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The legacy of COVID-19 for publishers: 19 notable trends and impacts

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We are still in the middle of the pandemic, and while that makes it difficult to predict the future, some media trends seen in the past 6-9 months look set to continue. Elsewhere, the consequences of the coronavirus crisis will continue to reverberate and impact the sector.

Many of the foundations of these developments are not new. However, COVID has accentuated and accelerated underlying structural issues, catapulting the industry into a new and uncertain future much quicker than anticipated. 

With that in mind, here are 19 COVID-19 inspired developments that publishers, researchers and policymakers need to be aware of. 

1. Cuts and Job losses

This is the most obvious impact of the crisis. As Bloomberg summarised

“Many media companies are struggling during the pandemic with the sudden loss of revenue from advertising and other businesses, like live events. While some turned to furloughs and pay cuts, layoffs have become unavoidable as the crisis drags on.”

Digital doyens and legacy players alike have been impacted in this manner. Vox Media lost around 6% of staff, the Guardian determined that with revenues down by more than £25m it would cut about 180 employees, and the New York Times shed 68 jobs, largely on the advertising side.

These types of layoffs, furloughs and closures have been seen across all media sectors around the world. 

In South Africa, for example, 17 magazine titles disappeared as a result of the closure of two publishing houses – Caxton and Associated Media Publishing (AMP) in May.  Two months later, Media24 – another South African company – announced the closure of five magazines and two newspapers.

It’s a story we’re seen time and time again, regardless of the country. The one constant being that no type of organisation appears to be going unscathed. 

Smaller titles and outlets, as well as larger and seemingly well established players like Conde Nast and BuzzFeed in the USA, London’s Evening Standard and Reach the UK’s largest newspaper publisher, have all been affected. 

2. Expansion plans are (mostly) curtailed

Although we have seen examples of publishers expanding during the pandemic, these moves have gone against the grain. 

Typically, publishers and media companies have curtailed their plans to grow their businesses by moving into new verticals and international markets, areas often previously touted as essential for growth. 

Telegraph Media Group in the U.K. revealed plans in the summer to “significantly downsize” its branded content arm Spark, while Quartz laid off staff and closed physical offices in London, San Francisco, Hong Kong and Washington. 

Bucking this trend, however, there have been some instances of companies who have expanded during the pandemic, including Vice and CBS News, although Vice also laid off roughly 155 employees – prior to this – in May. 

“It’s always chicken and the egg with international,” Christy Tanner, Executive Vice President & General Manager of CBS News Digital, told Axios, noting the need to build audience volume to create a robust advertising business. 

3. Distributed newsrooms are here to stay

Quartz’s decision to close physical offices, while continuing “to employ people in all of those cities and beyond,” is part of an on-going trend to reduce physical overheads and unlock the cash value of these assets

In August, Tribune Publishing in the States disclosed that it would be permanently closing the physical offices of five newspapers (the Daily News in New York, the Capital Gazette and the Carroll County Times in Maryland, the Allentown Morning Call in Pennsylvania and the Orlando Sentinel in Florida), although the titles continue to operate. 

The move led to ruminations on what would be lost, including a physical presence in their communities, newsroom mentoring and face-to-face engagement with colleagues. 

At the same time, however, the need to cut costs, coupled with the desire of many employees to continue to be able to work from home – or enjoy more flexibility in the location of their work – means that this trendline will only become more pronounced, driven by a mixture of financial and personnel considerations.

4. Pressure on Platforms continues to grow

The advertising downturn has had a catastrophic effect on many publishers. For the big platforms, however, it’s a different story. 

“It’s true the duopoly has been impacted,” notes Arnaud Créput the CEO of Smart AdServer, but “even now, they remain enormously profitable.”  Créput highlights how ad revenues were down 8% year-on-year at Google, but up 10% at Facebook and 40% at Amazon. 

“This demonstrates their unshakeable position and the way in which they are able to take advantage of situations where other industry players can’t.”

As a result, we can expect to see renewed demands for platforms to help the sector – as we’re seeing in Australia – as well as more antitrust investigations investigating whether their dominant positions disadvantage others. Whether the emergency funds they have established for the sector during COVID, and other long-running support efforts, help to offset some of these clarion calls, remains to be seen.

Image via Google

5. Reduced dependence on advertising

Prior to the pandemic, many publishers were already diversifying their revenue streams. COVID-19, and the advertising downturn associated with it, has reinforced the need to embrace this strategy. 

Particular efforts have been made by publishers to grow their subscriber base, pivot to digital events and expand eCommerce efforts. Although some of these non-subscription elements are quite embryonic, it’s likely that all three of these trends will continue. 

Reader revenue has been a growing focus for publishers for some time, and outlets are deploying a range of strategies to try to unlock its potential.  At The Dallas Morning News, one approach they’ve recently been testing uses reporter-specific promo codes to encourage followers/fans to subscribe. 

Tweet via Mallorie Sullivan, Audience Engagement Producer at The Dallas Morning News

Events are not only likely to continue to have a strong digital presence due to social distancing protocols, but also because of the larger audiences they can potentially unlock. 

That won’t work for everyone, but it’s a good strategy for larger marquee brands, like The Atlantic. They hope to attract a million people “attendees” this year, compared to the 2,000 who normally attend their in-person festival. 

Image: Promotional materials for a virtual of The Atlantic Festival, 2020

6. Flexibility with ad products 

At the same time as these moves, Digiday’s Max Willens has also identified that publishers are whipping up quicker, cheaper ad products for advertisers.

In one example, Willens shared how “instead of accepting that they couldn’t execute elaborate branded content productions, The Players Tribune and Minute Media pivoted to content shot by athletes on their cell phones.” 

Separately, his colleague, Lucinda Southern discussed how the Wall Street Journal had halved turnaround time for clients working with their content studio, The Trust. Campaigns are now typically going live within four weeks, instead of the pre-pandemic average of eight. 

This twin track approach – blending diversification with a more fleet footed approach to traditional advertising – makes sense given the likelihood of continued uncertainty around ad budgets next year. 

Image via IAB 2020/21 COVID Impact on Advertising, Survey #6 Results

7. Partnerships and Collaboration

The impetus for collaboration is greater than ever when resources are more scarce. As a result, during COVID, where consumption habits, revenues and personnel numbers have all been affected, collaboration has taken multiple forms. 

Stefanie Murray, director of the Center for Cooperative Media at Montclair State University in the USA has identified editorially influences examples of collaboration, including content-sharing and promotion by news organisations across the state of Oregon, and a digital guide to reframe reporting on coronavirus, produced by Resolve Philly in consultation with their partners. 

Commercial partnerships are also becoming increasingly important. In September, The Washington Post and Financial Times announced a special offer giving new readers of either publication 90 days access to the other the outlet as part of their subscription package. 

The Post also launched a new section in September, concentrating “on stories of success and struggle as individuals and businesses seek to repair the damage caused by illness and an economic shutdown.” The Road to Recovery, is supported by AT&T and JPMorgan Chase, and available via their native apps, Apple News and as a Flipboard magazine.

8. Revisiting your content mix

The Posts’ new COVID section offers an opportunity for fresh narratives around the pandemic. This matters given the continued presence of the coronavirus, coupled with the rapid drop-off of an initial COVID news bump, and the levels of COVID news avoidance which can be seen in many markets.

Image via Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism. “Proportion of top ten most-read stories from ____ that were about COVID-19 (3-day rolling average)”

Against this backdrop, other approaches – such as Solutions Journalism -potentially become more valuable to audiences. And publishers. As Liza Gross, Vice President of Practice Change at the Solutions Journalism Network, explains:

“Traditionally, newsrooms have excelled at reacting quickly when there is an emergency or disaster to cover. They are masters of the 100-meter dash.

But a sustained, ongoing response to a massive crisis with uncertain outcomes and undefined timelines requires the mindset and capabilities of a marathoner.”

One initiative putting this into practice is a solutions journalism project, Reasons To Be Cheerful, founded by the musician David Byrne (formerly of the Talking Heads). In September, they launched a new six-week-long series called “We Are Not Divided,” designed to share “projects and initiatives that bridge divides and facilitate discussion and understanding — at a time when pretty much all we hear is how divided we are.”

Image via email newsletter promoting the launch of “We Are Not Divided.” 

9. Refreshing a potentially redundant editorial proposition

“We’re Going to Run Out of TV,” The Ringer warned in July, noting the impact of production shutdowns as a result of the pandemic. For some publishers an equivalent challenge involves producing content in spaces, such as sports, which have been adversely affected by the coronavirus.

The Athletic announced it had laid off 8% of its staff and mandated across-the-company pay cuts, in early June. However, by September the sports website announced it had hit 1 million paying subscribers. 

“It certainly helps that sports are back,” said CNBC also noting their subscription-only business model, development plans and innovations such as bundling subscriptions with Bloomberg’s business website and giving away a free 1-year subscription to T-Mobile and Sprint customers. 

Elsewhere, outlets like ESPN and Deadspin have moved away from sports only coverage, to look at how their industry also traverses other issues. 

“The media has long struggled with how to cover the intersection of sports and politics,” notes CNN’s Kerry Flynn. “But amid a pandemic that forced sports to go dark and a national reckoning over race, sports journalists are learning that the firewall between sports and politics has vanished, if it ever existed.”

Image via T-Mobile promoting free subscriptions to MLB.TV and The Athletic 

10. Supporting audience aspirations for a post-pandemic future 

Travel publications too have had to adjust, focusing instead more on inspiration for future travel, domestic road trips, the view from x (often produced by writers on lockdown in that location) as well as travel news and armchair travel.

The travel sector saw a sharp advertising downturn at the start of the crisis, plunging by 90% in the USA alone during March. 

In response, the loss in travel related revenue was identified as a leading reason for lay-offs at BuzzFeed, and the New York Times temporarily paused its 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.”

Travel specific publishers, like Nat Geo Travel, also pivoted. In this instance moving “from reporting on the journeys of travelers to reporting on the journeys of places,” according to travel editor George Stone. 

Other publishers have followed suit. 

Condé Nast Traveler has offered a focus on the human side of the travel industry, with angles such as a cruise ship entertainer’s perspective from quarantine and the impact on poaching in Tanzania. And Atlas Obscura has created live, hosted, experiences on Zoom – with tickets sold “per device” – to offset revenues lost from some of their face-to-face activities. 

In AdWeek ($) Andréa Mallard, chief marketing officer at Pinterest, shared how users initially used the site for “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.” 

It’s a mood that Travel + Leisure magazine has tried to tap into. “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.” 

Image: Screenshot of virtual experiences offered by Atlas Obscura, September 2020

11. Making dough by tapping into lockdown lifestyles 

Other publishers have doubled-down on efforts designed to cater for quarantine-era media habits and lifestyles.

Some publishers, like Trust Media Brands, already have established properties which were well placed to take advantage of this. Taste of Home and Family Handyman, for example, saw record traffic in April 2020, as audiences embraced more home cooking and baking, as well as DIY and home improvements. 

Taste of Home enjoyed a 22% increase in uniques from the previous month, coupled with an average view per visitor of 7.2 pages, which they reported “is two times more than the average site among its competitors.” 

Family Handyman witnessed a 38% month-on-month bump, and revenues from online courses offered by their Family Handyman DIY University were up 53%. Meanwhile, a sponsorship deal with Fluidmaster enabled the site to make its bathroom plumbing free for the remainder of the year. 

Image: Screenshot of the Family Handyman DIY University website, September 2020.

12. Leaning into changing media habits 

Alongside this, outlets are also investing in new verticals, covering areas – such as gaming and esports – which have grown during the pandemic. As CNN explained:

“The Washington Post, Bloomberg, and Wired have each announced investments in gaming coverage in recent months. These publications and others are looking to capitalize on this booming industry with the same rigor they’ve shown in reporting on Hollywood and Silicon Valley. The plan is to investigate the business and culture of the gaming industry with stories that appeal to gamers and non-gamers alike.”

These were already substantial businesses, but the pandemic has perhaps helped more publishers recognise the need to cover these beats in more depth.  

Moreover, COVID has also sped up participation in these mediums. “What we’re seeing is an acceleration of pre-existing trends,” Mat Piscatella, a gaming analyst at NPD Group, told Axios. “It’s like we jumped ahead two years.”

According to Nielsen Games Video Game Tracking (VGT), the number of gamers has increased since March 23, 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Nielsen found that 82% of global consumers have played video games and watched video game content since the start of the pandemic. 

Image: Use of Twitch during COVID, via Nielsen. The company describes Twitch usage as ”a barometer for video game content engagement.”

13. Embracing eCommerce 

Online retail is another area which has benefitted from growing its user base during the pandemic, especially among older consumers. 

A number of publishers were already embracing the potential for eCommerce. During COVID, however, more media players have come on board.

The top 50 U.K. publishers generate £86 ($113.42) average revenue per article, up by more than 100% in the past five months, Dunia Silan, vp revenue for Europe, the Middle East and Africa at Skimlinks, said at the end of August.

One of these publishers, The Sun, a British tabloid, now employs five people dedicated to producing Sun Selects, a collection of buying guides and product recommendations, as well as 10-15 freelancers. 

On the other side of the pond, GQ U.S. launched its first ever eCommerce shop in August. It’s owners, Condé Nast, described the initiative as “the next logical step in the brand’s eCommerce ecosystem.” 

The move builds on the success of GQ Recommends, which launched in January 2018. These editor-picked selections generate affiliate sales, and revenues from this are up over 100% YTD compared to 2019, the company reports. Revenues from the subscription based GQ Best Stuff Box are also up over 150%. 

Image: Screengrab via The GQ Shop, for the quarterly GQ Best Stuff Box, September 2020

14. Innovation and Experimentation 

If necessity is the mother of invention, then one striking characteristic of the pandemic has been the continued emergence of new products and services. We have already seen some examples of this, but here are few other ideas which caught my eye.

Newsletters had a creative shot in the arm. Running short courses – and challenges – via newsletters having emerged as a pandemic format parlayed by the Wall Street Journal, CNN and Wirecutter. 

“As publishers look for pockets of audience engagement wherever they can find them, limited-run educational newsletters are a gambit gaining some traction,” Digiday’s Kayleigh Barber notes.

Image: promotional banner for WSJ’s Six-Week Money Challenge

Another newsletter product also continues to go from strength to strength. 

Substack continues to have its moment in the sun, with the newsletter provider now allowing you to find new publications from people you follow on Twitter. 

Another seemingly old technology is also being reingorated: text messaging. 

As What’s New In Publishing has previously noted, publishers such as BuzzFeed News and the Arizona Republic both launched COVID-related SMS services during the panic. Into this mix comes  The New Paper, an Indiana-based publication whose entire business model is predicated on curating and summarising the day’s top stories into a daily text message.

Image: Screenshot of a sample SMS bulletin from The New Paper

Audio also continues to expand and be a source of investment for many publishers. 

The Correspondent launched an audio only app (one in English and the other in Dutch) as part of a move designed to support members directly, and avoid them having to use third party apps like Spotify. 

Interestingly, on the subcontinent, Audible Suno, Amazon’s audio streaming service in India, attributes a lot of their growth to the lockdown. Audible India Country Head Shailesh Sawlani argues that “screen fatigue has led a lot of people to proactively explore audio content.”

15. News Deserts and Pink Slime

On the flip side, the crisis has also seen the emergence of some less welcome innovations. 

Among them the emergence of ‘Pink Slime’ local news outlets, highly partisan sites, which distribute algorithmically generated articles and conversative talking points on topics such as voter fraud. 

An investigation by the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia Journalism School in 2019 unearthed at least 450 of these sites, forms of political advertising that Tow said “masquerade as newspapers,” and which may “manipulate public opinion by exploiting faith in local media.” (Which tends to be more trust than national media.)

These types of outlets often flourish in “news deserts,” areas devoid of local media. Unfortunately, for consumers, the impact of COVID-19 on local newsrooms has not been good. Local journalism matters more than ever during a public health crisis, but the sector was quickly among those most adversely affected by the advertising downturn. 

The Los Angeles Times was just one of a number of publications who recognised this risk at the outset of the crisis. “It’s bad and it’s going to get worse,” they quoted industry analyst Ken Doctor as saying, with Doctor predicting COVID would be “the 2009 recession on steroids.”

By August, new research from Tow showed the size of this network had “increased almost threefold over the course of 2020, to over 1,200 sites.”  As job losses and shuttered titles continue, so the risk of more “pink slime” sites (and the need for reputable publishers to offset this) grows. 

Image: Tow’s Priyanjana Bengani shared how “a single algorithmically generated story with different stock photography that appeared across over 850 domains.”

 16. Tackling an explosion of disinformation

“In an increasingly polarized and impoverished media landscape, the accusation of “fake news” is often flung across the political aisle, but the phenomenon of fake news websites raises questions about the future of journalism and democracy to a new level of urgency,” notes Andrea DenHoed, Managing Editor for the website NonDoc.

At the same time, globally, there has been mounting concern about the rise of digital disinformation. As with the emergence of “pink slime” sites, this isn’t a new phenomenon, but it’s taken on a fresh complexion during the pandemic. These efforts include false claims and information (e.g. the installation of 5G networks contributing to the coronavirus’ spread), snake oil cures (ranging from eating garlic to unproven drugs) as well as other rumours

“We’re not just fighting an epidemic; we’re fighting an infodemic,” said Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, Director-General of the World Health Organization (WHO), in mid-February, suggesting fake news “spreads faster and more easily than this virus.”

Image via Twitter and Secretary-General of the United Nations, António Guterres.

In response, many public health agencies, publishers and platforms have put steps in place to counter incorrect – and potentially dangerous – misinformation. 

“Much like the pandemic, we need to understand the infodemic if we are going to address it. We are still a long way from a solution for either,” observes Alistair Reid at First Draft. 

17. Building trust and long-term relationships

For publishers, the need to build trust with audiences and ensure the delivery of accurate factually correct information should be paramount. Arguably, it always has been. 

But in a public health crisis, for many publishers, that matters more than ever, and it’s an editorial and business imperative that isn’t likely to go away any time soon. 

“Covid has taught us that the hunger and need around reliable relevant information has never been bigger,” Marc Walder, CEO of the Swiss media group Ringier, says.

“If the internet is a very loud place with a lot of content for people to consume – like rain pouring down on you – those media brands who clarify, explain, who are relevant and credible, they will win the race in the end. It’s about helping people find their way in a life that’s become complicated.”

To do this, publishers have responded by launching new COVID-related products, debunking disinformation and finding fresh ways to explain developments, including to younger audiences

Conversely, as COVID-fatigue has begun to set in, outlets are also exploring ways to introduce (new and existing) consumers to non-coronavirus content, harness their archive and deepen relationships with audiences. 

Record traffic and subscription numbers at many publishers shows that if you can build trust, and meet readers’ needs, you can grow your audience and revenue streams even during a pandemic. (Although, whether that’s enough to offset other potentially declining income sources is a moot point, a publisher’s paradox which COVID has so clearly highlighted.)

Image via INMA ($) article “COVID bump remains highest for regional and local publishers” (Chart freely available via Google Image Search)

18. Addressing the risk of subscription fatigue

“The best organisations know what their most loyal members want, but they also know what’s coming around the corner,” argues strategy consultant Robbie Kellman Baxter. 

“Don’t fall too much in love with the way you’ve done things in the past,” she adds. “Remain focused on the mission: it’s not about any one thing, but about helping customers solve a problem and delivering on the promise you’ve made to them.”

Kellman Baxter’s words seem particularly apposite when exploring whether existing pandemic-level media behaviours will continue. Or not. 

Evidence in the U.S. shows that during lockdown consumers are not only consuming more media, but also a wider range of media. 

“Customer acquisition has accelerated, especially in paid streaming video, music, and gaming subscriptions,” Deloitte found. “People have more time on their hands to watch, listen, and play games, and they are adding new services to get new content.” 

Yet, at the same time, their research has also identified that it is hard to keep customers. 

“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 behaviours, they offer a cautionary tale for more traditional publishers too, emphasising the need to focus on deploying different tools and tactics to build and preserve loyalty

“Many consumers,” Deloitte’s data suggests, “have signed up for more services than they can handle or afford. For providers, customer churn may become a growing problem.”

19. Planning for potential behavioural resets

For many consumers, working from home and COVID-19 lockdowns, have created more opportunities to consume content. And as we have seen, data from Deloitte’s 2020 Digital Media Trends Survey found that media habits have broadened too, perhaps as a result of having more time, a desire to try something new and compelling new offers.

“It’s unclear to what extent these new behaviors will continue once lockdowns have been lifted and people are able to socialize in person again,” notes Simon Kemp, CEO of Kepios and chief analyst at DataReportal. 

“But with many people now using these [different digital] platforms multiple times each day, it’s likely that significant numbers of people have already overcome key barriers to trial and adoption,” Kemp predicts.

“People are going to spend a lot of time online for the foreseeable future,”  suggested Rasmus Kleis Nielsen, Director of the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism, during the early days of the pandemic.  “And so far, we have few examples of people returning to offline media once they have embraced online ones.”

In the short-term, we are already seeing the impact of this trend in terms of media buys. 

Traditional media advertising in the USA will decline around 30% this year compared to 2019, according to data from IAB. Within this, content reaching people in public places (out-of-home) takes a notable lockdown hit, but so too does other mediums: print (-33%), radio (-31%), TV (-24%) and direct mail (-17%).

Image via IAB. Estimated percentage change in FY 2020 ad spending vs. 2019

Whether these advertising trends continue post-pandemic, remains to be seen. 

New consumer and advertising habits may prove to be sticky and resilient, as both parties preserve some of their new pandemic preferences. And even if they’re not, it’s unlikely that we’ll see either pendulums swing back to their pre-COVID starting points. 

As the market research company Nielsen notes, in their analysis of American media habits: 

“The longer Americans work from home—regardless of whether by choice or not—the greater the likelihood that their recently developed media habits will stick around, ultimately changing the playing field for how publishers and advertisers are able to engage with audiences.”

Moreover, flexible work schedules and the lack of commute has already resulted in “”less structured media consumption and an interweaving of work and play.”

“Whether its streaming video content, listening to podcasts or browsing social media, a majority of consumers have reported partaking in these behaviors during work hours,” Nielsen reports. “That means more windows of opportunity for content creators and advertisers alike to reach audiences outside of the traditional primetime, as well as potential new, creative ways to engage with consumers.” 

Final Thoughts

The outbreak of the pandemic sent large ripples through the industry at the start of the year. And although these initial shockwaves have eased, it’s clear that the road ahead will remain long and bumpy. 

For better, or for worse, COVID has ushered in a brave new digital world. Publishers need to respond to current content needs, and anticipate how they may change and evolve as the pandemic continues, and when it hopefully ends. 

Despite the advertising downturn, as well as the titles and jobs lost, there is some potentially good news for publishers to emerge from the pandemic, in terms of the number of consumers willing to try new things and pay for it. 

Nonetheless, the continuation of this trend cannot be taken for granted. Boredom, predictability, cost and changes in personal circumstances (such as employment status, health or working habits and locations) can all have an impact. Subsequently, attraction and retention of audiences must remain twin-concerns for publishers. Arguably, they are more important than ever – meaning that efforts to become audience-first, build trust, engage with new audiences, and super-serve existing subscribers will remain strategic priorities.

As this report shows, publishers large and small have put into place a range of ideas and strategies to make this happen and to navigate “the new normal.” We hope the ideas captured here offer inspiration and affirmation, so that we can all weather this storm together. 

This article is adapted from our free to download report, The Publisher’s Guide to Navigating COVID-19.