INMA gives global briefing on publishers’ COVID-19 response

By Shelley Seale

INMA

Texas, USA

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News media companies worldwide — like their home countries — are on their own timeline of the coronavirus pandemic. While some differences are specific to regions, emerging issues like print declines, retention of COVID audiences, personnel cutbacks, economic forecast models, and content demand are global issues with which all INMA members are dealing.

On Thursday, INMA members tuned into INMA’s third global briefing on the news industry’s response to the COVID-19 crisis by INMA Executive Director/CEO Earl Wilkinson. The Webinar — which followed the pandemic journey through the industry, as did the first and second COVID-19 briefings — focused on current industry issues:

  • The shape of print cutbacks.
  • The latest in the paywall debate over coronavirus coverage.
  • The international shape of government support for publishers.
  • Economic prediction models. 
  • Subscription and content data and opportunities.

“One of the things that really came out two or three weeks ago is this sort of pushback against the idea that we should give away all this magnificent coverage for free,” Wilkinson said. “There’s been a lot of pushback that says we have a moral obligation to introduce digital subscriptions models, even in COVID-19.”

The four models around COVID-19 that publishers should pay attention to.
The four models around COVID-19 that publishers should pay attention to.

There are four major models that news publishers should pay attention to.

  • Virus models: Eight weeks between COVID “take-off” and “landing,” post-coronavirus haze, the dates of May 1 to June 1 seem key.
  • Economic shape: Induced coma, waking up in the third quarter.
  • Balancing act: Public service, the need for reader revenue, and navigating advertising.
  • Not too early to ask: What changes are we seeing in the markets? Are behaviours permanent after July? What habits are breaking?

The “new normal” may be more likely to emerge in 2021, Wilkinson added. “We continue to learn, we continue to evolve.”

Emerging headlines

Following the latest headlines around COVID-19, there are emerging consumer views of news brands.

  • Trust: News companies are the most trusted sources of information, according to Reuters Institute.
  • Shift to news: YouTube reports a 75% YoY rise in news-related content viewership.

“In terms of layoffs, it’s mostly bad news to be very honest,” Wilkinson admitted.

  • The bad news: 28,000 workers at U.S. news companies have been made redundant, furloughed, or had pay reductions.
  • Good news: Hearst has promised its employees a 1% bonus, with no pay cuts or furloughs.
  • Why the differences? It depends on the company’s balance sheet and reliance on advertising as a business model.

The industry has also seen some new funding sources emerge, Wilkinson said. Google announced a Journalism Relief Fund and will waive ad serving fees for news publishers over the next five months. Facebook has invested US$3 million USD in Europe to support local journalism.

The Quebec government has tripled its advertising budget to support local media, while in Philadelphia, a fund has been set up to provide US$2.5 million to local newsrooms to cover the pandemic.

“I’m getting some questions from people who say, ‘What’s the role of government?’” Wilkinson said. “Governments have subsidised parts of news industries around the world, especially in Europe where it’s part of the culture. But in other markets, like the U.S., that culture just doesn’t exist.”

Publishers are focusing on short-term revenue as the coronavirus impact continues.

Revenue forecasts, expense cuts, and trends

Wilkinson mentioned the Webinar held the week before, in which New York Times’ CEO Mark Thompson revealed his company’s COVID-19 strategic plan.

“What Mark Thompson was saying is, there’s no one scenario,” Wilkinson said. “There’s a scenario where you bounce back in the fourth quarter [of 2020], and a scenario where it takes longer, and they’re planning for both.”

New York Times CEO Mark Thompson revealed their plan for recovery.
New York Times CEO Mark Thompson revealed their plan for recovery.

Thompson said several times during the Webinar that The Times was going to lean into its growth strategy. Wilkinson pointed out the simplicity of that strategy:

Improve user experience, the quality and breadth of journalism, and how it engages with people digitally, and growing the digital subscription business.

“I just think it’s a reminder of the value of simplicity and building strategy, especially in a crisis like this,” Wilkinson said.

He also mentioned another recent Webinar with Ken Harding of FTI Consulting, who, like Thompson, predicted that the recovery would likely be the longer scenario, into 2021.

Harding also discussed the cost-cutting measures that many publishers are taking, and Wilkinson said what struck him the most was by far, the majority of cuts were in print production.

FTI Consulting provided some valuable forecasting to INMA members.
FTI Consulting provided some valuable forecasting to INMA members.

“I don’t know what to say — that’s where you can get the costs [down],” Wilkinson said. “Publishers are looking, in some markets, at maybe the elimination of print, the reduction of pagination, the reduction of [certain daily] editions.”

Subscription developments

According to data from Piano, publishers in the United States have already hit the peak in the bump in digital subscriptions resulting from the coronavirus.

“Greg Piechota said it best: what we’re seeing is the comeback of reason and expertise as readers flock to trusted news brands and experts,” Wilkinson said. “Yes, there’s been a peak, but that doesn’t mean this surge is done.”

There is a difference in the peak numbers between Europe and the United States, which is largely the result of European publishers locking down their COVID-19 coverage more, while U.S. publishers generally have kept that free to the public. American publishers are moving more toward at least putting some of that content behind the paywall.

There are several important current trends in digital subscriptions.
There are several important current trends in digital subscriptions.

“We’ve also heard talk in the last couple of weeks about comparing coronavirus to natural disasters, even big sporting events,” Wilkinson said. “All I would say is the coronavirus bump is a taller and longer scale than all of these.”

Who are all these new subscribers? According to data from Deep.bi and Mather Economics, most are not new readers, but rather those who were already engaged and the pandemic was their driver to subscribe.

Many of these new subscribers are younger. And when it comes to subscription triggers, access to local news was the overwhelming factor, cited by 84% of new Seattle Times subscribers.

Mather added some additional data about reader segments:

  • 45% are consuming a mix of COVID-19 and other content.
  • 32% are consuming COVID-19 content almost exclusively.
  • 23% are avoiding COVID-19 content.

An interesting point is the 32% in the middle, who are mostly interested in COVID-19 content, have a lower expected retention curve without publisher intervention. The Seattle Times corroborated this, saying it expects coronavirus-only subscribers to leave once they no longer need the coverage.

Content demand evolving

Wilkinson outlined a number of content shifts that are happening right now.

  • Moving from new cases and deaths to stories of hope.
  • Demand for positive news rising.
  • Moving from health and safety content to the economic impact.
  • Huge surge in local news.
  • News publishers are becoming the “misinformation police.”
  • Corona fatigue is setting in.

“How do you balance your mission to report this information with a balancing act that the consuming public is expecting?” Wilkinson posed.

He brought in data from Chartbeat that gauged reader interest to help define the “new normal” of quarantine.

  • Overview: Reader engagement is higher on live blogs (45%) than articles (35%).
  • Home page: Breaking news updates and live blogs work best.
  • Search: Factual content, personally relevant information, interactives, and infographics.
  • Social: Human stories and emotional content.

View from India

India provides a different perspective because it is a very print-centric market. The overall outlook is that going forward, it won’t be “business as usual.” When the fears first hit of potential newsprint transmissions, most Indian publishers saw their print sales go down by as much as 90% and advertising all but disappear. There has been some recovery now, to about 75% of print distribution pre-crisis.

“I was surprised that they’re dealing with collections from advertisers and circulation agents in this crisis,” Wilkinson said.

Looking ahead, Indian publishers recognise that this pandemic has changed everything. They have a need for accelerating new training and the digitisation of legacy news business models. A push toward collaboration is also high.

Publisher creativity

Wilkinson highlighted a number of inspirational stories of hope from publishers around the world.

  • Stuff in New Zealand has created a video series of celebrities at home, called “Inside My Bubble.”
  • Mediahuis in Belgium is providing small businesses with free ad impressions, with a “Let’s make impact together” campaign.
  • The Daily Telegraph in the U.K. is doing WhatsApp briefings, a daily podcasts, and Global Health newsletter.
  • Jagran Prakashan in India has produced a Twitter-first series called “Positive India,” where they are sharing stories of positive action by everyday people.
  • The Evening Standard in the U.K. has introduced home delivery into the market, and does an Instagram Live “Friday Night In” with a DJ and cocktail workshop.
  • Singapore Press Holdings has offered a three-month free subscription to three of their digital magazines.
  • The Times of London has produced a marriage survival guide, Corona College for homeschooling parents, and diet and exercise plans.
  • Los Andes in Argentina is preserving its brand and journalism through technology.
  • HLN in Belgium livestreamed a six-hour helicopter flyover of pandemic well wishes and unity.
  • The Washington Post in the U.S. has engaged quarantined Generation Z audiences using TikTok.
  • GK in Ecuardor created a virtual memorial for families mourning COVID-19 victims.
  • Dainik Bhaskar in India is promoting social distancing, that coronavirus has no religion, and spreading positivity.
  • The South China Morning Post has surged video and is being creative with a little coronavirus humour.

“When we look back at what we did, what is the consumers’ reaction?” Wilkinson said. “I think these stories are really on the cutting edge.”

If he had to distil the large COVID-19 conversation into one thing, Wilkinson said it would be this question: “Are you spending more time looking back, repairing, and plugging holes — or are you looking ahead and trying to accelerate down this road you haven’t been before?”

He added that he wasn’t saying one was more important than the other, but that publishers should consider the question.

There are three key takeaways he said publishers could learn from the COVID-19 response so far: They should be focused on habits and what’s breaking. They should take advantage of opportunities. They should go on the offense rather than just playing defense.

About Shelley Seale

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