Spike in demand for news amid the war in Europe creates “pandemic peak-like traffic”

By Greg Piechota


Oxford, United Kingdom


My analysis of Google Trends showed that in the last week of February – when Russia invaded Ukraine for the second time in a decade – the interest in news globally reached 68% of the pandemic peak in March 2020.  

In the United States, the demand for news reached the levels last observed during the 2020 U.S. presidential elections. In Germany, the demand is higher at 80% of the pandemic peak.

In Ukraine’s western neighbour Poland (my home country), the demand is already double of the pandemic levels. Data from individual publishers confirm the spike in online traffic to news. 

“We are observing the pandemic peak-like traffic,” Dorota Adamczyk of Poland’s Gazeta Wyborcza told me. According to internal data, last week the publisher saw 92% page views generated in the weeks of record-breaking March 2020.

As in the COVID pandemic, amid the war in Europe, people turned to trusted sources. Gazeta Wyborcza mobilised its newsroom to provide 24/7 coverage of the invasion, with the focus on live blogging, original reports from correspondents in Ukraine, the Polish-Ukrainian border, and European capitals. 

Wyborcza is also exchanging articles with Die Welt of Germany, El Pais of Spain or Le Figaro of France, all members of the Leading European Newspaper Alliance. It syndicates articles from The New York Times, too, super-serving the affluent readership of Poland.

Live blogs excel in engaging readers

“Last week, the live blog on the war in Ukraine alone delivered 30% of pageviews on our sites,” said Adamczyk, who is the newspaper’s chief digital revenue officer.  

Three journalists are blogging throughout the day and night, in addition to five other reporters writing feature articles linked from the blog. Having added foreign correspondents and reporters filing from the border, where refugees arrive, I counted two dozen journalists covering the war for Gazeta Wyborcza.

“Heavy reading subscribers prefer in-depth, long articles, while light readers and non-subscribers engage with the live blog more,” observed Adamczyk.

Gazeta Wyborcza is not alone in its embrace of live blogging.

My review of the Web sites of the top 50 news subscription brands showed that last weekend, 56% (or 28) of those offered live blogs on the war in Ukraine — and all were made available for free to readers.

The appeal of live blogs should not be a surprise. Chartbeat data from 2020 showed live blogging was the single biggest source for reader engagement across Web sites of 700 publishers in 70 countries. Readers spent more time on live blogs than on most popular articles, infographics, or longform features.

Lessons from the COVID bump don’t end with live blogs. 

Most paywalls are kept intact

This time, fewer publishers feel the need to give away content for free. 

In March 2020, 30% of the top 50 news subscription brands unlocked all or some of the pandemic coverage to all readers for free. Last weekend, only 14% offered articles on the war in Ukraine for free — based on my review. 

And those who did offer free access to some content traded it for registrations like Dagens Nyheter in Sweden, newsletter sign-ups like the Financial Times, or pitched paid contributions below the free articles like the Guardian in the U.K.

The message at The Guardian read: “The truth, they say, is the first casualty of war, more so at a time when misinformation spreads so rapidly.”

Gazeta Wyborcza kept its hybrid paywall intact but touched similar tones in the communication with readers. We switched to claims about trust and quality journalism, as audiences in Poland, similarly to other countries, have been targeted by disinformation campaigns,” explained Gazeta Wyborczas Adamczyk.

Last week, European authorities banned Kremlin-backed media outlets such as RT and Sputnik. “They will no longer be able to spread their lies to justify Putin’s war,” said European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen.

Price for quick acquisition and easy retention

Since the time the first Russian missiles hit Ukrainian cities, the daily digital subscription sales of Gazeta Wyborcza more than doubled.

Adamczyk attributes this increase to people’s fears of World War III, trusted brand, high-quality journalism, and new introductory offers.

Following the lessons from the COVID year, at the first sight of a new traffic bump, Gazeta Wyborcza launched a new year-long trail offer at a discount of 57%. Readers can also sign up for three-months-long trials at a discount of 84%. 

Both trials help to convert readers sooner, while their extended length provides the publisher a runway to welcome, engage new subscribers, and help them form a habit of reading before they are asked to upgrade to the full price. 

“This is a big lesson from the pandemic. When the big news breaks, don’t wait. Price for quick acquisition and easy retention,” Adamczyk said. 

Subscription-first publishers unleash cyclones

This approach is called a cyclone. The name refers to a new metaphor for a customer journey that starts with an acquisition and is followed by engagement, as opposed to a traditional funnel that promises acquisition as the outcome of gradual engagement.

Pioneered in the United States by The Boston Globe and The New York Times in 2019, deeply discounted and extra-long trials have been tested by publishers across the world and become a new best practice in the news industry.

My review of the basic subscription offers of the top 50 news subscription brands in mid-February revealed most of them, or 68%, offered trial subscriptions. And 68% of those offered trials longer than three months.  

In fact, the average length of a trial offered by the top 50 brands was seven-and-a-half months, and the average discount for trials over three-months-long was 52%.

It is hoped the cyclones will help the news industry unlock the next stage in the growth of online reader revenue, as the mature publishers search for ways to convert casual readers.

Additional readings

• Tips from the Guardian’s Chris Moran on live-blogging and covering breaking news on Ukraine, Reuters Institute 2022.

• The theory of cyclonic buyer’s journey, as described by Eric Keiles and Mike Lieberman in “Smash the funnel,” An Inc. Original 2019.

About Greg Piechota

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