COVID-19 media impacts prove uneven, but some companies appear resilient

By Dr. Merja Myllylahti

Auckland University of Technology (AUT)

Auckland, New Zealand

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Reports about COVID-19’s impacts on news media are starting to emerge as we reflect on this extraordinary year of crisis. It is fair to say that the pandemic has not just affected news and news media, but many aspects of our day-to-day lives.

Some academic reports have highlighted increases in media consumption during 2020. In many Western media markets, traffic to online news sites has increased, digital subscriptions have surged, and trust in well-known media brands has climbed.

Reports indicate that many media organisations have been thriving since COVID-19 swept across the globe, but some publications and platforms are struggling.
Reports indicate that many media organisations have been thriving since COVID-19 swept across the globe, but some publications and platforms are struggling.

This trend was also picked up in FIPP’s Global Digital Subscription Snapshot report in April. It notes that “it is local news Web sites that are shining, as people seek out trusted and high-quality content on what is happening in their local communities.” It shows that traffic was up 150% to the San Francisco Chronicle, more than 120% to the Seattle Times, and nearly 100% to the Boston Globe.

In November, New Zealand’s leading newspaper, the NZ Herald, reported its combined print-online readership was “at record levels and newspaper readership is its highest in almost a decade.” Additionally, its digital-only subscriptions were approaching the 50,000 milestone. (The newspaper only introduced paid premium paid content in April 2019.)

While these figures are positive, it is far too early to assess the full impacts of COVID-19 on the news industry. Some early signs suggest that ramifications to news publishers are not unified; they are uneven.

A report by Reuters Institute examines how the pandemic affected independent news organisations. It found a majority of independent news outlets saw an increase in their overall audience reach. Yet, at the same time, one-fifth of respondents (mainly newspapers) reported declines in total audience. Of those independent media organisations, 36% said they were excepting severe decline in their 2020 revenue.

The COVID-19 impacts were reportedly more far reaching for commercial newspapers, which were dependent on advertising revenue (perhaps not surprisingly). The research found the media groups “who expect stable or even growing revenues are often smaller online newsrooms, some of them non-profits.”

In New Zealand, the number of independent newspaper groups increased during 2020, as Stuff CEO Sinead Boucher bought the company from Nine Entertainment. The annual New Zealand Media Ownership Report, produced by the AUT research centre for Journalism, Media, and Democracy (JMAD), shows that in 2020 there were nine independently owned news companies in the country.

The JMAD report demonstrates that during the COVID-19 crisis, independent news outlets in New Zealand reported strong readership and traffic numbers, and some of them even expanded operations. These outlets were supported by the New Zealand government wage-subsidy scheme, and some received funding from Google’s Journalism Emergency Relief Fund. According to Google, it provided financial support to a total of 76 news organisations across the Pacific.

More importantly, many of New Zealand’s independent news media outlets were also reporting increases in their reader revenue. Newsroom, which is a digital-only news site known for breaking investigative news stories, reported “skyrocketing” readership and a significant spike in its donations. Similarly, The Spinoff, another digital news outlet, was initially “hit very hard by COVID-19” but “within a couple of weeks we started to see something quite extraordinary — hundreds of new members coming in, helping make up for the lost revenue.”

These examples are encouraging. But it is good to keep in mind that while some local news outlets have experienced a reader revenue bump, others have not. FIPP states that “in the U.S. alone, more than 36,000 news media workers have been impacted by COVID-19, with jobs lost, journalists furloughed, and over 30 local newsrooms shuttered.” In New Zealand, over 600 media jobs were lost at the same time. While the figure doesn’t sound large compared to the United States and other larger media markets, it is a big number in the small media market such as New Zealand.

About Dr. Merja Myllylahti

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