Quantifying the COVID-19 impact on subscriptions, content, attention, programmatic

By Grzegorz Piechota


Oxford, United Kingdom


Good morning! I hope this e-mail finds you well. This is Readers First, a newsletter for INMA members on reader revenue. I’m Researcher-In-Residence at INMA, self-isolating in Oxford. E-mail me at: grzegorz.piechota@inma.org. Note that this post was updated at 9:30 a.m. New York time March 24 with updated data from Piano.

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1. Worlds news Web sites see a surge in engagement and double coverage on COVID-19 crisis

In the week of March 18, news organisations worldwide published 121% more articles on the pandemic than the week before. The coverage began to increase exponentially around March 9 — reported Bonnie Ray, head of data science at Chartbeat.

Her team analysed 78 billion views of 25 million articles, including 1 million articles about COVID-19, on news sites of more than 700 publishers in 70 countries on six continents and shared the in-depth results with the INMA members.

  • As of the week of March 18, articles on the pandemic received about one-third of all page views and accounted for 35% of total engaged time with the news sites studied. The number of page views rose 44% vs. the previous week, and the engaged time was up 118%. Chartbeat measures the engaged time as the amount of time that users spend actively interacting with a page — reading, writing, scrolling, watching.
  • Chartbeat found visitors engaging, on average, 40 seconds with the articles on the COVID-19 or five seconds longer than with articles on other topics.
  • The surge in the readers’ interest in the pandemic was seen across the board of the referral sources: Google News, Google Chrome Suggestions, Twitter, Bing, aggregators such as Smart News and Flipboard, and Yahoo.
  • Interestingly, social networks and apps combined drove slightly more traffic than search engines to the COVID-19 coverage. Typically, social-referred traffic is much lower than search-referred.
  • Want to learn more? Here’s the full deck of results from Chartbeat. 

2. European publishers see enormous “COVID-19 bump” in online subscriptions, while surge has just started in U.S. 

European newspaper sites saw a 267% increase in new subscription starts in the week of March 16 vs. the average week in 2020. At the same time, the U.S.-based newspapers added 63% more subscribers than usual – reported Patrick Appel, Director of Research at Piano.

His team analysed the transactional data of 295 news sites with the paywall across the world.

  • The subscription bump is most visible in Europe, according to Piano, because the continents’ newspapers are mostly keeping their paywalls intact. In the United States, many publishers are putting their COVID-19 coverage outside paywalls in service of the public.
  • The pandemic also has escalated in Europe earlier than in the United States, which means the U.S. bump may have just started. In the previous week of March 9, the European newspapers saw a 102% increase, while their U.S. peers added 15% more than the average week of 2020 prior to the World Health Organization (WHO) declaring a global pandemic. 
  • To unlock the pandemic coverage or not? Check the advice of the Piano’s experts. 

3. The surge in online traffic to news sites does not translate into higher revenue from programmatic advertising

In the first three weeks of March, the programmatic ad requests by news sites spiked 78% vs. the previous month, but they were not met with the advertisers’ demand and therefore the average eCPM decreased by 14% — reported Szymon Pruszynski, head of global communications at Yieldbird.

His team analysed monetisation data from 18 billion ad requests in February and March 2020 at 273 sites across Europe, North and South America. eCPM is the amount an advertiser pays a website per one thousand visitors who see its advertisements.

  • Programmatic ad requests across all content Web sites, including non-news, increased 29%, while the programmatic eCPM was down 20%.
  • Some advertisers have started to decrease spending: automotive, dining out, travel, and hospitality by 30% to 100%. Overall, the revenues of publishers though were found to be stable as of now, mostly due to the increased ad inventory.
  • There are advertisers who have increased spending in the face of the pandemic — food retailers, other e-commerce sites such as clothes retailers, video-on-demand services, gaming developers.
  • To secure brand safety, some publishers have turned off programmatic ad placements next to the content on the COVID-19 casualties and introduced restrictions to ads promoting unverified tests or cleaning supplies. 

4. Call for case studies 

I’m collecting data and stories about the ways news publishers capitalise on the increased interest in news in the recent weeks.

  • Have you changed your paywall policy recently to provide news coverage and advice on coronavirus to non-paying readers? If so, how?
  • Thinking of your most recent editorial, marketing and product initiatives …
    • What are you doing to maximise the online traffic?
    • What are you doing to register more visitors?
    • What are you doing to convert more digital subscribers?
    • What are you doing to activate more print readers on your online sites?
  • You can e-mail me at grzegorz.piechota@inma.org. I will share the best practices with your peers in the next INMA Readers First e-mail newsletter and on INMA website. 

About this newsletter 

Today’s newsletter is written by Grzegorz (Greg) Piechota, Researcher-in-Residence at INMA, based in Oxford, England. I am sharing here results of my original research, notes from visits to digital subscription leaders, reflections on talks at conferences, and my favourite readings. Previous editions are archived online.

This newsletter is a public face of a reader revenue and media subscriptions initiative by INMA, outlined here. E-mail me at grzegorz.piechota@inma.org with thoughts, suggestions, and questions. Sign up to our Slack channel.

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