The 10 most innovative media companies of 2020

How Spotify, Bleacher Report, The New York Times, Reese Witherspoon (!), and others are inventing the future of media as a direct relationship with fans.

The 10 most innovative media companies of 2020

Media continues to be one of the more dynamic and fluid industries, as companies seek to get closer to their customers, find new revenue sources, and reinvent traditional business models. These businesses are leading the way in 2020 to do just that.


1. Spotify

For tapping into the power of podcasts to create a more engaged audience—and sell more ads

In 2019, Spotify made big moves to evolve from a music platform into a go-to destination for on-demand news, humor, and storytelling with the acquisitions of podcasting powers such as Gimlet Media, The Ringer, and the creation platform Anchor. The move seems to be working: In its Q4 results, the company reported its paying users were up 29%, to 125 million, and that podcast listening on Spotify had grown 200% over the previous year.

Read more about why Spotify is one of the Most Innovative Companies of 2020.


2. Hello Sunshine

For becoming the go-to catapult for women protagonists

In 2019, Reese Witherspoon’s Hello Sunshine continued to find success through producing and promoting women-centered stories. Drama The Morning Show premiered on Apple TV+, while season two of hit drama Big Little Lies on HBO continued to draw audiences with the addition of Meryl Streep to the cast. Meanwhile, Witherspoon’s book club propels books up the bestseller list—and into TV and film productions. Celeste Ng’s Little Fires Everywhere adaptation, starring Witherspoon and Kerry Washington, will premiere on Hulu on March 18.

Read more about why Hello Sunshine is one of the Most Innovative Companies of 2020.


3. Bleacher Report

For speaking to sports fans like one of them, wherever they are

With sports having evolved in the social media era to being as much about the off-court soap opera as who scored 35 points last night, B/R continues to adapt, adding coverage of sneaker culture, betting, and beefing up its app to pull in all the feeds a sports fan needs to get breaking news and the most shareable clips. The goal is to emulate B/R’s breakout hit, House of Highlights, which grew in 2019 from an Instagram-only NBA account into a full-fledged Gen Z distributed digital media brand. “House of Highlights is the most impressive and disruptive story to hit sports media for the last five years,” says Howard Mittman, CEO of Bleacher Report. It grew from three employees to 20, added 18 YouTube series, launched on TikTok (where it has attracted 2.3 million followers in five months), and hosted youth basketball camps. Mittman credits the team’s ability to “create and package moments—not just traditional highlights but ones that allow you to sort of read into the personalities and the subtext and the subplots of what’s happening,” as well as the fact that the content still feels like it’s coming from individuals and not a big company. Mittman says HoH is “insanely profitable,” and last year it surpassed ESPN in Instagram followers, the first sports account ever to do so on any platform.

Read more about why Bleacher Report is one of the Most Innovative Companies of 2020.


4. The New York Times Company

For sparking a provocative conversation about slavery’s legacy, in print, audio, live events, and classroom materials

The New York Times Magazine’s1619 Project” launched last August to reexamine the legacy of slavery in the United States (its name reflects the first year slaves were brought to the American colonies). What started as a single special issue—with essays and literary works on topics from mass incarceration to popular music to sugar—was widely lauded by media, politicians, and the general public (it sold out twice on newsstands). It soon spun out to include the 1619 Podcast and a live symposium at the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture. The project also produced a free teaching curriculum alongside the Pulitzer Center, which the Times has announced will expand upon as it continues the project. The special issue and ongoing work on the project are helmed by investigative reporter Nikole Hannah-Jones.

5. The Athletic

For persuading almost one million people to pay for sportswriting


Sports site The Athletic has been upending the traditional sports writing business since 2016, hiring beat writers from stalwarts like Sports IllustratedESPNThe Los Angeles Times, and The Washington Post under the pretense that sports fans will pay for substantial coverage of their local teams—enough to forgo advertisers altogether. In 2019, it proved readers are buying into their model, claiming close to one million subscribers by the end of the year. The company expanded into the UK, hiring 55 writers and editors to cover every Premier League team, and bringing its editorial team to more than 450. The Athletic currently covers more than 280 teams, and produces around 1,000 stories and 120 podcast episodes per week across markets.

6. Time Out Group

For parlaying its local guide expertise into a global food-hall business

For more than half a century, Time Out Magazine published recommendations and guides to dining, entertainment, and culture around the world. But as the print magazine business contracted, the company took its insider knowledge and leveraged it into a new venture: Time Out Markets. Using local writers’ and editors’ expertise, the company is curating food halls—Time Out Markets lure visitors with the promise of discovering chefs and menus that locals love. After a successful launch of Time Out Market Lisbon in 2014 (and attracting nearly four million visitors in 2018), the company rapidly expanded the concept in 2019, opening markets in Miami, New York, Boston, Chicago, and Montreal.


7. TCG

For making the most audacious bets on new media startups and advising them on how to scale

TCG, formerly known as The Chernin Group (founded by veteran media executive Peter Chernin), is an investor in three other companies on this list (Hello Sunshine, The Athletic, and Substack), and another of its portfolio companies—Anchor, the podcast-creation platform—was strategically acquired by Spotify as a key element in its podcast push, the initiative which earned Spotify the number-one spot here. In addition, TCG has investments in five other companies across Most Innovative Companies: Cameo, Exploding Kittens, Food52, Premier Lacrosse League, and Second Spectrum. This impressive roster is augmented by some other recent notable deals, such as Barstool Sports, which TCG bet on early and installed its CEO, Erika Nardini, who’s turned it into a juggernaut (albeit a highly controversial one) that attracted the attention of the gaming company Penn National, and mobile gaming startup Scopely, which acquired Fox’s gaming division from Disney and raised another $200 million to expand its network of branded games. TCG is obviously a good picker, but it also helps its portfolio grow their businesses, encouraging experimentation in business models and supporting its leaders.

8. Complex Networks

For helping brands develop products for its streetwear-clad, heat-seeking audience


The youth-oriented streetwear and culture brand has found several ways to capitalize on its cool—and brands’ interest in connecting with Complex’s passionate fans. Last year, Complex launched Climate to cocreate products with brands that are designed to speak to Complex’s audience. The new product-development group formalizes an effort that had been more ad hoc but led to such successes as Complex’s line of hot sauces tied to its The Hot Ones brand (now also a TV show) and a collaboration between the Brisk beverage brand and the streetwear designer Anwar Carrots. In December, Complex also launched its own e-commerce shop, a curated collection of brands combined with Complex editorial, further cementing its commitment to connect to its audience via goods every day, the same way it does during its successful ComplexCon events.

9. Substack

For enabling one-person media brands to go direct to consumer

As traditional media businesses continue to be imperiled, individual journalists and analysts have found that the internet can be a powerful tool to coalesce fans—and those fans can financially support these direct-to-consumer creators. Substack, which launched in 2017 to make it easier for this emerging class of creators to set up their own businesses, has become the go-to service powering this new wave of individual creators, letting them not have to worry about tech support, payments, and customer service, giving them more time to create their email newsletters and podcasts. The startup, which raised more than $15 million last year, added discussion threads, so the people on their platform can create more of a community among their readers or listeners. In January, it added support for multiple authors, allowing for more sophisticated new publications to take root on Substack.


10. SmartNews

For driving audiences to digital publishers via its algorithmically driven news app

SmartNews has succeeded where many news apps have failed, tailoring its product to provide high-quality information during the 2020 U.S. presidential campaign. Its news slider lets readers see what both left-leaning and right-wing publications are saying about candidates, making it easy for readers to explore a variety of viewpoints. SmartNews has also significantly expanded its local news partners, supporting those partners by driving traffic to those publishers as well as showcasing their journalism to the app’s more than 20 million users (double what it had in mid-2018).

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