News Publishing Deemed 'Essential,' but COVID-19 Spells Doom

April 2, 2020 () –

Newspapers covering the “once-in-a-lifetime” story of coronavirus have seen their online traffic skyrocket as the outbreak grows, and more and more people around the world shut at home.

USA Today’s online audience grew 30% year-over-year and Hearst magazines reported a 33% growth.

In spite of the increased sales for the news industry, a number of publications have either ceased their print editions or shifted entirely to digital.

Already dealing with dwindling advertising, the print community now has to face additional coronavirus-related concerns.

The pandemic may be medical-based, but unfortunately, it also carries a financial strain.

Perhaps the most notable is the iconic Playboy magazine, which cited disruption brought by COVID-19 for deciding to close its print publication.

Similarly, luxury fashion magazine W ceased its print edition indefinitely and laid off most of its staff, citing the pandemic as culprit.

Dozens of small, daily and weekly newspapers across the United States and Canada have also reduced print publications or shuttered altogether, laying off hundreds of workers along the way. Others have instituted temporary furloughs and pay cuts while assessing the long-time impact of the pandemic on their businesses.

Those newspapers are the victims of a disrupted supply chain in advertising: not only that advertisers have cut back or canceled campaigns, but shelter-in-place or lockdown orders have also canceled events that are the lifeblood of newspapers dependent on event coverage and local ads. Many have been unable to monetize much of their digital presence or their online traffic still doesn’t compensate for the print advertising.

And those companies that are still willing to advertise in newspapers ask that their ads don’t appear next to articles about death tolls and hospitalizations connected to coronavirus, according to Scott McDonald, the chief executive of the Advertising Research Foundation. But that’s a tall order in newspapers now filling their pages – including sports and lifestyle sections – with news about the pandemic.

“This has negative effects for many of the news media that are having to invest more in coverage in this very dangerous moment,” McDonald told the New York Times.

And even that mighty New York Times Company warned investors recently about lower revenue expectations due to “uncertainty and anxiety about the virus.”

Since 2004, more than 2,000 U.S. newspapers have been lost to mergers or shutdowns, according to researchers at the University of North Carolina. Most were weeklies. Joshua Benton, who runs Harvard University’s Nieman Lab, made a “confident prediction” that 2020 would be the worst year ever for U.S. local media.

Prior to the pandemic, there was still a reason for optimism in the ad printing community. Research firm Toluna revealed in January that 54% of Americans said they would be more likely to take action after seeing a print ad than an online ad, compared to 46% global average. The pandemic couldn’t have hit advertising-dependent newspapers at a worse time.

As The Atlantic points out, residents of communities without local journalism may rely on gossips and social media to learn about the local developments of the pandemic, which may be another public-health disaster waiting to happen.

Richard Karpel, executive director of the Nevada Press Association, told the Associated Press that while “it’s still early in this crisis and the prognosis is far from clear, but without immediate relief it’s going to be a challenge for many small businesses to hang on, especially those operating on thin margins.” Having government spending for public-health ads through local media would provide such immediate relief, suggests The Atlantic.

Despite the ominous trajectory for news publishing and the mandated closure of dine-in restaurants causing the overnight disappearance of local ad revenue, the free alt-weekly Chicago Reader managed to find a new survival concept – an adult coloring book for shelter-at-home people who have time to spare. The coloring book is financed using an on-demand, paid distribution model.

Without reliable advertising revenue, the survival of news publishing depends on both the loyalty of the readers and creativity of the enterprises.

Francisco is the Paper, Hygiene Products & Publishing editor for Industry Intelligence, which can help YOU better address your own industry challenges. With the recently launched IMPACT report that focuses on the COVID-19 pandemic, Industry Intelligence is tracking how the pandemic is affecting companies and how innovative players pivot to find new opportunities.

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