COVID-19 and news publishers: What’s happening right now

By Dawn McMullan

INMA

Dallas, Texas, United States

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As I type this, the first case of coronavirus has been announced in Dallas County, where most INMA staff live. Kind of anti-climatic after the past couple of weeks, to be honest. As of this writing, the 77-year-old patient is one of 118,132 cases worldwide.

It is amazing to me that just two weeks ago, 200+ of us were in New York talking about reader revenue and digital subscription strategies. Two months ago, I was on a family vacation in Italy. Now Italy is on lockdown, companies all over the world are shutting down international travel (and discouraging national travel), and all any of us really want to do is touch our faces. (Fun fact from The New York Times: We touch our faces an average of 23 times an hour.) 

INMA is reaching out to our membership to get an in-depth look at what’s going on at the companies of our 11,400+ members in 68 countries as it relates to COVID-19, aka coronavirus. While that’s happening, here’s a rundown of a few things we know today.

Beyond the specific and important issue of journalism — which includes 91 news organisations around the world collaborating on fact checking through the International Fact-Checking Network — news publishers all over the world are dealing with the virus in one way or another. Here are a some examples we’ve found. INMA would like to provide case studies to our membership over the coming weeks, so please share yours with me via e-mail between your video staff meeting and texts from your mom asking about your June travel plans. 

Task forces: Many news media companies (News Corp, TorStar, The Dallas Morning News) have created task forces to deal with the virus and all that is happening because of it.

“We have a cross-functional task force that is meeting and communicating on the situation,” said Dan Sherlock, head of digital and brand marketing at The Dallas Morning News. “We talk about the topics together, and we are also reaching out to peers in the industry to see if they have cues/examples of steps they have taken as well.”

Clever marketing: The urge to hoard toilet paper is an odd global response to coronavirus. In Australia, NT News made the best of it. 

“Run out of loo paper?” asked the front page on March 4. “The NT News cares. That’s why we’ve printed an eight-page special liftout section, complete with handy cut lines, for you to use in an emergency. Get your limited edition one-ply toilet newspaper sheets.” 

While the Asian American Journalists Association warns about insensitive coverage, The NT News takes a lighthearted approach with a clever print product in response to consumer hoarding of toilet paper during the crisis.
While the Asian American Journalists Association warns about insensitive coverage, The NT News takes a lighthearted approach with a clever print product in response to consumer hoarding of toilet paper during the crisis.

Singapore Press Holdings donated newspapers, digital access, magazines, and books to quarantined coronavirus patients. And Samsung Electronics Singapore, SPH’s partner in the News Tablet Project, donated SPH News Tablets. SPH publication The Straits Times set up a site for messages of support to health-care officials fighting the virus, and SPH Chinese Media Group sent 20,000 postcards to staff at hospitals. 

“SPH hopes to play a part in bringing some cheer to patients and individuals who have been affected by Covid-19 and related health control measures. They have our fullest support,” SPH Deputy Chief Executive officer Anthony Tan told The Straits Times. “We trust that SPH’s engaging content delivered over the various platforms will help them keep connected with happenings around them during this trying period.”

Pop-up newsletters: CNN, Quartz, BuzzFeed, The Washington Post, The New York Times, and USA Today have launched coronavirus niche newsletters. 

The New York Times has added a "Coronavirus Briefing" newsletter to its offerings.
The New York Times has added a "Coronavirus Briefing" newsletter to its offerings.

The Dallas Morning News is offering a daily "Coronavirus Update" newsletter.
The Dallas Morning News is offering a daily "Coronavirus Update" newsletter.

Travel restrictions: Twitter, Google, Amazon, Facebook, Schibsted, News Corp, The New York Times, Bonnier, The Wall Street Journal, Media24, USA Today, The Dallas Morning News have some version of a non-essential travel ban for employees. In addition, El Salvador now has a 30-day quarantine for people traveling from certain countries and returning home. 

Home offices: Some publishers are requiring employees work from home (call your peers; we have reports many are lonely with their at-desk lunches and pet co-workers). 

Concerns about declining ad revenue: A pandemic that halts travel and shuts down events like SXSW in Austin, the St. Patrick’s Day parade in Dublin, Coachella in Southern California — with talks of what will happen to the Olympics in Tokyo — has every potential to be an economic disaster. New York Times CEO Mark Thompson said in a March 2 filing with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission that the news media company has seen a slowdown in advertising. Thompson expects digital ad revenues to fall 10% but said the virus has not affected its subscription revenue. 

“Like many countries in recent weeks, we have begun to see some economic impact from the coronavirus,” Thompson said. “Unlike many news publishers, our business is heavily skewed towards subscriptions rather than advertising. We have seen no adverse impact on subscription growth or on the expected rise in subscription revenue, which remains strong and consistent with the guidance we gave in our most recent earnings call. However, we are seeing a slowdown in international and domestic advertising bookings, which we associate with uncertainty and anxiety about the virus.” 

Axios reports: “The news caused short dips in other publishing stocks, like Tribune Publishing and New Media Investment Group Inc., which houses Gatehouse and Gannett newspapers. Ad holding groups giants like WWP, Publicis, Omnicom, and IPG have also seen stock sink over the past week or so as the virus has intensified. Analysts predict that the entire advertising ecosystem will likely be negatively impacted by the virus, based in part on how China’s advertising market has reacted to the outbreak over the past few months.” 

Yet with people spending more time at home, less time traveling — with more leisure time to worry and not touch their faces — media consumption is predicted to rise. 

Calls for careful coverage: The Asian American Journalists Association (AAJA) sent out this statement, urging care in coverage of the outbreak in China “to ensure accurate and fair portrays of Asian and Asian Americans and to avoid fueling xenophobia and racism that have already emerged since the outbreak.” 

Speaking of coverage, if you’d like a good explanation on how this all began and spread from New Year’s Eve 2019 in Wuhan (starting with economic and food policies back in the 1970s, through SARS in 2003 and the introduction/ban of/revival of/renewed ban of wildlife farming), I’d recommend this one. I’d never heard of a “wet market” and now sort of wish I still hadn’t. 

Again, I would love to hear what your company is doing on all things coronavirus. Drop me an e-mail so we can share best practices worldwide and get through this together.

About Dawn McMullan

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