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The short- and long-term impact of COVID-19 to news publishers

By Ken Harding

FTI Consulting

Denver, Colorado, United States


In an uncertain and rapidly evolving landscape, news media companies are facing daunting new challenges in a sector that was already under significant pressure. Publishers must act now to protect employees with the basic instinct of running toward the fire, to prepare for business and operational obstacles while continuing to serve their communities.

Some challenges can be expected, many will not.

Advertising declines accelerate 2x in last two weeks

In the United States, newspapers are generally seeing a range of 20% to 30% (outliers as high as 50%) year-over-year declines in total advertising revenues in just the last couple of weeks. If the Great Recession is any guidepost (see graph below), print advertising will likely see a more detrimental impact from reduced advertising spend in the next 18 months than other mediums.

Digital traffic is up significantly

Average daily page views and visits are up significantly, with U.S. publishers experiencing 25% to 60% growth month over month. Newspapers are highly valued when audiences need trusted, local, real-time news and information about their communities and the world.

The increased traffic should bring in incremental advertising revenue, but as the supply-side of programmatic market expands, we expect CPM compression will offset some of the higher volume. If publishers have any pages that are not monetised with programmatic advertising, now would be a good time to revisit that approach.

Surge in digital subscription starts

The decision on how to best handle the subscription model related to COVID-19 content is both a strategic and challenging one for publishers. The traffic growth has almost universally provided a boost to digital subscriptions (2-3.5 times February levels), regardless of whether a publisher has moved COVID-19-related content in front of the paywall or not.

Publishers that have launched coronavirus-specific newsletters have seen success in increasing both digital subscriptions and advertising impressions.

Revenue and EBITDA

Revenue visibility the rest of this year is clearly murky if not opaque, however, based on what we are seeing with input from various newspapers across the United States. Below are our current views. If you then assume various fixed vs. variable costs by function, you arrive at EBITDA. 


The questions publishers now face

1. Is my newspaper considered essential by my local government?

Publishers need to understand local and state laws with regards to essential business designations to allow them to continue operations when many other local businesses may be forced to close.

2. Regarding the paywall, how do we find the right balance of serving the community versus building the support we need for local news?

  • Publishers should consider whether or how much COVID-19-related content should be in front of the paywall. Providing breaking news and public health interest content can build brand credibility and trust with a wider audience, while designating some COVID-19 coverage as premium content can accelerate growth in digital subscriptions. 
  • This article is a good resource as publishers are trying to understand their various paywall strategy options during this period.

3. Should we redeploy sports and arts/entertainment news staffs to both serve those audiences while balancing the broader COVID-19 topics? 

Shifting resources to meet audience demands are likely needed to serve and survive.

4. What are the operational challenges that we might face in the next 30 to 60 days?

  • Can you produce and update your digital products (Web, mobile Web, e-edition, native apps and breaking news alerts) from staff working from home (a likely scenario)? 
  • Production could be shut down completely with just one positive COVID-19 test. What is the back-up plan for a contingent printer or digital-only product? 
  • Distribution centers (DCs) are at high risk. Do you move to a hand-out model at DCs so carriers do not need to get out of their vehicle? 
  • If you can print but cannot deliver, are you set up to deliver through the mail? Is there enough mobility and support in your community where you could drop newspapers at retail locations such as grocery stores? 
  • And for those that are thinking of eliminating certain days of print in the interim, consider what your frequency could be a few years out so that it aligns with a likely longer strategy.

 5. Start a COVID-19 newsletter if you havent already. Focus on sign-ups and possibly cross promote to other newsletter lists. 

  • What are some strategies to build digital engagement?
  • Increase push alert activity and social posts.
  • Drive digital activation from print subscribers.
  • Registration wall: opportunity to attract and retain new audiences not typically engaged with local journalism.

Put into a greater context, the dynamics of the pandemic reinforces the U.S. newspaper industry’s need to continue to rapidly shift to a consumer-based model and supports what we know to be true. Our communities want and need the content and insights we produce.

About Ken Harding

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