Research shows difference in COVID, Ukraine news engagement

By Matt Lindsay

Mather Economics

Atlanta, Georgia, USA


By Arvid Tchivzhel

Mather Economics

Atlanta, Georgia, USA

Mather Economics recently published its benchmark report for the fourth quarter of 2021.

The subscription benchmarking report includes metrics on all subscribers, digital-only, and print/digital hybrid, from 350 newspapers in North America. The digital audience benchmarking report shares metrics from 121 newspapers captured using the company’s Listener data platform. Mather clients are welcome to download the full report.

Subscription benchmark report highlights

Though digital volume continues to grow at a rapid pace, the growth has slowed and revenue growth lags volume due to much lower average revenue per user (ARPU) of digital-only subscribers.

Details for each of these metrics and many others are featured in the report by publisher size and geography. Clients can access the full report on the Mather Web site.
Details for each of these metrics and many others are featured in the report by publisher size and geography. Clients can access the full report on the Mather Web site.

Looking ahead, Mather Economics maintains a forecast of when digital subscriptions will exceed print subscriptions based on the trends observed in each quarter. We call this event the volume cross-over point.

Due to slowing digital-only start volumes in late 2021, which have reverted to their pre-COVID levels, our volume cross-over point is expected to be 2024 (revised from 2023). We will begin publishing a revenue cross-over point in upcoming benchmark reports. The digital-only revenue cross-over is expected to be several years after the digital volume cross-over due to the significantly lower average revenue per month for digital-only subscribers.

Two-year retrospective from the digital audience benchmarking report

March 2022 is the second anniversary of the disruption and news coverage of the COVID-19 pandemic. In our most recent digital audience benchmark report, our data scientists summarise audience engagement and subscription impact across four phases over the last two years.

March 2020 and April 2020: pandemic onset

There was an unprecedented spike in engagement and subscription growth.

Also, the user conversion ratio lagged due to publishers removing paywalls during the start of the pandemic.

May 2020-December 2020: elevated engagement

During this time, total audience declined to 2019 levels but engaged users remained elevated. Total conversions followed the total audience trends though remained elevated.

Also, the user conversion ratio continued to rise due to fewer total users but sustained engaged users.

January 2021-June 2021: news fatigue

During this time period, total audience and engagement dropped below 2019 (pre-pandemic) levels. Total conversions reached the lowest point during the pandemic yet were still elevated compared to pre-pandemic levels.

Additionally, the conversion ratio declined from earlier peaks.

July 2021-December 2021: resumed subscription growth from COVID variants and the loss in loyal readers

During this time, there was a further decline in total audience and engagement with a temporary fall rebound. There was a temporary growth rebound in conversions (since April 2020), though it was elevated versus pre-pandemic levels.

Also, the conversion ratio remained elevated on a smaller total audience.

Parallels between COVID and the war in Ukraine

As COVID coverage declines and war coverage escalates, we are seeing some parallels to how audience engagement and digital subscriptions are performing. Greg Piechota noted early observations from national media organisations and those based in the European Union indicate similar spikes in demand.

The differences between COVID and war news cycles are important to note, however. COVID coverage focused on how each community experienced a global pandemic. Readers within each state, county, city, and neighbourhood sought insights about local cases and how elected leaders were responding with policy. The observed impact on engagement and subscriptions validated the value of covering local news and having reporters embedded in the communities being served.

By contrast, the Ukrainian news cycle is an international incident with readers turning to national news brands for insights and coverage as well as news brands based in the European Union.

Though local newspapers will (and should) cover global events, Mather recommends U.S. local newspapers continue their existing paid content strategies oriented around local news. In our earlier work on content strategy and digital transformation with The Dallas Morning News, we found local newspapers should not compare themselves to The New York Times when building a content strategy.

Except for national, European, or international brands, early data from Listener suggests engagement for U.S. local newspapers is not following the same trends as observed during the pandemic. Mather’s data scientists continue to analyse the last few weeks of content benchmarks and will publish updates as they are ready.

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