The onset of the coronavirus pandemic has galvanized the media industry into action. Even as audience numbers have “skyrocketed,” the advertising revenue that sustains much of the media ecosystem has taken a sharp hit. And this, even as a new batch of advertisers seek to reach a newly minted niche of stay-at-homers, big spenders in retail and luxury markets are suspending buying activity. According to chief executive of G/O Media Jim Spanfeller, the situation feels similar to that following 9/11.
For some publications that are dependent on local advertising – those in local and regional media and freesheets/ alt weeklies – the situation is acute. There have already been some high-profile newspaper closures. Some publishers are already making cuts, and taking drastic measures to keep costs down, while continuing to pump out the news people need.
Even some incredibly well-known media brands are being forced to reappraise models that have seemed sustainable in the past, with the Evening Standard freesheet in London cutting its circulation to manage costs as advertisers pull out. Its chief executive Mike Soutar noted that “in the context of currently lower advertising volumes, it makes good economic sense.”
Unfortunately, overzealous, often blunt, keyword blocking, and avoidance have long been an issue around news content, particularly as automation and advertising exchanges delivering “blind programmatic” have taken off. Of late, the situation has only grown more dire. In response, many have called for brands, agencies, ad verification firms, and other companies in the digital advertising supply chain not to block the news.
However, for every publication like Playboy – which is cancelling all print issues for 2020 – there are other media companies launching endeavors in the light of what seems likely to be “the new normal.” Given the uncertainty about whether the advertisers that have decamped will return, coronavirus has effectively pressed fast-forward on trends that have been ongoing for years, forcing publications to adapt quickly rather than relying on a slow tail of dwindling print advertising, news avoidance, and limited growth in subscription revenue.
Jokes about Zoom being responsible for the outbreak aside, the pandemic has demonstrated the extent to which media businesses with events-based portfolios are exposed to mass shutdowns. Even with government support, some events-oriented media businesses are looking at furloughing employees, making redundancies, or shuttering entirely.
It’s been gratifying, then, to watch the speed which publishers large and small have transitioned to digital-only events. UK-based news start-up Tortoise, for instance, used its ‘ThinkIn’s (intimate events for members) as one of its key selling points in the first few months of its existence. Within a week of the (inadequate) UK government advice, it had transitioned to hosting Digital ThinkIns instead.
By doing so it is continuing to provide for its core audience, delivering on what its cofounder Katie Vanneck-Smith has described as a club-like mentality model of membership: “I think people will pay for what they value, and really brilliant businesses and brands have always built their businesses based on consumer insight, understanding what customers want, and then super-serving it.