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How COVID-19 is accelerating innovation in publishing: Insights from FIPP

COVID-19 has affected the world in an extraordinary manner, and many of its after-effects are going to be permanent. According to FIPP President and CEO James Hewes, it “represents the biggest opportunity – and biggest challenge – for our industry in 75 years.” 

The rapid changes that we’re seeing in the way that consumers access our content is accelerating many of the trends that we had been seeing for many years. Our response will determine the shape of the industry for decades to come. 

James Hewes, President and CEO, FIPP

“Map strategies to overcome future challenges”

This prompted FIPP to embark on a project that tracks the impact, response and the survival strategies employed by publishers in response to Covid-19. The first of these reports, “Publishing during a pandemic: Mapping a path through the Covid-19 crisis,” presents an overview of the common challenges being faced by publishers currently, and how they are responding. 

The report brings together insights of over 20 representatives from national publisher associations around the world. It also includes inputs of nearly two dozen senior executives from international publishing businesses. 

By doing this, we intend not only to record the process of dealing with this crisis but also to map strategies to overcome future challenges.

James Hewes, President and CEO, FIPP

“Digital traffic has just exploded for us”

Content production has been one of the first casualties at many publishers. For example, lockdown restrictions mean that fashion magazines can’t do photoshoots the way they used to, and sports content has been drastically reduced because sporting events have been cancelled. This has led publishers to experiment with digital alternatives.

Celebrity bible OK! is engaging with the rich and famous in a different way. “We obviously can’t do shoots with celebrities anymore, so we’ve had an interesting time trying to replace that content,” says Emma Radford, Head of Brand Licensing at Reach PLC, the publisher of OK! 

It has bolstered our digital side of the brand and traffic since we are getting a lot of celebrities collaborating with us on a digital level like never before. We hope the trend continues afterwards. Digital traffic has just exploded for us. 

Emma Radford, Head of Brand Licensing at Reach PLC

Rachel Shaw, Head of Print Licensing at Future PLC says that they’ve had to reduce pagination in almost all of their magazines due to lack of content. “We are supplementing this by giving our readers added value, like eBooks, so they get a bit of extra content,” she adds.

COVID-19 itself continues to be the primary content generator. Many publishers, like The New York Times, continue to produce a lot of content around it. 

“While some categories like travel content have seen a decline,” says Alice Ting, GM and VP, NYT Licensing. “We are writing a lot about the virus, business and policy around the virus, or being at home with kids. We are delivering content about how to be both mentally and physically strong in these tough times.” 

Content that educates and entertains kids has been doing very well. “Our kids portfolio had been suffering a lot before the virus, but now that people are looking for trusted resources, our online orders are up 38%,” says Yulia Boyle, SVP, International Media at National Geographic. 

Kids are probably our biggest success story in this time. 

Yulia Boyle, SVP, International Media at National Geographic

“A very bright part of the business”

Sales of physical copies have taken a hit as newstands are closed, or operating for limited hours. In the UK, newsstand sales dropped between 25 and 40%, according to Tim Hudson, Director of International Licensing and Syndication for Immediate Media. 

However, digital subscriptions have risen considerably. “It’s 100% across a lot of areas,” says Hudson. “It’s from a low base when it comes to digital subscriptions and it’s not mitigating the newsstand low – but it is a very bright part of the business.” 

In the US, subscriptions to are up 110%, according to Nick Pimm, VP, Commercial Partnerships at Dow Jones International. In the UK, members of the Professional Publishers Association (PPA) have seen a spike in subscriptions. According to Owen Meredith, MD at PPA, initial numbers suggest that some members may have seen spikes “north of 200%”.

However, since these spikes are connected to the current crisis, publishers are concerned about how to retain the new subscribers.

Holding on to the recent windfall of new subscribers once the lockdown is over, is already top of mind for some publishers.

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

“Engage and retain the kind of audiences who will become loyal readers”

Tribune Publishing, which has seen a 293% increase in digital subscriptions, is experimenting with different strategies to nurture the new subscribers. Their goal is to provide additional value to subscribers to curb post-pandemic churn. These include:

  • Using data to understand this segment of users better.
  • Demonstrating breadth of content via non-coronavirus content recommendations.
  • Offering additional benefits, like access to reporters.
Source: Digiday

The London based Stylist magazine launched an app in April, with the intention of monetizing the spike of interest in online content. The app, which is free to download, offers a digital version of the magazine at a lower price.

Readers can pay for an annual subscription for GBP £21.99 (US $27.35). Six-monthly and quarterly tiers are available for £11.99 ($14.91) and £6.99 ($8.69) respectively. 

The app was downloaded by 10,000 people in the first two weeks. The publisher has not yet released the number of subscribers.  

Meanwhile, FT Strategies, the consulting arm of The Financial Times, is running a nine-month long project to help grow sustainable, digital reader-revenue businesses with eight European subscription publishers. 

They include The Independent in the UK, La Croix in France, MittMedia in Sweden, RP Online in Germany, El Mundo in Spain, Gazeta Wyborcza in Poland), Kurier in Austria and Dennik N in Slovakia. 

“One key issue for publishers is how to maintain the surge in engagement and new readers as a result of Covid-19,” Tara Lajumoke, MD of FT Strategies, told Digiday. “The concern is, as that peak flattens, will engagement and interest go back to pre-crisis levels? Or can publishers engage and retain the kind of audiences who will become loyal readers for the long term?”

The FT is also trying to understand the same, added Lajumoke. It has increased reader research to develop propensity models. These are used to calculate a reader’s propensity to subscribe if s/he accesses the site through its coronavirus tracker via Facebook, and then goes on to read other articles.

“Covid hasn’t changed the basics of what we do”

Publishers who are reliant on revenue from events are now developing virtual conferences. 

Fortune, whose business is 40% conferences is one such publisher. According to Jim Jacovides, VP of Licensing and Development at Fortune, these conferences are “surprisingly engaging,” and they have found sponsors.  “It will evolve into a new product for us that will be part of the new norm,” he adds.

“Covid hasn’t changed the basics of what we do – to engage and connect our readers,” says Elizabeth Stewart, Editorial and Programme Director of Embassy Magazine. 

Social distancing has accelerated the uptake of new technologies to reach our audience – which in normal times is quite a slow adopter of digital media,” she adds. “So we are adapting together, and in so doing so we have found another revenue stream. 

“But content remains king. And while webinars can’t replicate the buzz of a live event, for an international audience like ours, it does open new and quite exciting opportunities.”

It’s never been more important to understand what you do well and why people come to you, from an editorial and a revenue perspective. 

Mia Lehmkuhl Libby, CRO at The Daily Beast

Orson Francescone, MD of FT Live which has pivoted to virtual events, says, “The industry will be transformed, and transformed for the positive.”

The full report can be downloaded from FIPP:
Publishing during a pandemic: Mapping a path through the Covid-19 crisis

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