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From news to eCommerce, how publishers are rising up to the challenge of COVID-19

The Atlantic grew its audience by nearly 125% in March 2020, compared to the same month last year. Other magazines that registered impressive gains include Architectural Digest (74.3%) and Wired (59%). 

According to The Magazine Media 360° report, the total audience across magazine media brands including readers on print and digital, web, mobile web and video platforms, was up 11.3% year-over-year in March 2020.

People are staying indoors and consuming more content, related to coronavirus, as well as others. While the publishing industry has been hit by declining revenues from ads and other sources, new opportunities have arisen.

There are several examples of different types of publishers that have pivoted in response to the current situation, and are seeing impressive growth in traffic and subscriptions. 

We have never, in the 163-year history of this magazine, had an audience like we had in March: 87M unique visitors to our site, and more than 168M pageviews. The number of unique visitors is astonishing — more than double the previous one-month record. 

Jeffrey Goldberg, Editor-in-chief, The Atlantic

Goldberg wrote in a memo to his staff, “The most notable statistic, the one with possibly the greatest salience for The Atlantic’s future, is this: Your work has brought in more than 36,000 new subscribers over the past four weeks, even as we have lifted paywall restrictions on our coronavirus coverage. This subscription success has happened only because readers in crisis found guidance, information, and illumination in The Atlantic’s journalism.”

“There are news sites in The Atlantic’s peer group that would be thrilled with 36,000 digital subscribers period, much less added in a single virus-wrecked month,” comments Niemanlab’s Sarah Scire. 

“Unexpected winner in the race for new eyeballs”

This is not an isolated story, The Wired has seen the highest number of conversions from a single story since it implemented a paywall. The publisher did not reveal specific figures but the story in question, a March 19 interview with epidemiologist Larry Brilliant, was free.

Tribune Publishing has seen a 293% increase in digital subscriptions during the pandemic. Among other things it is considering raising subscription prices, confident that dedicated readers will continue to pay. 

In January, The New York Times announced that it had passed 5M total subscribers. Now it has crossed 6M. The publisher added 587,000 new digital subscribers in Q1 2020 alone. Of these, 468,000 signed up for the core news product. The rest subscribed to its Cooking and Crosswords verticals. The Times’ news product now has more than 4M digital subscriptions.

But the current growth spike is not limited only to the biggies. According to FIPP’s latest Global Digital Subscription Snapshot (2020 Q2), local news publishers have seen record increases in traffic. They are, “the unexpected winner in the race for new eyeballs,” writes FIPP President and CEO, James Hewes. 

The coronavirus crisis represents the biggest opportunity – and biggest challenge – for our industry in 75 years.

James Hewes, Publishing during a pandemic: Mapping a path through the Covid-19 crisis

El Diario, an online-only Spanish newspaper which went from 36,000 subscribers on March 10 to 52,000 by the end of April, increased its annual subscription from 60 to 80 Euros.

Its Director of Strategy, Maria Ramirez told BuzzFeed News that readers were given the opportunity to keep the old price if they could not afford the hike. But an “overwhelming majority” accepted the new price, with some going even further.

“High-intensity, highly fraught journalism”

A lot of it has to do with the quality of the journalism. Audiences have “flocked to high quality content providers as they seek out entertainment, escapism, inspiration and trustworthy news coverage,” says Hewes. 

“I feel like our journalists are doing so well in the pandemic coverage because we’ve been practicing for this kind of high-intensity, highly fraught journalism for three years now,” Goldberg told NiemanLab. “It’s not as if we went from a normal period in American life to a completely abnormal one. It was pretty abnormal a couple of months ago too.”

The ambitious approach has made The Atlantic’s coronavirus journalism distinctive and extended their coverage’s digital shelf life despite a rapidly evolving crisis.

Sarah Scire, Staff Writer, Nieman Journalism Lab

It is the distinctive quality of the journalism that continues to drive growth at Politico which is best known for its in-depth political news coverage. The publisher continues to do well enough to consider expansion even in the present situation. 

“We started off with one reporter in London back in 2015, and I think we’re probably looking at an office of at least a dozen, but there are plans to expand,” Politico’s Editor-in-chief, Matthew Kaminski, told Press Gazette in a recent interview. 

Politico in Europe sees the UK as a great growth opportunity. And those plans haven’t been pushed back because of the corona crisis.

Matthew Kaminski, Editor-in-chief, Politico

“More than half our business is long-term, premium subscription contracts,” added Kaminski. “That gives you a lot of stability. And you can plan ahead much more easily than [with] advertising, which as you know can go up and down very easily.”

Politico tripled its website traffic in March attracting more than 70M readers. They were able to quickly adapt to the changing environment as they had reporters across North America, Europe who cover various specialist subjects, including healthcare. 

“The publication is now big enough and mature enough to rise to the occasion in a way that it couldn’t have just a couple of years before when we were smaller and organized differently,” commented Kaminski.

“More than a significant uptick in the total number of subscriptions”

The ability to pivot quickly to serve the changed demands of readers is serving publishers well. Wolfgang Blau, COO and President, International for Condé Nast, told BuzzFeed News that titles have had to “shift gears” editorially as readers’ lives are directly affected by COVID-19.

He gave the example of the Italian edition of Vanity Fair which is now trying to be a forum for “Italy’s own soul searching and self-examination of what it will be and what it wants to be after this marathon of pain is over.” 

The edition focused on the human stories behind Italy’s health crisis. It included interviews with many of the medics, scientists and volunteers who were helping fight the virus.

Wired, which is Condé Nast’s technology publication, has more than doubled its traffic by shifting its focus to coverage of the coronavirus. What’s more, they are seeing notable growth in subscriptions as well. 

“We’ve seen more than a significant uptick in the total number of subscriptions we’re generating right now,” Wired’s Site Director Scott Rosenfield told Folio. “Granted, traffic is up significantly as well, but we’re well ahead of the goal we had set. It’s a significant increase in subscriber growth from before the pandemic.” 

Overall, the sales of Condé Nast titles have continued to grow through the crisis. Subscriptions to New Yorker, Vanity Fair and AD (Architectural Digest) have hit record levels

According to BuzzFeed News, overall, the company’s new subscribers in the US in March and April are nearly double that of the same period last year. In the UK, new subscription orders are up by 420% since the lockdown began on March 23, compared with the same period last year. 

The publisher’s print subscriptions have also grown in Germany, Spain, China, India and Russia.

“Diversification is the key”

Unlike many other publishers, Wired UK hasn’t furloughed or laid off staff, or rolled out pay cuts, reports Digiday’s Lara O’Reilly. The title had started to diversify its revenue early on, and also broadened the scope of its coverage beyond tech. These moves have contributed to its continued growth during the pandemic.  

Diversification is the key to it and we did it very early on. 

Greg Williams, Editor-in-chief, Wired UK

Apart from advertising and events, the title generates revenue from magazine sales, consulting and affiliate marketing. It has also recently forayed into book publishing with Penguin Random House.

Its consulting business has retained all its clients through the crisis — and won new ones, Williams told Digiday. Clients range from retailers, to banks, legal firms and financial services companies. 

The affiliate business is also doing very well. March was a “record month” (they did not share figures) as readers looked for advice on buying gadgets that would be useful during the lockdown. 

“On track to drive over $500M in retail sales this year”

eCommerce can be a substantial revenue generator for publishers. “Lifestyle brands are seeing a major lift in revenue driven by eCommerce transactions,” according to Greg Dool, Senior Editor, Folio. 

“Since the world began sheltering in place in mid-March, we saw sales similar to the height of the 2019 holiday season, which is our biggest time of year,” says Emily Silverman, Senior Director of eCommerce and Partnerships, Hearst Magazines. “Every single title across the portfolio has seen an increase in eCommerce-driven product sales.”

Hearst’s brands helped generate approximately 1M product sales through commerce content in March. This was a 143% increase over March 2019 according to Silverman. For April, the publisher looked set to achieve a 358% increase year-over-year.

We’ve continued with our core strategy: create content that’s highly relevant to what our readers need, stay nimble and quickly respond to what addresses the changing world, and always make it easy for our people to take action. 

Emily Silverman, Senior Director of eCommerce and Partnerships, Hearst Magazines 

The story is similar at Meredith Corp. “Most brands across Meredith’s portfolio are continuing to experience strong eCommerce/affiliate performances,” says the publisher’s SVP of Consumer Revenue, Andy Wilson. “We’re on track to drive over $500M in retail sales this year.”

“We will be saved as an institution by bearing down on quality, quality, quality”

It all comes down to being credible and serving the readers well, whether it’s via news, product recommendations or entertainment. 

“There’s a parallel between a good recipe and a good product review,” says David Tamarkin, Digital Director at Epicurious a Condé Nast publication. “Both of those things should always be in the service of the reader. I would never want anybody to cook one of our recipes and say it didn’t work, and I would never want anybody to buy something based on our product reviews and say it was no good. 

“We have to take the same serious approach to both, and because we do and we always keep the home cook in mind, it just fits.”

eCommerce revenue at both Epicurious and Self increased by more than 70% in March, year-over-year.

“People consume information now more than ever before. The need for viable information is greater than ever before,” says Politico’s Kaminski. 

“A lot of the really great old brands in American journalism – the Washington Post, the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal – have pivoted quite successfully to passing the cost of what they do from advertisers to subscribers, and that’s a very stable bedrock for them.”

“I’ve been arguing for a long time that we will be saved as an institution by bearing down on quality, quality, quality,” adds Goldberg from The Atlantic. 

Just do the most deeply reported, beautifully written, carefully edited, fact-checked, copyedited, and beautifully designed stories — and the reader will come. They want to be supportive and they want access. And it turns out to be true. Thank God for it.

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