Newsela, a SaaS platform for K-12 instructional material backed by the likes of TCV, Kleiner Perkins, Reach Capital and Owl Ventures, announced today that it has raised $100 million in a Series D round. The financing was led by new investor Franklin Templeton, and brings Newsela’s valuation to $1 billion. The new round is larger than the aggregate of Newsela’s prior capital raised to date.
“Hitting $1 billion [in valuation] doesn’t change a thing,” Newsela CEO Matthew Gross told TechCrunch. But the startup is joining Quizlet, ApplyBoard and CourseHero as companies within the sector that have hit the unicorn mark as remote education continues to gain traction.
Newsela has created a platform that strings together a number of different third-party content, such as primary source documents or the latest National Geographic articles. Gross defines it as “material that isn’t purpose-built for education, [but] purpose-built for being interesting and informative.” If Newsela is doing its job right, the content can replace textbooks within a classroom altogether, while helping teachers give fresh, personalized material.
“Textbooks are dead in classrooms, but are well-and-live in district purchasing,” Gross said. The startup is on a mission to distribute its product better, and the money will be used to get it into more classrooms. Part of this, Gross explains, is telling teachers what else it can provide along with textbooks. Analytics has become a big part of Newsela’s business, as remote learning hurts student engagement.
The startup’s paid product is between $6 to $14 per student, which contrasts with textbooks that can cost a school $20 to $40 per student “even on an annualized basis.”
Like other edtech companies, Newsela offered its product for free in the beginning of the pandemic, which gave it a healthy bump of new users.
Newsela estimates that gross bookings have grown 115% over the pandemic, and that revenue grew 81%. It declined to share revenue numbers or if it has hit profitability. There will be more than 11 million students using Newsela licensing by the end of 2021, Gross said.
AT&T just announced an agreement with private equity firm TPG that will turn DirecTV into a standalone company, albeit one that’s still majority owned by the telecom giant.
Specifically, AT&T says it will own 70% of the new company, while TPG owns 30%. This transaction values DirecTV at $16.25 billion — a dramatic decline from the $48.5 billion that AT&T paid to acquire the pay TV provider in 2015, part of a wave of telecom-media acquisitions. (Verizon owns TechCrunch thanks to its acquisition of AOL.)
Even with new offerings like AT&T TV (which will be part of the standalone company, along with the DirecTV and U-Verse services) pay TV subscriptions have been declining, with AT&T reporting a net loss of 617,000 premium video subscribers in its most recent quarter. AT&T is trying to point out the positive trends in the numbers by noting that “it hit its peak level of subscriber losses in 2019” and that “premium video net losses had improved sequentially for five straight quarters.”
“As the pay-TV industry continues to evolve, forming a new entity with TPG to operate the U.S. video business separately provides the flexibility and dedicated management focus needed to continue meeting the needs of a high-quality customer base and managing the business for profitability,” said AT&T CEO John Stankey in a statement. “TPG is the right partner for this transaction and creating a new entity is the right way to structure and manage the video business for optimum value creation.”
The company said the transaction should close in the second half of 2021. The combined entity is expected to pay AT&T $7.8 billion, which the telecom company will use to reduce debt. AT&T also said that when the transaction closes, DirecTV’s CEO will be Bill Morrow, currently CEO of AT&T’s U.S. video unit.
The News Media and Digital Platforms Mandatory Bargaining Code was developed in conjunction with Australia’s Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) with the aim of addressing the power imbalance that exists between digital platforms and news businesses.
But none of the tech giants’ moves derailed the legislative effort entirely.
“The Code will ensure that news media businesses are fairly remunerated for the content they generate, helping to sustain public interest journalism in Australia,” said treasury minister Josh Frydenberg and communications minister Paul Fletcher in a joint statement today.
“The Code provides a framework for good faith negotiations between the parties and a fair and balanced arbitration process to resolve outstanding disputes,” they added.
The Morrison Government’s world-leading news media bargaining code has just passed the Parliament.
The operation of the code will be reviewed by the government within a year “to ensure it is delivering outcomes that are consistent with the Government’s policy intent”, they added.
On Tuesday Facebook reversed course on its intentionally over-broad news ban after the government agreed to make amendments to the draft legislation — including adding a two-month mediation period to allow digital platforms and publishers to agree deals before being forced to enter into arbitration.
The government also agreed to take platforms’ existing deals with publishers into account before deciding whether the code applies to them and provide them with one month’s notice before taking a final decision.
Facebook said it was satisfied with the tweaks, having been concerned commercial deals it struck off its own bat would not be taken into account.
In a blog post which the tech giant entitled “the real story” (yes, really), Facebook’s chief spin doctor, Nick Clegg — aka the former deputy prime minister of the UK — wrote that the law as originally drafted would have forced it to pay “potentially unlimited amounts of money to multi-national media conglomerates under an arbitration system that deliberately misdescribes the relationship between publishers and Facebook”.
“Thankfully, after further discussion, the Australian government has agreed to changes that mean fair negotiations are encouraged without the looming threat of heavy-handed and unpredictable arbitration,” Clegg added.
Who exactly has come out on top in this stand off between a sovereign government and two of the biggest tech giants in the world remains to be seen. But if Facebook and Google were hoping to block the law they certainly failed.
Claims by the Australian government that public interest journalism has won are, however, being tempered by critical suggestions that the law will merely end up favoring big media over small publishers — after all, it’s the larger publishers Google has rushed to strike deals with, for example.
How much of the adtech duopoly’s money ends up trickling down to support smaller publishers and grow media pluralism in Australia isn’t yet clear. But the suspicion among some is that the whole episode amounts to a shake down of big tech by big media via their friends in government — and that ugly oligarchy won.
There is also the risk that by directly linking the funding of public interest journalism — and therefore, by implication, the vitality of a country’s democracy — to tech giants like Facebook and Google it will further entrench the monopoly positions of those selfsame giants.
Suddenly calls to break up Google et al can be conflated with ‘harming democracy’ by taking money away from ‘public interest journalism’. Even just the claim of support suggests rich PR pickings for Facebook and co.
Yet these are platform giants that already have massive and unprecedented power over the public information sphere — as Facebook just demonstrated, via its flex against legislators (showing it can flip a switch to crater traffic to all sorts of publicly valuable information if it so chooses, leaving all its users in an entire country vulnerable to disinformation).
Their dominance has also long been implicated in harming democracy around the world — as their ad-funded business models profile people and amplify content for profit, without any kind of public service mission (quite unlike traditional media).
So if the tech giants were looking for a cheap way to reduce their antitrust risk then paying over a couple of billion every few years to regional publishers (who they may hope will also dial down their techlash rhetoric as a result) probably doesn’t sound so bad.
Facebook said this week that it plans to spend at least $1BN on ‘supporting’ the news media over the next three years. Google also recently outted a $1BN fund for news licensing fees.
Neither company can claim it just discovered the existence of journalism; it’s crystal clear these suddenly pledged billions are only on the table because lawmakers have made platforms paying for news mandatory. (Australia is not alone here; EU lawmakers also legislated in recent years to extend copyright to cover snippets of news — which is starting to result in Google striking licensing deals with publishers in Europe.)
So news publishers are certainly winning by gaining revenue that wasn’t being made available to them before. Though at what wider cost — if the mechanism being used to support them helps entrench anti-democratic monopolists?
The lack of transparency around the commercial deals being struck between platforms and publishers is certainly unhelpful. Without clarity on such arrangements the risk, again, is that the law will favor the big publishers while the smaller ones (who may have more of a public interest mission) will be at a disadvantage — needing to work even harder to compete with tabloid giants further fattened up with fresh adtech profits.
Australia has for certain won something, though. It’s bagged the world’s attention for taking on tech giants through a legislative code.
Its direct thrust at Facebook and Google — coming up with a framework tailor made to take on their market power — has caught the eye of other policymakers and competition regulators.
The chief of the UK’s Competition and Markets Authority, Andrea Coscelli, said this week that he’s watching the media code with interest as the UK government moves at a clip to set up a pro-competition regulator with the aim of reining in big tech, calling Australia’s approach of having a backstop of mandatory arbitration if commercial negotiations fail “a sensible one”.
“We are definitely following what’s happening in Australia,” he told the BBC. “We think they are dealing with problems we have in the UK as well and they are coming up with possible solutions to that. There are many variants to it but certainly I think it’s a very important data point for what we could in the UK.”
Asked if the UK should follow Australia’s example, Coscelli gave a cautious thumbs up to something along those lines, saying: “We have said we should also think about fair trading between publishers and the platforms for news content. So I know both government and parliament is certainly interested in what’s happening in Australia — and potentially thinking about something similar.”
ViacomCBS executives held a virtual investor event today where they outlined the strategy for Paramount+, the streaming service set to launch on March 4 that’s basically a rebranded, expanded version of CBS All Access.
In addition to launching in the United States, executives said the service will be available across Latin America and Canada on March 4, with a Nordic launch a few weeks later and an Australian launch also planned for this year.
And they said that Paramount+ will cost $4.99 per month with ads in the U.S. (less than the $5.99 charged for CBS All Access), or $9.99 without ads and with additional sports, news and live TV content. There are also plans to bundle this with the company’s premium subscriptions, such as Showtime.
Yes, it’s yet another streaming service with a plus in its name. But the company’s streaming president and CEO Tom Ryan said research has shown that ViacomCBS brands — not just Paramount and CBS, but Comedy Central, MTV, Nickelodeon and more — are well-known to viewers, and they’ll all be front-and-center in the new service. Plus, it’s worth noting that ViacomCBS already produces a number of hit streaming shows on other services, such as “13 Reasons Why,” “Emily in Paris” and “Jack Ryan.”
ViacomCBS executives also argued that Paramount+ will have a unique combination of live news, live sports and (to use a phrase repeated throughout the event) “a mountain of entertainment.” And from a product perspective, the service will offer originals in 4K, HDR and Dolby Vision, with easy downloads.
On the entertainment side, the service is supposed to have more than 30,000 TV show episodes and 2,500 movies. And the library will expand with new shows like a new version of “Frasier” with Kelsey Grammer returning to the role, as well as a “Halo” TV show that will now debut on Paramount+ instead of Showtime in early 2022. The service is also rebooting a variety of Paramount properties like “Love Story,” “Fatal Attraction” and “Flashdance.”
And like CBS All Access before it, Paramount+ will be home to new Star Trek shows — not just the already launched “Discovery,” “Picard” and “Lower Decks,” but also the upcoming “Strange New Worlds” and the kids animated series “Prodigy.”
On the movie side, Paramount CEO Jim Gianopulos said the company is still a big believer in the theatrical model, but it will be bringing some 2021 releases — including “A Quiet Place Part 2,” the first “Paw Patrol” movie and “Mission Impossible 7” — to Paramount+ in an accelerated fashion, 30 to 45 days after they come to theaters (a much less aggressive strategy than HBO Max, which will stream all Warner Bros. movies this year simultaneously with their theatrical release). And there will be new straight-to-streaming movies as well, starting with reboots of “Paranormal Activity” and “Pet Sematary.”
YouTube announced this morning it will soon introduce a new experience designed for teens and tweens who are now too old for the schoolager-focused YouTube Kids app, but who may not be ready to explore all of YouTube. The company says it’s preparing to launch a beta test of new features that will give parents the ability to grant kids more limited access to YouTube through a “supervised” Google Account. This setup will restrict what tweens and teens can watch on the platform, as well as what they can do — like create videos or leave comments, for example.
Many parents may have already set up a supervised Google Account for their child through Google’s Family Link parental control app. This app allows parents to restrict access across a range of products and services, control screen time, filter websites and more. Other parents may have created a supervised Google Account for their child when they first set up the child’s account on a new Android device or Chromebook.
If not, parents can take a few minutes to create the child’s supervised account when they’re ready to begin testing the new features. (Unfortunately, Google Edu accounts — like those kids now use for online school — aren’t supported at launch.)
The new features will allow parents to select between three different levels of YouTube access for their tween or teen. Initially, YouTube will test the features with parents with children under the age of consent for online services — age 13 in the U.S., but different in other countries — before expanding to older groups.
Image Credits: YouTube
For tweens who have more recently graduated out of the YouTube Kids app, an “Explore” mode will allow them to view a broad range of videos generally suited for viewers age 9 and up — including vlogs, tutorials, gaming videos, music clips, news, and educational content. This would allow the kids to watch things like their favorite gaming streamer with kid-friendly content, but would prevent them (in theory) from finding their way over to more sensitive content.
The next step up is an “Explore More” mode, where videos are generally suitable for kids 13 and up — like a PG-13 version of YouTube. This expands the set of videos kids can access and allows them access to live streams in the same categories as “Explore.”
For older teens, there is the “Most of YouTube” mode, which includes almost all YouTube videos except those that include age-restricted content that isn’t appropriate for viewers under 18.
Image Credits: YouTube
YouTube says it will use a combination of user input, machine learning, and human review to curate which videos are included in each of the three different content settings.
Of course, much like YouTube Kids, that means this will not be a perfect system — it’s a heavily machine-automated attempt at curation where users will still have to flag videos that were improperly filtered. In other words, helicopter parents who closely supervise their child’s access to internet content will probably still want to use some other system — like a third-party parental control solution, perhaps — to lock down YouTube further.
The supervised access to YouTube comes with other restrictions, as well, the company says.
Parents will be able to manage the child’s watch and search history from within the child’s account settings. And certain features on YouTube will be disabled, depending on the level of access the child has.
For example, YouTube will disable in-app purchases, video creation, and commenting features at launch. The company says that, over time, it wants to work with parents to add some of these features back through some sort of parent-controlled approach.
That said, when parents establish the supervised account for their child, they’ll be providing consent for COPPA compliance — the U.S. children’s privacy law that requires parents to be notified and agree to the collection and use personal data from the kids’ account. So there’s a trade-off here.
However, the new experience may still make sense for families where kids have outgrown apps designed for younger children — or even in some cases, for younger kids who covet their big brother or sister’s version of “real YouTube.” Plus, at some point, forcing an older child to use the “Kids” app makes them feel like they’re behind their peers, too. And since not all parents use the YouTube Kids app or parental controls, there’s always the complaint that “everyone else has it, so why can’t I?” (It never ends.)
Image Credits: YouTube Kids app
This slightly more locked down experience lets parents give the child access to “real YouTube” with restrictions on what that actually means, in terms of content and features.
YouTube, in an announcement, shared several endorsements for the new product from a few individual youth experts, including Leslie Boggs, president of National PTA; Dr. Yalda Uhls, Center for Scholars & Storytellers, UCLA – Author of Media Moms & Digital Dads; Thiago Tavares, Founder and President of SaferNet Brazil; and Professor Sun Sun Lim, Singapore University of Technology & Design – Author of Transcendent Parenting.
YouTube’s news, notably, follows several product updates from fast-growing social video app and YouTube rival TikTok, which has rolled out a number of features aimed at better protecting its younger users.
The company in April 2020 launched a “family pairing” mode that lets a parent link their child’s account to their own in order to also lock down what the child can do and what content they can see. (TikTok offers a curated experience for the under-13 crowd called Restricted Mode, which can be switched on here, too.) And in January of this year, TikTok changed the privacy setting defaults for users under 18 to more proactively restrict what they do on the app.
YouTube says its new product will launch in beta in the “coming months” in over 80 countries worldwide. It also notes that it will continue to invest in YouTube Kids for parents with younger children.
The Facebook-Australia news battle seems to have reached an end, Android gets an update and Lucid Motors is going public via SPAC. This is your Daily Crunch for February 23, 2021.
The big story: Facebook brings news sharing back to Australia
Last week, Facebook responded to the Australian government’s proposed law requiring internet platforms to strike revenue-sharing agreements with news publishers by blocking news sharing and viewing for users in the country. But with the government amending the law, Facebook said it will restore news sharing in the “coming days.”
Among other things, the amendments call for a two-month mediation period before Facebook is forced into arbitration with publishers, and it also says the government will consider commercial agreements that the platforms have made with local publishers before deciding whether the law applies to them.
William Easton, Facebook’s managing director for Australia and New Zealand, said in a statement that the amendments address “core concerns about allowing commercial deals that recognize the value our platform provides to publishers relative to the value we receive from them.”
Reddit, which announced a $250 million Series E earlier this month, has added over $116 million to the financing event, upping the round’s most recent total to $367 million, according to a new SEC filing. The document shows that Reddit is aiming to raise up to $500 million in this capital raise.
A Reddit spokesperson confirmed the news, saying that the new capital is from ”new and existing investors.” They offered no specifics on names. The spokesperson did confirm that the new capital did not come with a new valuation, keeping the platform at its previously-announced valuation of $6 billion pre-money.
Spotify makes a bunch of announcements, Netflix introduces an intriguing new feature and Clubhouse faces security concerns. This is your Daily Crunch for February 22, 2021.
The big story: Spotify announces a high-end subscription
Spotify listeners will get the chance to pay for higher-quality audio when the streaming service launches a new tier that it says will offer “CD-quality, lossless audio.” The pricing and launch date have yet to be announced, but Spotify HiFi will, unsurprisingly, cost more than Spotify Premium and be marketed as a Premium add-on.
During its live-streamed event today, Spotify officially confirmed its plans to launch paid podcast subscriptions on its platform. As a first step, the company will this spring begin beta testing a new feature in its Anchor podcast creation tool that will allow U.S. creators to publish paid podcast content aimed at their “most dedicated fans.” It also opened up signups for this and other new features, starting today.
Spotify had hinted at its plans for paid podcast content during its fourth-quarter earnings call earlier this month, when it said it was exploring ideas like paid podcast subscriptions and à la carte payments. But it didn’t detail when these new options would go live or how they would work.
At its online event today, Spotify more formally announced its plans to enter the market of paid podcasts, initially with a new service that would allow Anchor creators the ability to offer paid podcast subscriptions supported by their listeners.
This sort of idea is not new, to be clear. Already, some podcasters offer paid access to bonus material — for example, through a service like Stitcher Premium, which promises both an ad-free experience and bonus episodes. Some creators may even independently offer paid feeds through their own platforms.
But until now, a similar option was not available to Spotify creators.
Anchor co-founder Michael Mignano said the company believes paid bonus material can work well as a means of podcast monetization, in addition to ads.
Image Credits: Spotify
“We have found that, through our research, it seems to work especially well for creators who have really engaged and dedicated audiences — regardless of the audience size,” he told TechCrunch in an interview following Spotify’s event. “We’ve also found that podcast listeners do tend to be open to financially supporting the shows they love,” he added.
The company was hesitant to detail some of the specifics of how paid subscriptions would work at launch, but did say that the model would involve a revenue share between creators and Anchor, where creators keep the majority of the earnings. Anchor will also allow creators to determine what price to charge their listeners for the paid experience and what that experience would include — like bonus episodes or interviews, or even ad-free content, if they prefer.
It will then use its understanding of what creators actually do with paid subscriptions to inform its product product launch and its “best practices” recommendations in the future.
We also understand the offering will be limited to those who use Anchor to record and publish across podcast platforms. However, it will more immediately benefit creators with a strong Spotify presence and a loyal listenership.
But Mignano points out that creators may be able to grow their paid subscriber base thanks to Spotify’s tools for podcast discovery.
“The problem is the system for doing this type of paid subscription so far in podcasts has been really disjointed,” he explained. “It hasn’t been a really seamless experience for the listener, and it hasn’t really been a great experience for the creator. We feel like that’s really held this model back and hindered creators’ reach and ability to gain paid subscribers,” he said.
Image Credits: Spotify/Anchor
In other words, users may be open to the idea of paid bonus material, but they don’t necessarily want to switch between apps to gain access, nor do they want to figure out how to get paid RSS feeds into some third-party podcast listening app.
Spotify, meanwhile, will try to make discovery easier. It will highlight the paid content alongside the free material on the podcast’s main page, for example. Plus, in the same way that Spotify today helps users discover new podcasts they may like to try, it will also point to paid subscription-based podcasts in the future as the new model rolls out further.
Anchor says it will initially open up the beta test in the U.S. to a small number of creators, but aims to expand access to more creators as soon as reasonably possible. The test, for the time being, will only focus on paid subscriptions, but Mignano told us the company may explore the à la carte model in the future.
Paid podcasts were only one of several new features Anchor announced today at the Spotify event.
The company also announced the launch of a WordPress partnership that makes it easier for bloggers to turn their posts into posts, either by reading the blog posts themselves or leveraging third-party text-to-speech technology Anchor provides.
Anchor will also expand beta testing of video podcasts, which so far have been tested by only a handful of creators, including Higher Learning from The Ringer.
And it will begin beta testing new, interactive features, like polls and Q&A, with a small number of creators in the months ahead.
These features could potentially overlap with paid subscriptions. For example, some podcast creators may choose to make their videos a paid feature, or perhaps other interactive features. It remains to be seen how they’re put to use.
But more broadly, features like polls and Q&As could help Spotify better differentiate an interactive podcast from a live audio program, like those popularized by the buzzy new app Clubhouse. The advantage of the latter is that it allows for audience participation in the “show,” rather than being a one-way street where hosts control the experience. But on the flip side, Clubhouse rooms can also have folks who drone on and on, or they can become boring, when not carefully managed.
Anchor says it doesn’t intend to charge creators for access to its tools, beyond taking a rev share on subscriptions.
“I think our vision with Anchor and Spotify has always been to really empower creators. In the Anchor suite of tools, we’ve never charged creators for any features because we believe that charging creators can often represent friction that stands in the way of them trying to actually make something and getting it out into the world,” Mignano said. “We want to enable creators to do whatever they want, as far as expressing themselves through these new tools,” he added.
Spotify provided more details today about how it plans to monetize its investments in podcasts. The company said it’s launching a new audio advertising marketplace, the Spotify Audience Network, which will allow advertisers to reach listeners across Spotify’s own Originals and Exclusives, as well as podcasts via Megaphone and creation tool Anchor, and its ad-supported music, all in one place. The company also said it plans to offer podcasts on its self-serve ad platform, Spotify Ad Studio, starting with Spotify Originals and Exclusives in the U.S., in a beta test phase.
This will expand to include third-party podcasts in the future, the company noted today during its live online event, “Stream On.”
Currently, Spotify Ad Studio is being used by advertisers across 22 markets following its 2017 launch, to reach Spotify music listeners with both audio and video advertisements. Spotify said the service is its fastest-growing buying channel, but didn’t provide specific figures to detail that growth.
Image Credits: Spotify
However, the larger news on the advertising side was the launch of the new audio ad marketplace, Spotify Audience Network. Similar to some of its other forward-looking announcements today, Spotify was light on details about how exactly Spotify Audience Network would work — saying only that it’s in the “early stages of developing the offering,” and it expects to be able to share more at a later date.
However, the company positioned the marketplace as a “game changer,” particularly for podcasters looking to make money from ads, as well as for advertisers who want to reach Spotify’s audience of hundreds and millions, both on and off Spotify.
This news follows an investigative report by The Verge earlier this year which found Spotify was the main sponsor for Anchor advertising to date — despite its promises to find sponsors for smaller podcasters. It now appears Spotify has been in the process of building out its ad marketplace and tooling to make good on those promises, and may not have prioritized advertiser outreach in the meantime.
Image Credits: Spotify
Spotify today also spoke about how its recent acquisition of Megaphone would allow it to scale its Streaming Ad Insertion (SAI) technology, launched in early 2020, to publishers beyond its own Originals and Exclusives audio programs. Today, SAI is available in the U.S., Canada, Germany and the U.K., and will expand to other new markets in 2021.
Since its debut, SAI has been rolling out new features like audience-based buying, native ad placements and reporting on creative performance. Later this year, Spotify says it will make SAI available to Megaphone podcast publishers and “leading” Anchor creators.
But Anchor creators won’t be limited to advertising to grow revenues.
Spotify also briefly noted it will, in a few months, begin beta testing a new feature that will allow Anchor creators to publish paid podcast content to Spotify aimed at their most dedicated fans, as TechCrunch previously reported.