Media execs to INMA: We weren’t ready enough for COVID-19, but we’re rallying

By Earl J. Wilkinson


Dallas, Texas, United States


About half of the news media companies responding to an INMA survey this week on COVID-19 impact had contingency plans in place to operationally pivot in a pandemic-like situation — yet half did not. In response, cross-enterprise task forces are rapidly transforming how business gets done in either a virtual environment or in a more tightly regulated in-person workplace.

The 56 survey respondents are members of the International News Media Association (INMA) and mostly media companies representing global, national, or major metropolitan brands as well as groups.

Some 56% of media companies surveyed said their primary pain point involves balancing different strategic priorities: health and well-being vs. commerce and revenue vs. travel restrictions and policy vs. longer-term matters. This eclipsed the 29% who cited “fear and misinformation” and 27% who cited lack of structured guidelines to manage the coronavirus response, respectively.

Among the unusual tasks news media companies worldwide are dealing with is hygiene education.
Among the unusual tasks news media companies worldwide are dealing with is hygiene education.

Looking across the 91-question INMA survey of media companies, key themes emerge:

  1. Half not prepared: In a survey of “yes/no” questions, a consistent 50% were not ready for a coronavirus-like situation and are playing operational catch-up this week.
  2. Work-from-home: Setting up work-from-home environments are paramount. Companies are confident this can be executed, yet there is a long chain of questions being worked out as this shift occurs. INMA can also report, anecdotally, this may be the biggest impact to employees — most of whom have never worked consistently from home.
  3. How business gets done: Re-imagining how people within workplaces get business done: from video meetings to no handshakes to on-site/off-site teamwork.
  4. Workplace practices: Once-unfathomable workplace practices are emerging: no-handshake policies, provisions for personal protection supplies, quarantines, asking staff to provide personal travel histories, thermometer testing for external visitors, and on-site doctors. While companies are more stringent about sick employees staying away from the office, they are adapting to more people out without stigma. Hygiene education will be a point of emphasis.
  5. Travel and meetings: Curtailing business travel, especially internationally, and even reducing meetings. Some 40% respondents have suspended non-essential business travel internationally and domestically, and another 45% have suspended it only for international travel.
  6. A more complete embrace of video: Clearly from the INMA survey, video will only rise in importance – work-from-home meetings, sales calls, and journalistic interviews.

Several publishers are drawing on past emergency experiences and dusting off those playbooks for 2020. This includes Singapore Press Holdings and South China Morning Post response plans emanating from the 2003 SARS virus, VG’s production of the newspaper from a hotel after the 2017 terrorist shooting, and a number of publishers that have tightened security over external threats.

Other media companies weren’t as prepared. While a high percentage of companies have had a risk assessment in the past year, far fewer have had an emergency preparedness audit.

Task forces appear tilted toward three models: CEO-led with senior management, HR-led, or cross-departmental. 

While INMA asked about how to get physical newspapers and magazines to doorsteps and newsstands in a shutdown environment, media executives instead leaned into consistent answers about accelerating digital delivery of news and information. Others mentioned hubs, third-party vendors, and postal delivery – even staff delivery on foot and helicopter drops.

What does INMA believe will happen next? Since the bulk of changes are being implemented now, every indication is fuller attentions will soon turn to filling the revenue hole created by cancelled advertising contracts as an uncertain environment always yields.

As a general rule of thumb in major disruptions and economic downturns, advertising revenue is far more at risk than reader revenue. Companies still reliant on advertising will be harder hit than companies reliant on subscriptions: 

  • Advertising: Some 62% of INMA survey respondents say they have already experienced a sudden drop in advertising – notably branded content, travel, events, programmatic, and tourism. Not surprisingly, there are reports that food and grocery advertising has increased. 
  • Reader revenue: Only one respondent reported declines in reader revenue as a result of the coronavirus – an exclamation point on historic norms.

The answers to the INMA survey were revealing, yet the questions asked may prove just as useful to media companies. The questions came from a small group of INMA Board members and concerned members who reached out to share their experiences. They pushed INMA: Here are questions we want answered. That’s how the lengthy, 91-question survey was developed. At least one INMA member has told us they are using the INMA questionnaire for an overall audit of their preparedness and as a cornerstone for getting their arms around coronavirus responses.

INMA members may download the verbatim survey results – including ideas and narratives put forward by peer media companies – by clicking here. Survey results will be updated daily as warranted.

About Earl J. Wilkinson

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