media | Jun 7, 2024 |
What happened to Hunker?

Hunker hit the ground running. Almost immediately following its 2017 launch, the site was a force in the world of digital shelter media—by 2021 it was claiming 10 million monthly visitors. Now, Hunker has gone quiet. According to LinkedIn posts from former employees, in December the entire staff was laid off. In recent weeks, the site has published only a handful of articles written by a freelancer, and the brand has not posted to Instagram for the past month.

A spokesperson for Hunker’s parent company, World of Good Brands, wrote that “shelter is no longer a core category for [us], however, we continue to invest in Hunker as an editorial brand with a full-time, dedicated staff. … We are ramping up content creation, while centering Hunker as a destination for the design curious.” The spokesperson declined to provide further details and turned down a request for a formal interview. The site’s masthead is outdated, showing several employees who, according to their LinkedIn profiles, have moved on to other employment.

The story of Hunker is wrapped up in the twists and turns of an M&A deal gone sour.

The site was originally launched by The Leaf Group, an L.A.–based rollup that operated digital media properties including eHow and Well+Good alongside online art marketplaces Saatchi Art and Society6. Hunker was spun up directly out of eHow, repackaging the site’s instructional home content under an editorially driven brand that eventually came to publish features like “The Mysterious Allure of Bart Prince’s Architecture” and “What Does the Future of Green Landscape Design Look Like?

In 2021, The Leaf Group was purchased for $322 million by Graham Holdings, an Arlington, Virginia–based multibillion-dollar conglomerate that owns TV stations, equipment manufacturers, restaurants and—until they sold to Jeff Bezos in 2013—The Washington Post. Almost immediately, Graham leadership regretted the deal. “Leaf has underperformed our expectations and we overpaid,” wrote CEO Timothy O’Shaughnessy in a startlingly candid letter to shareholders in 2022. “I screwed this one up.”

In 2023, Graham split The Leaf Group into three stand-alone businesses: Saatchi Art, Society6 and a media group, World of Good Brands, that included Hunker. The new leader of the media group, Lindsey Abramo, told Axios at the time that she was hoping to pivot the business toward direct relationships with advertisers. “In the past, programmatic [automated ad sales] has been a really big part of the media business,” she said. “Like everyone, we’re seeing that decline.”

The restructuring laid bare the reality that World of Good Brands was not meeting Graham’s expectations. Though Hunker is not mentioned specifically, the conglomerate singled out WGB for underperforming and referenced staff reductions in 2023 earnings reports. In a presentation to shareholders in May 2024, it classified the group as unprofitable and shrinking, and wrote somewhat ominously that “digital media trends of 2023 and early 2024 exacerbated a tumultuous year. We have revamped the team and cut the number of brands we are actively supporting. [Society6 and WGB] are turnarounds and we are monitoring losses very, very closely as we embark on these efforts.”

In its heyday, Hunker took an omnivorous approach to both making design media and monetizing it. The site, at various points, launched a podcast, developed furniture, collaborated with brands, opened an L.A. event space and operated an experiential retail concept. Hunker’s editor in chief, Eve Epstein, a veteran of the newsletter business Daily Candy, once told Business of Home that she could see Hunker getting into hospitality and opening a hotel.

However, despite a creative approach to the market, Hunker relied on search results to drive traffic and programmatic advertising to deliver revenue. It was likely not immune from the pressures—including a shifting landscape for online advertising and unpredictable algorithm updates from Google—facing many digital publishers. Its focus on home, a category that sharply declined post-pandemic, probably didn’t help either.

“[The years] 2022 and 2023 were really difficult for the digital ad market,” says Brian Morrissey, the former editor in chief of Digiday and founder of The Rebooting, a newsletter that focuses on the media landscape. “There were a lot of sugar highs from the pandemic that masked structural weaknesses in the category—a lot of people had to come down from that. There was a pullback in traffic, and the ad market changed. If you look at retail media rising and the pivot to performance marketing, it’s just an unsettled time.”

It’s not clear what comes next for Hunker. The brand has a robust following on Instagram and Pinterest, and it still ranks among the top 25 “home improvement and maintenance” sites in the U.S., according to Similarweb, a service that analyzes internet traffic. If World of Good Brands chooses to reinvest and revamp Hunker, it will have an audience. Selling the site is another possibility, though the market for digital media properties is cooler than it was when Graham Holdings picked up The Leaf Group for more than $300 million.

Another possibility: World of Good Brands can dedicate enough resources to keep Hunker running, minimally updating its content and collecting whatever automated ad dollars and affiliate revenue trickles in. “Digital media doesn’t have a lot of sturdy, long-lasting brands, but they also don’t go away,” says Morrissey. “It’s nearly impossible to kill a site that’s been around long enough, because there’s always value to be had for any brand that’s accruing traffic. … It’s not the most inspiring fate, but it’s not dead.”

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