person article – has garnered enormous online acclaim, with praise lavished by the likes of Gary Lineker and Piers Morgan, but also attracted its share of skeptics. One particularly cynical take came in a withering piece headlined ‘Raheem Sterling’s article is brilliant, but did he actually write it?’ by The Spectator. “Does the Players’ Tribune offer an authentic depiction,” the magazine asked, “or simply one that the player themselves want to present? Is it journalism or PR?”

This criticism seems churlish in the extreme when The Players’ Tribune has – unlike so much of modern sports journalism – found a way to tell us something new about our sporting idols. “It’s funny because I don’t know what this would be without copy approval,” said The Players’ Tribune’s executive editor Sean Conboy in an interview with The Drum. “Inherently these are athletes who are often going out on a limb and are really pouring their hearts out in some respects and that is the entire point of this – they have the control and the trust to actually go there and decide in the end what they’re comfortable sharing.”

Notwithstanding the critics, The Players’ Tribune’s revealing portraits of some of the world’s most famous faces have won the admiration of both brands and fellow publishers. One of the most intriguing things about the publication in 2018 was its willingness to form alliances with contemporaries who could be considered its competitors. Notable collaborations included a two-part original film for Heineken with Copa90, a five-episode docuseries on Boston Celtics star Gordon Hayward with The Athletic and a 12-episode Discover run on Snapchat. Perhaps the most intriguing alliance was forged with Amazon Prime Video, with which it created an athlete-laden promo for its latest Jack Ryan spectacular.

Founded and run by Major League Baseball all-star Derek Jeter only four years ago, The Players’ Tribune has managed to win the trust of athletes, audiences and advertisers alike – a potent mix in today’s pressurized publishing climate. With backing from the likes of Barcelona star Gerard Pique and NBA legend Kobe Bryant, athletes wary of mainstream media agendas are put at ease by the knowledge that they’re working with people who are sympathetic to their unique circumstances.

To understand its appeal to participants, consider what England star and tabloid target Raheem Sterling wrote in his acclaimed post on the site: “There’s a perception in certain parts of the media that I love ‘bling’. I love diamonds. I love to show off. I really don’t understand where that comes from. Especially when I bought my mum a house, it was unbelievable what some people were writing. I think it’s really sad that people do that. They hate what they don’t even know.”

The Players’ Tribune is giving sports stars the chance to bypass the press altogether, and they’re relishing the opportunity. Expect further European expansion and the possible launch of an OTT offering to follow this year.

The Wall Street Journal

The Wall Street Journal made the most of two powerful assets this past year: its user data and the desire of its female readers to go further in their careers. The venerable Dow Jones publication launched technology that dynamically adjusts its paywall access based on user behavior on its site. The adaptive paywall helped The Journal reach its goal of 3 million global subscribers this past April. It has also helped the publication better manage its advertising and subscription revenues by using the paywall to optimize subscriptions instead of freeing up content at times beneficial to advertisers.

The Journal also made a push to balance out its core readership, which skewed about 80% male in terms of subscribers and 70% overall. The publication launched a campaign featuring a female protagonist with big ambitions and no time to lose. It also made a significant push at universities to garner subscriptions from college students. Initial results saw nearly 200,000 female students join as subscribers. The Journal is supporting those female subscribers with new content and events series, in some cases inviting college student subscribers into the Journal fold for the first time with the goal of retaining them as readers as they go from student to employee or entrepreneur to executive.

Channel 4

Channel 4 has undergone a full transformation in the first year of Alex Mahon’s tenure as chief executive. Amid content and technological innovation, it has rallied around a core purpose that runs through its programming.

Its research found that 60% of young people claimed they would pay more for a product that addressed significant worldwide issues and, to action this, the network made strides in representing black, disabled and gay people in advertising.

It has run a diversity fund since 2016 to bait brands with £1m free airtime to pitch representative films. In 2018, however, it exposed the public friction and prejudice these efforts have birthed in a shocking video it ran during its highest rated show in a prime-time spot.

The creative showed the public’s worst reactions to Nationwide, Maltesers and McCain spots representing black, disabled and gay people respectively, and directed viewers to a hub to rally against hate. Matt Salmon, Channel 4’s head of agency and client sales, said: “This unique brand collaboration highlights this important issue and demonstrates Channel 4’s commitment to championing diversity beyond our programs while building on 4Sales’ industry-leading reputation for delivering original and creative ad campaigns.”

In 2018 the fund focused on the portrayal of women in advertising as a worthy follow-up to the #MeToo movement. It challenged ad creatives to create campaigns that would “challenge ingrained stereotypes, objectification and sexualization of women”. The Royal Air Force (RAF) and Engine won, beating Cadbury Milk Tray and Elvis Communications; eBay and 72 and Sunny Amsterdam and Flybe and McCann Bristol to win the honor of showcasing women in the military. The campaign will run early in 2019.

For this alone it could have made the New Year Honors for the second year in a row. But in addition to purpose-driven advertising, the company made a bold move to the UK regions to broaden its representation and employment of people outside of the London bubble after a competitive and exhaustive seven-month pitch.

Leeds was secured as the home for its new ‘National HQ’, while Glasgow and Bristol were selected as the sites for two smaller ‘Creative Hubs’ as part of the broadcaster’s plan to move 300 of its 800 staff outside the capital and ramp up its regional commissioning by £250m.

It said that the move also helps to support independent production companies and cultivate talent in the regions.

Furthermore, ignoring the content successes of a renewed Great British Bake Off, the ever-compelling Gogglebox and a news product inspired and renewed by the harrowing Grenfell disaster, the channel also rolled out an all-encapsulating rebrand fit for the digital era.

Beano Studios

For eight decades, the pages and panels of The Beano have delighted and entertained kids across Britain. The comic has specialized in celebrating the rebelliousness, mischief and cheekiness of childhood, championing mayhem in a kids’ media market otherwise preoccupied with education or providing an upstanding example of staid citizenship.

In 2018, under the aegis of chief marketing officer Iain Sawbridge, the brand has been looking to future-proof itself for the next eight decades. Beano Studios, a production studio launched two years ago, has enjoyed a highly successful year bringing the magazine’s most famous figures to the screens and attention of kids across Europe and the United States.

With the help of a data operation, the studio built the fastest-growing kids’ website in the UK. Added to a national outreach program that sees all of its staff visiting schools and discovering what its audiences care about, the company has begun to draw on hundreds of hours of insights from readers. With this kind of attention being paid to its readers and viewers, it’s no surprise the studio’s first major project – a small-screen outing for comic icon Dennis the Menace – has been a huge success. Dennis and Gnasher: Unleashed launched as the highest-rated show on the BBC kids’ channel CBBC and has since debuted across 16 territories. Beano Studios went on to launch a magazine-format show for satellite channel Sky Kids and is working on a live-action TV series for Minnie the Minx – another fan favorite.

In an era of user-generated content, omnipresent YouTubers and online spaces that are potentially unsafe for younger eyes, kids’ media has become a tough marketplace. But with a thorough understanding of its audience, as well as a stable of beloved characters, Beano Studios is making it work.

The New York Times

The New York Times is enjoying a resurgence. And it’s no wonder. The news organization is especially smart about how it funds its newsroom, boldly breaks news on culturally significant movements such as #MeToo, and continues to think with an eye toward the future — making moves such as its investment in mixed reality tech Magic Leap.

One clever strategy for supporting its news coverage involved a corporate sponsorship. The Times’ coverage of emerging subcultures – a remarkable project called ‘Surfacing’ – was underwritten by snack brand Véa, a cracker made without artificial ingredients. The Times maintained full editorial control and Véa, and its manufacturer Mondelez, benefited from association with a legendary news brand.

Through a broad mix of extensive news reporting, in-depth features and provocative opinion articles, The Times has kept a pulse on significant cultural issues such as the #MeToo movement for its readers. The paper even appointed a gender editor to provide news and analysis on issues involving gender and society.

Earlier in 2018, The Times launched its first offering for Magic Leap. The launch was a mixed reality (MR) edition of a report on a recent eruption of Volcán de Fuego, a highly active volcano in Guatemala, and its destructive impact upon the nearby village of San Miguel Los Lotes. Using MR and Magic Leap’s web browser for 3D and spatial web experiences, The Times transported a life-sized piece of the scene to readers, designed to make readers feel as if they were there.

This breadth of creativity and dauntlessness has helped The Times fight against a changing media landscape and win.


Six years ago Chinese software engineer Zhang Yiming wanted to create an internet experience that was a cross between Google and Facebook. The then-29-year-old settled on building a news aggregation app powered by artificial intelligence called Jinri Toutiao after forming a holding company called Bytedance.

Toutiao gradually evolved into a platform delivering content in a variety of formats, such as texts, images, question-and-answer posts, microblogs, and videos. In 2016, Bytedance created TikTok (known as Douyin in China) allowing users to create video clips using short grabs of music and deploy tools that sync the footage to the beat as well as superimposing animations – a first in the world.

Just two years later, TikTok reached 500 million monthly active users worldwide and 150 million daily active users in China. It became the world’s most downloaded app on Apple’s App Store in the first half of 2018 with an estimated 104m downloads, surpassing the downloads recorded by PUBG Mobile, YouTube, WhatsApp and Instagram in the same period.

The app has spawned numerous viral trends and internet celebrities around the world, propelled songs to fame and is popular among global celebrities due to its immense popularity and social influence. It focuses a lot on its marketing campaigns, launching several activities with Chinese celebrities to engage their fans’ interest. For example, its marketing campaign in 2018 Spring Festival Gala alone brought an increase of 70 million daily active users.

Today ByteDance is worth more than $75bn – which more than Uber – and counts KKR & Co, General Atlantic and even Sequoia Capital as backers. The company also prides itself in not taking any money from Alibaba Group Holding and Tencent – the two Chinese giants that have swallowed up the media and tech ecosystem in China.


Netflix may be beloved for its binge-worthy programing and insightful personalization, but that’s not the only reason to give the company kudos. This past year Netflix has been willing to make bold moves with its advertising – so bold as to fire up a PR storm when promoting its show Altered Carbon. The show is based on Richard K Morgan’s imaginings of a world 300 years in the future, where human consciousness can be digitally stored.

Themes of rebirth feature prominently in the show, so Netflix created a human-like mannequin incubating in plastic and installed it at a west Hollywood bus stop. It was an unsettling exhibit built so commuters could poke and prod it and even hear it breathe while waiting for their bus. It was certainly macabre, but for Netflix, creeping the public out on their daily commute is just another way to win over viewers.

Guardian Media Group

2018 has been a bounteous year for Guardian Media Group (GMG) – owner of The Guardian and The Observer titles. With its digital revenues overtaking print for the first time, GMG joined the ranks of The New York Times, The Washington Post and The Times and The Sunday Times. It reported digital revenues up by 15% to £108.6m – just over half of its £217m total revenues for the year which were up 1% year-on-year. This was aided by increased support from readers making online contributions, first introduced when it was in dire financial straits in 2016, requesting financial help from readers in support of its open publishing mode.

In 2018, The Guardian also relaunched its print paper in tabloid format. During the summer the paper launched a much-talked about takeover issue of The Guardian Weekend that was guest-edited by Gal-dem, a magazine created by women and non-binary people of color. The special issue featured Bafta winner Michaela Coel, Humans actor Gemma Chan and writer Ash Sarkar.


Perform Group’s Dazn made significant strides in 2018 in its bid to become the ’Netflix of sports’. Headed by former ESPN president John Skipper, the sports streaming service established roots in the US in May by signing an eight year, $1bn deal with Matchroom Boxing. UK-based Dazn already had a presence in Germany, Austria, Switzerland, Japan and Canada. During half time at the World Cup final, Dazn announced plans to launch in Italy and in late August signed Juventus star Cristiano Ronaldo to a two-and-a-half year deal as its global ambassador.

At the time, Dazn chief marketing officer Johnny Devitt told The Drum: “He’s fucking amazing so it was a no-brainer to sign him.” Since sexual assault allegations against the footballer emerged in September, the company is ‘monitoring the situation closely’. In November, Dazn announced it is launching in Spain and will offer MotoGP and English Premier League content.

The Drum's New Year Honors were first published in the January issue of The Drum magazine, which looks back at the year in marketing and advertising and mulls over some of the lessons learned in 2018. Buy your copy here.


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