Since early March, many people have been living largely isolated lives as the novel coronavirus has spread around the world. Their one guaranteed source of information since the start of the pandemic has been high-quality news – especially local news outlets. However, even as these news outlets have received renewed attention from readers, their staffs are grappling with how to continue delivering critical news with reduced revenue and resources resulting from the crisis.
Right now, the cost of journalism is incredibly high. Journalists, newsroom staff and newspaper delivery personnel are putting themselves at risk every day to provide an essential service to their communities. However, as many in the industry have noted, the cost of not reporting on the COVID-19 situation would be much higher.
If publishers are taking such risks, they should receive equivalent rewards. While traffic to news sites is up amid the ongoing public health crisis, unfortunately, most publishers are not seeing an increase in revenue.
In March, visits to local news sites were up 89 percent compared to February. That traffic is partly due to readers wanting more information about what’s happening in their own communities during this global crisis. The measurement company Parse.ly saw that from January 1 to March 31, their network was producing 45 percent more stories, garnering 124 percent more views on that content. Of the stories produced in March, slightly more than 10,000 stories accounted for more than 10 million views. Stories about the coronavirus earned more than 900 views per article – far more than the 257 views per article on non-pandemic content, which had still increased more than 50 percent from January.
A survey from the Center for Media Engagement at the University of Texas at Austin finds that the stories people most want are about the local response to the pandemic. People want to know their local government response, how local hospitals are responding and what restrictions there might be in their municipalities.
Readers are deeply engaged with the day-to-day changes taking place as state, local and national governments respond to new developments. More than 50 percent of U.S. adults say they are following COVID-19 news “very closely,” while another 38 percent are following “fairly closely,” according to a poll from Pew Research Center. Meanwhile, 70 percent of people think the media are doing a good job of covering the crisis.
As critical advertising revenue sharply declines in response to the pandemic, news publishers across the country are struggling to provide the same level of quality journalism. Many are being forced to furlough or lay off their staff, cut salaries and reduce print days to save money as the COVID-19 crisis enters its second month in the U.S. Although some publishers have seen an uptick in subscriptions, the growth hasn’t been evenly distributed. While large outlets like Bloomberg, The Wall Street Journal and The Boston Globe have experienced a surge of new subscribers, other outlets – especially local publishers – have struggled.
In a survey of news publishers conducted in mid-March, the International News Media Association (INMA) found that as many as 62 percent have experienced a decline in advertising revenue. While much of that initial drop was from sectors such as travel and tourism, as well as event advertisements and big-ticket items like real estate and cars, other sectors, seeing fewer people shopping due to numerous state Shelter in Place orders, are scaling back their advertising budgets for the year.
Even grocery stores are pulling ads, INMA found. The stalwarts of newspaper advertising have seen an increase in business, but because of that, they haven’t had the same need to advertise as they normally would.
In addition, many digital advertisers and ad tech companies are blacklisting COVID-19 stories. These stories, however, are the ones driving increased readership and traffic, with coronavirus news receiving about 32 percent of all pageviews during the week of March 23, 2020, according to Chartbeat. Stories about the pandemic also account for about 34 percent of total engaged time.
Blacklisting news that is receiving such a significant amount of attention means publishers are unable to make money on those essential stories. It also means advertisers are missing out on reaching a captive audience.
In the U.K., newspapers could potentially lose as much as £50 million (approximately $61 million) in digital ad revenue due to the blacklisting of coronavirus stories, if the pandemic lasts for another three months, according to The Guardian. The potential loss is so great that publishers across the U.K. wrote a joint letter to advertisers, asking them to reconsider. “We understand many marketing budgets are under real pressure now. All we ask is that when you launch your next campaign you check you’re not unknowingly blocking trusted news brands from your plans,” they wrote. “Publishers are the only ones who are punished, in an advertising sense, for reporting and distributing the news that society desperately needs. The system needs an overhaul, the technology needs improving.”
It’s hard not to look at what’s happening right now – in the world and in our newsrooms – and not be scared. But news organizations are on the front lines of this crisis, reporting real, credible and vital news in order to help people protect themselves and their families.
The fact that news is so clearly essential, however, should not prevent publishers from earning revenue, even during these trying times. If anything, the ongoing pandemic has proven over and over how much we need quality news. But publishers need to be able to reinvest in continuing to provide quality journalism.
The News Media Alliance and Digital Content Next recently issued a statement asking digital advertisers and digital advertising companies to stop using keyword blocking practices that jeopardize the sustainability of high-quality journalism during this critical time, stating, “Fact-based, reliable journalism supports the online ecosystem by providing readers with invaluable information and advertisers with high-quality content and access to these readers. Keyword blocking threatens this symbiotic relationship at the worst possible time.” Alliance President & CEO David Chavern said, “This is a global emergency, and the public needs access to information that helps them protect their families, plan for their futures, and learn about public health efforts to combat this pandemic.”
Rebecca is VP, Research & Insights at the News Media Alliance.