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COVID-19 Becomes Publishing Industry Crisis
O'Dwyer's Public Relations News O'Dwyer's Public Relations News
For Immediate Release:
Dateline: New York , NY
Thursday, March 26, 2020


The coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic has dominated news coverage in recent weeks to become one of the most covered events in recent history, producing more than 1.5 million articles—at an average of about 1,400 articles per day—since early January, according to analytics firm NewsWhip

But COVID-19 has also put journalism’s future in peril, as the newspaper industry—already on shaky ground for years due to plummeting ad revenues—now faces yet another economic downturn. As companies in every sector affected by the coronavirus crisis scale back their advertising budgets, the financial impact of these cuts can be seen in the latest round of closures and layoffs that’ve hit the news publishing world this week alone.

Like the 2008 recession, the latest global economic crisis has left many print publishers wondering if—or how—they’ll be able to ride out the pandemic.

Widespread layoffs shake industry

COVID paper

COVID-19 was cited as a reason Playboy Enterprises decided to kill the print edition of its 66-year-old flagship Playboy magazine, which will cease publication after its current Spring issue. San Diego Magazine laid off nearly its entire staff and said it would fold after 72 years. Weekly publication Sacramento News & Review announced its closure and laid off most of its staff. Seattle-based alt weekly The Stranger suspended its print edition and furloughed more than half of its staff “due to the hellscape of unforeseen economic events brought on by the coronavirus.” Time Out Group, which publishes 40 magazines in city markets around the world, announced it was temporarily suspending its print editions for an unknown period of time. New England Newspapers—which publishes the Brattleboro Reformer, Bennington Banner and Manchester Journal—has slashed its page count and asked staff to take a temporary furlough. Dallas-based publisher D Magazine announced it had laid off 15 employees and implemented salary cuts for all remaining employees.

The news isn’t much better abroad. Canadian newspaper company SaltWire Network said it’s laying off about 40 percent of its workforce and suspending production of its weekly newspapers for at least the next 12 weeks, in light of “rapidly changing economic conditions related to COVID-19.” Northern Ireland publisher Spectator Newspapers said its papers—which includes the County Down Spectator, Newtownards Chronicle and Mourne Observerwere forced to cease publication due to COVID-19. London publisher City AM will shutter its print editions and go online in an effort to cut costs until it becomes viable to print again, with the newspaper’s entire staff being asked to accept a 50 percent pay cut. London-based JPIMedia, which publishes dozens of newspapers around the UK, is suspending print production of its free papers following a “substantial reduction in advertising,” leaving major towns such as Milton Keynes without a single newspaper.

News consumption explodes

While the economic fallout has hit print publishers hard, COVID-19 coverage is simultaneously driving an unprecedented sea-change in Americans’ media consumption habits, with online news traffic and TV viewership surging as more people find themselves isolating at home in light of new social distancing measures.

A report by technology company Parse.ly discovered that the coronavirus pandemic has caused online news sites’ content views to climb by 60 percent. Web traffic in the U.S. from Facebook to other websites also increased by more than 50 percent last week from the week before, according to a New York Times report.

There’s no question COVID-19 coverage is driving this traffic spike. Content mentioning the coronavirus now comprises 15 percent of total daily web traffic, according to the Parse.ly report. NewsWhip found that coronavirus content accounts for about 26 percent of English language content in its database of more than 10 million articles.

Things aren’t much different in the world of television, where near-constant COVID-19 coverage has resulted in massive viewership and ratings gains. Nielsen predicted that TV viewership would climb 60 percent as Americans tune in for coronavirus-related updates, and estimated that local TV news viewership has been up seven percent for 25 of the largest local markets across the country this week. Daytime TV viewership alone has seen a spike of 16 percent in recent weeks, according to viewer measurement company Samba TV. On cable, CNN saw ratings skyrocket 193 percent from March 16-20, followed by similar upticks at Fox News and MSNBC (89 percent and 56 percent, respectively).

And yet, these growing audiences have done nothing to stop broadcast and digital news outlets' freefalling ad budgets. A revised March 12 ad spending forecast by eMarketer shows that COVID-19’s financial impact on 2020 global ad spends accounts for a loss of about $20.3 billion. Fast-forward two weeks, and those figures now look downright optimistic. Analysts at investment bank Cowen & Co. anticipate that Facebook and Google alone could lose more than $44 billion in ad revenue because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Future uncertain

The coronavirus disaster has placed many media groups in the unusual position of having the audiences they’ve always dreamed of, yet with no ad dollars to support them. When it comes to print publishers, subscription sales alone won’t save them; in fact, to meet the recent uptick in demand, some are now taking down their paywalls—among them The Atlantic, The New York Times and the Washington Post—so readers can get free coronavirus-related heath and news updates. And publisher events, seen in recent years as a financial lifeline for magazine and newspaper brands, are obviously out in light of the pandemic.

Some had hoped Congress’ $2 trillion stimulus bill—the largest economic rescue measure in history—would provide some much-needed economic relief for local newspapers, the same way it’s being used to bail out airlines and the hotel industry. In fact, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s earlier proposed version of the bill had provided recovery aid for community newspapers affected by the coronavirus. That provision does not appear in the Senate’s finalized March 25 bailout package (though it does contain a $75 million provision to support public broadcasting).

“Congress should be giving even more to support public and noncommercial media of all kinds. These are highly trusted and essential sources of information that are accessible and available to everyone of all ages,” Craig Aaron, co-CEO of nonpartisan press group Free Press Action, told O’Dwyer’s. “With more support not only will they stay afloat, but they could boost their educational programming, from preschool to high school, while the kids are stuck at home and put more reporters on the beat and on the air. In a crisis like this, journalists are essential workers—and our recovery policies need to reflect that reality."

Without Congress' help, it may take financial support from nonprofits, foundations and the private sector—as well as individual donors—to save print and digital journalism. Some publishers, such as Seattle’s The Stranger or Vermont’s The Williston Observer, have resorted to soliciting for donations to stay afloat. In March, media advocacy group the Local Media Association partnered with journalism nonprofit the Lenfest Institute for Journalism and the Facebook Journalism Project to provide $1 million in grants to North American newsrooms covering the coronavirus.

Steven Waldman, president of journalism nonprofit Report for America, has advocated that the government spend more money on COVID-19-related advertising, which would have the added benefit of educating the public about the pandemic while supporting local news organizations.

David Cohen, president of ad industry trade group the Interactive Advertising Bureau, has suggested that brands purchase ads to run alongside COVID-19-related coverage on credible news sites, in an effort to help support the news industry and help keep Americans informed.

“America needs a vibrant, ad-supported news industry, and it has never needed it more,” Cohen wrote in a March 24 Business Insider editorial. “You need healthy consumers and a healthy economy. Supporting credible news is the best way to maximize both.”

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