Audience Engagement Digital Publishing
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“It’s a wild, wild world at the moment”: Honest insights from your peers during the corona crisis

Over the past week, we have had one to one discussions with leaders from publishers across Europe and the US to better understand how coronavirus has changed the industry. Join us for a candid look into how publishers are reacting to this crisis and their advice for going forward in these new times.

It’s a wild, wild world at the moment.

Jørgen Andresen, Head of Media at Børsen

Ever-growing news consumption, but what financial impact?

All of the interviewed publishers had huge growth in traffic, such as reporting the “best month in traffic since October 2008” or growth that was “off the charts”. However this new reader traffic has not resulted in increased revenues, due to the sudden drop in advertising (one publisher reported their ad revenue for March would be less than half of what they had originally forecast). Not only are there fewer businesses still operating and thus wanting to advertise, for programmatic there have been issues with companies blocking their ads from appearing alongside coronavirus content. And today, what isn’t coronavirus content?

This is the paradox, we have never had so many readers engaging with our news brands but advertisers are not picking up on this opportunity. If we could work together to convince advertisers to reconsider their media spend we would all win.

Geert Desager, Strategy Director at Mediahuis

This huge growth is also true for subscriptions and subscriber-only products, such as one publisher that sees 25% more downloads on their digital edition, and another that has seen a 370% increase in subscribers. In Norway, Aftenposten has even seen a growth in print subscriptions. It will be interesting to see if this trend continues, as some countries are already facing print delivery issues. For example, Lidwine Maltete, from La Nouvelle République shared that in France they are facing difficulties with the postal system that is failing to deliver their newspapers.

There’s also a growing debate on if publishers should take down their paywall for coronavirus coverage. We are seeing some publishers that had taken down the paywall, now putting it back up, such as McClatchy in the US. Remy Becher of The Economist shared that they are doing a bit of a new take on a registration wall for covid-19 coverage (à la The New York Times), in that subscribers of their free daily newsletter receive access to the most important coverage of the crisis. For Sidney Glastad at Aftenposten, the answer is clear: “it’s more important than ever to keep your paywall up.” This is the first experience with your journalism for some readers and it is important they immediately understand that it is much better to be a subscriber.

Growing focus on subscriptions

This isn’t the first time publishers have had to deal with a seemingly overnight dry-up of advertising revenues. Back in 2008 during the financial crisis, publishers report losing 25-35% of advertising revenue. This lost ad revenue never came back, which we can expect to be true for a certain percentage of today’s lost revenue as well. Jørgen Andresen shared that they had already learned this lesson at Børsen, so today ads play a much smaller role in their total revenue.

It’s become much clearer that user revenue is the battle to win.

Sidney Glastad, Acquisition Manager at Aftenposten

Although many publishers had already started the transition to a more reader-revenue focused business model, this crisis has accelerated the transition. Publishers differ in how mature their reader revenue strategies are, and those that will be more successful will be those that can grow their subscriber base quickly. That’s one reason why Sandra Sveinbjørnsson at Kristeligt Dagblad in Denmark says they are better positioned to survive, due to their existing base of subscription revenue.

The future normal will not be the old normal

As we cautioned last week, publishers are making decisions today that often they will not undo once the crisis is over. If a publisher scales back print days now, it is unlikely they will re-introduce a print product once things go back to “normal”. For example in the US, Jana Collier of Cox Media, shared they had for years been thinking how they could make sure their subscribers were finding unique value in their digital products, however the pandemic has now accelerated those plans. Now they face the reality that outside forces could prevent them from delivering the print product, necessitating that they help their readers make the transition from print to digital quickly.

Furthermore, publishers are creating a variety of new processes to cope in this almost entirely digital world. For Sam Guzik at Hearst Newspapers, this situation has sped up the steps they had already taken to make sure product and marketing teams were aligned with their colleagues in the newsroom. He shared that this crisis situation had helped them to cut out the unnecessary meetings in favour of focusing on the important tasks. This was something echoed by Lidwine Maltete:

Somehow working in crisis mode is an incredible chance to learn how we can be more effective on a normal daily basis.

Lidwine Maltete of La Nouvelle République du Centre-Ouest

For her, the key thing will be ensuring they will be able to take these learnings into the world after coronavirus as well, and make sure they do not go back to “business as before” after the crisis.

Three more brain snacks for the ones that read until the end

From Sam Guzik, Product Director at Hearst Newspapers:

There’s no magic feature or tool that’s going to help our organizations weather this storm — we need to keep responding incrementally while staying focused on the vision of sustainability and community service that drives us every day.

From Lidwine Maltete, Group Marketing Director at La Nouvelle République du Centre-Ouest:

More than ever we need to be flexible, listening to the need and ready to try new things. We also need to be able to implement things quickly and focus on priorities.

From Jana Collier, Publisher of Cox Media – Ohio:

Remember our mission. Our industry seems consumed with short-term thinking. I hope media leaders will find ways to weather this downturn financially while preparing for a comeback. We need to be thinking about our future. We are going to get through this.   

We wish you all the best of luck in these challenging and unprecedented times.

Mary-Katharine Phillips
Media innovation analyst @ Twipe

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