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“Significant driver of consumer activity”: How publishers are tackling the coronavirus challenge head-on

When the Great Plague of London hit in the mid-1600s, Isaac Newton was just another student at Trinity College, Cambridge. The University of Cambridge decided to shut down for two years to reduce the spread of the plague. 

Forced to study on his own at his family estate Woolsthorpe Manor, Newton apparently thrived, developing his theories on calculus, optics, and gravity. The year-plus he spent away was later referred to as his annus mirabilis, the “year of wonders,” according to Gillian Brockell, Journalist at The Washington Post. 

The coronavirus pandemic has created a similar situation for the publishing industry. Publishers are now trying out different strategies to quickly adapt to the rapidly changing situation and continue serving their readers, as well as wrestle new opportunities out of this global calamity. Many publishers have admirably risen up to the occasion to take the challenge head-on.

The coronavirus story is one that is so demanding, and changing so quickly, that news organizations have been tasked with being on the forefront of the conversation to not only inform readers as best they can, but also prepare their newsrooms and sales team on the best way to conduct business in the face of the facts as they know them.

Sara Jerde, Publishing Editor, Adweek

The Washington Post, The New York Times, Condé Nast, Meredith, Vox Media, and Business Insider among others, have instituted work from home policies. Some including CBS News, Condé Nast and The New York Times have also had employees testing positive for the disease. 

“Defer a lot of that loss”

The industry is also expecting a hit to revenue. According to Nieman Lab’s Joshua Benton, the areas where the publishing business stands to face losses include revenues from events and advertising. Events are increasingly getting cancelled or postponed. 

To recoup their losses, many publishers have turned towards virtual events. The Interactive Advertising Bureau’s 2020 NewFronts moved to streaming-only presentations. And several publishers, including Protocol and the Texas Tribune, have converted planned in-person events to virtual events, with an eye toward doing more of them long-term in order to supplement their live events portfolios, reports Digiday’s Kayleigh Barber. 

Virtual events have some key deficiencies when compared to experiential ones. The latter offers product sampling, live entertainment and other activities like networking which are hard to replicate in a digital environment. However, virtual events can help recover some of the losses in the current situation. They may also become meaningful revenue sources in the long run. 

A virtual event will likely bring in one-third to one-half the revenue of a physical event, according to Larry Weil, an events sponsorship consultant.

I don’t believe you can take a three-day conference and put it online. Sponsorship is definitely going to take a hit. But those who have a digital strategy, and can scramble, can defer a lot of that loss.

Larry Weil, an events sponsorship consultant

“Bringing in the higher revenues it is capable of”

Advertising looks set to decline in the near future “all the companies that stand to lose big in the coming months—hotels, airlines, restaurants, movie studios, cruises, trade shows—will almost certainly have less money to spend buying ads,” according to Benton. 

The New York Times announced that it is seeing a slowdown in advertising bookings due to ‘uncertainty and anxiety’ caused by the coronavirus”. The publisher expects a roughly 10% drop in digital ad revenue this quarter. 

Moreover, advertisers are also blocking the word coronavirus and COVID19 as they do not want their ads to appear against negative stories. However, they may need to rethink this strategy. 

“Brands often use keywords to place advertising online, and, to avoid certain associations, negative words are frequently excluded. In February, “coronavirus” became the second-most common word on block lists for publishers, meaning that important, in-demand and socially-relevant reporting is not bringing in the higher revenues it is capable of,” according to Stefan Hall, Project and Engagement Lead, Information and Entertainment System Initiative, World Economic Forum. 

What is clear is that COVID-19-related content is going to be a very significant driver of consumer activity, for potentially a significant period of time. Brands should take a very hard look at supporting those publications producing legitimate information and analyzing whether consumers will really associate the brand with the content when it is so prevalent…it really becomes part of everyday life.

Matt McLaughlin, COO, DoubleVerify

“An opportunity to reach new customers”

Now that people are increasingly staying indoors, publishers can also expect increased traffic that goes beyond seeking coronavirus updates. 

There may be some benefit as the potential audience has more time on its hands, but this is on the subscription transactional side. 

Fiona Orford-Williams, Director, Media Analyst at Edison Group

Some publishers have removed their paywalls and many have come up with coronavirus specific products including newsletters, podcasts, and live blogs.

“Publishers from The Atlantic and The Philadelphia Inquirer to The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal and Bloomberg News have each made coronavirus coverage available to non-subscribers,” writes Adweek’s Sara Jerde. “The decision for these outlets was an easy one, even for those who have recently put up paywalls as a way to get people to pay for subscriptions or memberships.”

“This may sound like foregoing income, but not really,” according to Rick Edmonds, Poynter’s Media Business Analyst. He adds, “Providing the right kind of sample is one of the intricacies of building paid digital subscriptions. If potential subscribers like what they see, they may be more inclined to sign up when the wall returns.”

Not to sound too cynical, but the goodwill they engender among readers may help to drive their future subscription efforts as the health crisis fades. 

Rob Williams, Contributing Editor for Publishing Insider at MediaPost

“Offering free information on the coronavirus offers an opportunity to reach new customers [and] readers, who may stick with the publication afterward and perhaps be willing to pay later if they are impressed by the content,” Tom Meyvis, Professor of Marketing at New York University’s Stern School of Business told Jerde.

Publishers see meaningful response to new products

Here’s a list (compiled by Jerde) of new products created by various publishers to cover coronavirus.

CNN’s “Coronavirus: Fact vs Fiction,” a daily 10-minute myth-busting show launched at the end of February, hit 1M downloads a week after launch, according to Digiday. It went on to rank at number three on Apple’s podcast list and number one in Apple’s News category.

Coverage of coronavirus was responsible for over 100M page views for The Guardian in February. The BBC has had 217M page views to its coronavirus coverage since the start of the outbreak.

The Los Angeles Times which has a free landing page and newsletter, considers several factors before deciding to lift the paywall for a particular coverage area. These include whether it affects people in its community, and can offer significant and unique coverage of the topic. 

“This strikes a balance between providing a public service, while things continue to evolve quickly, and placing a value on our news products,” a spokesperson told Adweek. 

“Is your mission invisible to outsiders?”

Joy Mayer, Director at Trusting News suggests publishers to ask themselves how they are going to serve their readers in the context of this crisis. Once they are clear about that, they need to communicate that to their readers. 

Does your audience know about your goals for coverage of this huge, global story? Or, like so much of journalism’s internal deliberations, is your mission invisible to outsiders (you know, like the people you aim to serve).  

Joy Mayer, Director at Trusting News

Mayer shared Houston Chronicle’s newsletter where it’s Executive Editor Steve Riley does just that. The highlights are by Mayer.

She recommends publishers to “articulate in a sentence (or a few) your approach to covering the coronavirus. Then think about where you could insert that messaging. Try on-air, in a newsletter or in a social post. Try putting it in italics at the top of a story, or at the top of your landing page of coverage. 

“If you have a box teasing from coronavirus stories back to that landing page, add it to that box. (Yes, on every story. Few people will notice, much less complain about, the repetition.)”

“Firms that choose to capitalize on these underlying changes will succeed”

There will be many more learnings as the crisis unfolds in the coming weeks, probably months. Amidst all the fear and uncertainty it’s important to keep in mind that this unprecedented event may completely change our world. 

“Black swan events, such as economic recessions and pandemics, change the trajectory of governments, economies and businesses—altering the course of history. The Black Death in the 1300s broke the long-ingrained feudal system in Europe and replaced it with the more modern employment contract,” writes Hamza Mudassir, Visiting Fellow in Strategy, Cambridge Judge Business School. The Black Death also gave way to the Renaissance.

“A mere three centuries later, a deep economic recession—thanks to the 100-year war between England and France—kick-started a major innovation drive that radically improved agricultural productivity,” he adds.

More recently,  the SARS pandemic of 2002-2004 catalyzed the meteoric growth of Alibaba. This growth was fueled by underlying anxiety around traveling and human contact, similar to what we see today with Covid-19, explains Mudassir in his piece for Entrepreneur. 

Over the longer term, Covid-19 has irrevocably changed the way businesses will compete over the next decade. Firms that choose to capitalize on these underlying changes will succeed and the ones that don’t will get disrupted.

Hamza Mudassir, Visiting Fellow in Strategy, Cambridge Judge Business School

“This is not a once in a lifetime event. This is not even a once in a century event. A pandemic so fast and so global has only occurred a handful of times in all of human history. And in our modern age, it’s unprecedented,” comments international investor and entrepreneur, Simon Black.

“While people have totally underestimated almost everything about the coronavirus so far, I think they’re really underestimating how much opportunity there will be on the other side of this,” he concludes.

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