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Impact of COVID-19 on the media: 6 tactics for success and survival

It didn’t take long for media mavens and soothsayers to predict that the coronavirus risked creating an “extinction-level event” for many news organizations around the world

These COVID Cassandra’s could justifiably point to advertising drying up – seemingly overnight – as well as huge job losses, and pandemic news fatigue, as portents for cataclysmic change. 

Fortunately, the direst predictions made at the start of the crisis have not been realized. But, that isn’t to say this hasn’t been a grim year. COVID-19 has ripped through the news media and publishing industries. Arguably, this feels worse than 2009, with no obvious end in sight. 

To better understand this situation, over the past few months I researched the impact of the crisis and some of the transferable lessons from it. The end result, The Publisher’s Guide to Navigating COVID-19, a comprehensive 80-page report split into eight sections – covering subscriptions, engagement, ad tech and more – came out last month. 

What we know: The story so far

Much of the early narrative is well known. In response to the pandemic, many outlets saw an initial – if short-lived – bump in traffic, as audiences sought insights into this rapidly developing public health crisis. 

Many publishers dropped their paywalls to ensure that barriers to key information were removed. And a flurry of new products – led by podcasts and newsletters – were launched to meet this demand and potentially serve as a shop window to a deeper (ideally paid) relationship.  

In some instances, these consumption spikes were successfully parlayed into subscriptions, however, this has seldom been enough to offset lost advertising revenues. 

The pandemic demonstrated that despite numerous clarion calls to diversify their revenue base, much of the media has remained deeply dependent on traditional advertising sources. As a result, the rapid advertising downturn – coupled with the cessation of activities such as live events – dramatically impacted both emerging and established revenue streams. 

By early summer, in the United States alone, over 36,000 journalists had lost their jobs, been furloughed, or had their pay cut. A similar dynamic has played out across the globe. 

Green shoots of recovery: Ingredients for survival (and growth) 

Given the on-going nature of this crisis, it’s too early for the full implications to be realized. However, it’s clear that the news industry which emerges on the other side will look very different from the one that went into it. 

Nonetheless, what this report shows is that we can start to identify the key characteristics inherent in those outlets who look best placed to navigate this situation. 

Tl;DR think “audience first.”

“Businesses that focus on the audience first and advertising second will be better equipped to handle the consequences of the pandemic,” argues Curtis Huber, Senior Director of Circulation and Audience Revenue at the Seattle Times.

What does that mean in practice? Here’s a topline six-point playbook:

1. Pivot to subscriptions (if you haven’t already)

The annual Subscription Economy Index™ shows that across multiple industries, even during a pandemic, businesses that are focussed on subscriptions have outperformed their peers. 

Data from Zuora found that, in comparison with the previous 12 months, subscriptions in Digital News & Media grew by 110% between March to May 2020. Although that rate slowed towards the tail end of that period, this was the second-fastest subscription segment behind OTT Video Streaming.

2. Don’t be shy about asking audiences to cough up

The Trusting News project showcases a number of these approaches, highlighting how outlets – ranging from the Guardian to the Coloradoan (Fort Collins, Colorado) and the Fort Worth Star-Telegram – have made the case for taking out a subscription. 

Interestingly, the Star-Telegram in Texas, began by making all coronavirus content free. But, in April, they started to take a different approach. As their executive editor Steve Coffman explained, “This is a matter of survival for the Star-Telegram and other local newspapers.”

3. Focus on retention and reducing churn

Data from Deloitte reveals that the number of media subscriptions that people have has actually gone up during the pandemic. “Introductory offers of free or reduced rates, along with compelling original content, are attracting subscribers. But they’re likely to cancel a service if the content dries up and they can’t justify the full price,” they add. 

Although these conclusions are led by streaming behaviors, they offer a cautionary tale for other media players too. “Many consumers,” Deloitte suggests, “have signed up for more services than they can handle or afford. For providers, customer churn may become a growing problem.”

4. Lean into lockdown lifestyles and needs 

A number of publishers were already embracing the potential for eCommerce. During COVID, as online retail has grown, so have the opportunities for revenue in this space. 

Compared to 2019, at Condé Nast’s Epicurious and Self, eCommerce increased by more than 70% in March, driven by people being at home and doing more cooking. Trusted Media Brands saw a similar story. Taste of Home enjoyed a 22% increase in uniques in April, and an average view per visitor of 7.2 pages, as audiences spent more time in the kitchen. 

Meanwhile, Family Handyman witnessed a 38% month-on-month bump, with revenues from online courses offered by their Family Handyman DIY University up 53%, as more consumers looked to undertake home improvements themselves.  

5. Highlight non-COVID content 

Although the coronavirus outbreak produced a bump for many news organizations, it wasn’t long before that appeared to be over. One key reason for this, the Pew Research Center shared, is that: “About seven-in-ten Americans (71%) say they need to take breaks from news about the coronavirus, and 43% say the news leaves them feeling worse emotionally.”

To counteract this, organizations may need to place a greater emphasis on producing “feelgood” or non-coronavirus and evergreen content, looking at where this is placed and introduced to audiences (online, on social, in newsletters etc.), as well as making better use of archive stories and creating more pandemic-proof content.

6. Support audience aspirations 

The travel sector saw a sharp advertising downturn, plunging by 90% in the USA alone during March. As a result, travel specific publishers tweaked their editorial propositions. Others, like the New York Times temporarily paused their Sunday sports and travel sections. The Grey Lady replaced these print sections with “At Home,” a vertical described as “a new print section for a new way of life.”

In AdWeek ($) Andréa Mallard, chief marketing officer at Pinterest, shared how users sought “immediate help.” “Searches like ‘pantry recipes’ and ‘how to entertain bored kids’ spiked,” she wrote. “But then, surprisingly quickly, people are getting back to future optimism. They’ve returned to searches about travel, event planning, summer, weddings and more.”

“Travel is never going to stop, and the magazine is all about dreaming and inspiration,” says Aindrila Mitra, Editor-in-Chief, Travel + Leisure India and South Asia. “There is no quarantine on dreaming.”

For more on how news and media organizations have responded to the pandemic, see The Publisher’s Guide to Navigating COVID-19.


First published by the Tow Center for Digital Journalism, part of Columbia Journalism School, which provides journalists with the skills and knowledge to lead the future of digital journalism and serves as a research and development center for the profession as a whole.

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