Guest Columns
4 mins read

The impact of COVID-19 on local news

COVID-19 came in like a wrecking ball, causing havoc and upheaval in many aspects and industries. Lives have been lost, the economy has tumbled, and our way of life has changed. And one industry that has been impacted in ways unforeseen is the publishing industry.

Since WHO declared COVID-19 a pandemic, consumers across the globe have relied on news organizations, both large and small, to disseminate information about the virus. Stories ranging from federal government regulations and hospitalizations to those of hope and communities coming together. But for publishers, there’s a severe imbalance following the pandemic.

Consumers are yearning for content of all types, spending more time online than they have before. But, with the loss of advertiser budgets, publishers are having to layoff their journalist staff, the folks who actually report on said content. Putting publishers in a sticky, catch-22 situation.

We decided to look within our network into the trends and types of content that consumers are seeking, and the sources they’re looking too. The goal is to help local news organizations better understand their audience base, as a way to generate clicks, page views, and revenue.

The news that got people talking

In the United States, consumers were tuning in to the President’s daily briefings and the coverage that followed it. Eager to understand when their lives would get back to normal, Americans combed through news articles. This trend continued until the end of March when we started to see signs of fatigue, as users were inundated with information about the virus.

At this point, nearly every state in the US had moved to a ‘shelter in place’. We started to see user interest shifts away from national coverage to a combination of local news and lifestyle content. This is a critical takeaway – while news organizations might think that constant reporting on the global pandemic is what generates views, it’s more important to understand what the users want. Hyper-local content on what’s impacting them daily, rather than broader national coverage.

Users turned to their local news organizations to provide insights on what was happening, specifically in their cities in town. How many new infections were recorded, locations of testing sites, the number of people hospitalized, and how to approach sheltering in place. This level of detail wasn’t available from the large national news organizations and users needed their local news more than ever. Oh, and Andrew Cuomo, New York’s Governor, became a hot commodity across the country.

A perfect storm

Meanwhile, a perfect storm has been brewing for the last decade. One that slowly eliminated local news reporting through consolidation and closures of the local sources that were heavily relied on for the previous 100 years.

It’s no secret that local news organizations have been struggling. They carry heavy costs from legacy print and broadcast businesses, while consumers have shifted consumption to digital.

Their digital business doesn’t see the same advertising rates as national sites, like CNN, NBC, Fox News, and The Washington Post, despite having a significant overlap in users. The rise of programmatic advertising has exasperated the problem by allowing marketers to bid lower on domains that are less well known, like, a Colorado CBS affiliate.

COVID-19 led to local advertising nearly completely going away. With tried and true advertising streams, from automotive, classifieds, and real estate completely evaporating overnight. In March and April, thousands of local news staff’s jobs were cut, where others were impacted by pay cuts, reduced workweeks, and furloughs.

Outlets like the New York Times, NPR, and Poynter Institute have been actively reporting on this concern, raising the big question: is this the final blow for local news?

What’s next?

Local news is facing a dichotomy between users’ needs and the ability to operate profitably. Given that the need for quality local journalism will always exist there are a few paths forward.

First, more news outlets need to consider establishing themselves as a tax-exempt non-profit organization. Enabling them to operate with improved margins, accept donations, and access more grants. This route would potentially enable them to avoid additional consolidation and job losses to show improved margins to investors.

Second, the advertising industry needs to focus on the value of quality users over flashy domains. Brands and marketers need to ensure that every local newspaper, radio station, and television station is on their approved whitelist. Finally, more collaboration is needed across companies/outlets to strengthen high-quality journalism outside of large cities. The Colorado News Collaborative is one example of how this model could work.

Without taking bold steps to disrupt the status quo, I worry that when the next coronavirus wave, or the next national crisis, hits again, local resources won’t be available. We need journalists to hold governments accountable, provide information about local resources, and to keep us informed about our communities.

The world and how consumers engage with content will continue to evolve, pandemic, or not. We need to work together to ensure that local news has a path to thrive as its place as a critical pillar for the digital publishing industry, and more importantly the people in the town and cities they cover.

Sarah Baird
General Manager, North America, Outbrain

About: Outbrain is the world’s leading discovery and native advertising feed for the open web. A third of the world’s Internet-connected population explore and discover information through its feed technology, which is trusted by emerging to established brands and integrated into thousands of media companies’ tech stacks to manage and monetize their publishing operations. Outbrain operates in 55 countries and is headquartered in New York City with offices in 18 cities worldwide.