'Be helpful or prepare for the worst': how editorial teams are innovating in crisis

An empty New York Times Building

The reverberations of Covid-19 are putting news media under immense pressure at a time when they have a vital role to play in the spread of public information.

Print, digital and broadcast media have all faced vast disruption these past few weeks, with memos increasingly abounding announcing paycuts and furloughs. Those that remain are being forced to innovate out of necessity – and the furloughed souls may find themselves returning to a very different industry.

The mass lockdown has also inspired a shift in media consumption. Last week, The Drum explored how media buyers are handling shifting eyes and ears.

With audience habits changing, and the biggest global news story in living memory wreaking havoc across best-laid plans, here we look at how media brands of all stripes are adapting to a challenge like no other.

Online News

The Guardian and Financial Times tell The Drum that coronavirus articles are now their most-read ever.

Over the last few weeks, The Guardian’s daily digital traffic has been up by a half year-on-year. Nine of its 12 busiest days have come in the past two months. Video views are up 60%. It claims there is “an appetite for explanatory journalism across audio and video” around the pandemic and so is giving its Science Weekly podcast an extra episode a week.

The FT has opened its paywall on coronavirus content. It has launched a Coronavirus Business Newsletter, a webinar series called Digital Dialogues, ‘The Rachman Review’ podcast and a channel on messaging app Telegram.

At BuzzFeed, two new newsletters are proving popular. Outbreak Today comes from BuzzFeed News while its lighthearted companion Quarantine Today is from BuzzFeed. Together, they're the hard news and the uplifting chaser.

UK editor Stuart Millar said: “Both of them are getting incredibly high open rates –double what we’re used to seeing.”

Coronavirus is the team's full focus. “Other major stories are on hold," said Millar. Much of the labour is in debunking misinformation, though not everyone wants to face reality. National Geographic recently faced harsh feedback for debunking a feelgood tale about Venice dolphins.

On his responsibilities, Millar said: “We need to inform the public about what we know about the virus. And it is absolutely paramount we hold the government to account on its handling of the crisis, whether that is on its overall strategy, cohesiveness of their communications or on specific issues like testing and protective equipment for frontline NHS staff.”

Titles need to tread the fine line between informing and overwhelming people, Millar said.

“The last thing we want is for audiences to live in fear, and there are good things happening in the world too.”

DMG Media’s The i has also doubled down on the important of newsletters. Its main email has been moved to follow the government’s coronavirus press conference around 5pm. Each dispatch has an authored intro from a specialist correspondent.

This email's building a relationship with readers and is inspiring new content, said a spokesperson from The i. “We've heard a lot from the over 70s, and have sought to address some of their concerns by writing stories or intro blurbs to answer some of their questions about what to do when they are self-isolating."

Newspapers and magazines

Print has produced some of the most memorable visuals, spreads and graphics depicting the pandemic, such as these widely shared New York Times pages. But the print industry faces acute difficulties.

Titles are being produced remotely. On 31 March, the Financial Times released its first-ever entirely remotely produced newspaper. But getting titles like these into readers' hands will prove increasingly tricky in lockdown.

Rasmus Kleis Nielsen, director of the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism believes that print will be the hardest hit medium. “The pandemic will accelerate the long-term structural decline of print. A lot of people will get accustomed to getting all their news digitally. Print is most exposed.”

As for funding journalism, he expects little help from the government and perhaps “a few cents from tech companies”.

“Fundamentally, I think we're on our own.”

The Guardian, like many publishers, is running free deliveries via newsagents. Meanwhile, The i said: "We need to acknowledge the incredible efforts of our printers, wholesalers and retailers during this unprecedented time. The whole supply chain has pulled together in an incredible way."

The spokesperson noted that it is taking time to adapt to the logistical challenges, however. "Ensuring supply meets demand has been a significant headache, as stores close temporarily and consumers purchase patterns shift in accordance with where they’re locked down or able to shop/exercise. We’re getting on top of that now, as a new norm, for however long that might be, establishes itself."

The i's DMG stablemate Metro, hitherto the free newspaper for commuters, said it still "has an important role to play for the key workers who are using the transport network".

Across the media, we've seen the most dramatic and immediate innovations so far in print.

Time Out has rebranded to Time In and gone online-only until coronavirus passes. Street-distributed Stylist launched a timely e-mag now it can't rely on footfall.

The Big Issue is pushing readers to three-month online subscriptions since vendors can no longer sell on the street. It will also be sold in shops for the first time, with Sainsbury’s and McColl's the first to stock it.

ESI Media, the owner of freely-distributed newspaper the Evening Standard, has just lost 80% of its revenue and is to furlough staff despite home deliveries of the paper around the London area.

And then there’s Hearst, the magazine publisher that has been bridging print and online over the last few years. Its web traffic is up a tenth across all properties. Esquire, Runner’s World, Women’s Health, Delish UK and Prima have hit record audiences. And the virtual world's going to see more from these brands. The Women's Health Live 2020 event is going out on Facebook Live with exercise classes.

Hearst is not alone in pushing subscriptions (with home delivery) but it claims that mag sales from convenience retailers have also increased. Its new subscriber acquisitions were up more than 100% year-on-year across the second half of March. Next week all of its mags will be digitised. Select postcodes are set to be sampled mag issues in the coming weeks too.

Sue Todd, chief executive of magazine marketing organisation Magnetic, has been on Zoom calls all week figuring out the lay of the land.

She said: "Magazines publishers have moved quickly to meet shifting market demand, consulting regularly with retailers, and naturally focused distribution around footfall as people are forced to change their consumption patterns.

"Digital platforms across the board have seen increases in traffic as audiences look to trusted media brands for advice and inspiration during this unsettling time."

Todd pointed out some signs of encouragement. "The Week and The Week Junior have seen outstanding circulation growth with over 7,250 new subs to The Week Junior in the past four weeks." Bauer Media (Empire, Grazia, Heat) also saw an increase of over 70% in the number of new subscriptions purchased online year on year. It is up 160% in the last week.

If these trends hold, there could be a lot more subscribers in the long-term. If, they hold.

Todd concluded: "It’s my sense that during these times, magazines’ relationships with their audience will be strengthened as consumers look for advice from those they trust and identify with, and of course they have more time to indulge in a printed magazine right now."

Broadcast

Linear TV viewing is up. And this is true for news especially. BBC News has already claimed double-digit growth.

In evening news spots, Scottish broadcaster STV, still holds around a third of the viewing share on any given day. However, viewership is up by around half to peaks of around 650,000 households.

Steven Ladurantaye, head of news and current affairs at STV, detailed how it is pulling in record audiences despite staff having to produce, package and even host news shows from home.

STV trained and equipped staff more than a year ago to produce remotely to increase efficiency and turnaround time. These luxuries are now a necessity.

“Now it is like we’ve adopted the 1970s public access television model,” he said.

Formats have been rebuilt around utility to the audiences, and ease of production.

Ladurantaye pointed to a Scotland Tonight-hosted Q&A with the country's national clinical director, Jason Leitch, as a positive example. “The medical officer was answering health questions from viewers on Twitter and Facebook. The videos that people are sending are not like Hollywood selfies, it was real people in their living rooms asking real questions. It has been absolutely phenomenally and pulled maybe 10 times more audience.”

TV news packages now need to serve as a “daily breath away from the noise”. And the new reality has empowered Ladurantaye to try new formats. "We can really simplify a lot of things and stop overthinking.”

Meanwhile, STV's digital news site has seen server-busting surges, up between 50% to 70% in viewers year on year. Right now the focus is to get the hard facts to viewers. Colour and case studies will follow in later months once the key messages are out there. It will keep a close eye on the success the government has in stemming the virus.

Ladurantaye's extended the olive branch of peace out to supposed rival media, granting them permission to use STV copy on coronavirus stories. He's also made peace with blocked accounts on social media - for better or worse. He's treating this like a fresh start.

Ladurantaye concluded: “This is a moment where we need to decide what we want media to look like. For too long, media companies have retained that arrogant stance that it's all about them then telling people what the news is, what’s important, from on high.

“Being helpful is the single most useful thing we can do right now, as trite as that sounds, if we blow it, we should probably prepare for the worst…”

What's Next?

There's already been a swathe of cuts and furloughs in the industry. With editorial focus now dominated by the pandemic, advertisers need to ensure they are supporting the journalism.

Earlier this week, Newsworks, the body representing UK news brands, warned that ads are being restricted on stories mentioning 'coronavirus' in a heavy-handed brand safety measure. It estimated this would cost the industry £50m in the next three months. Advertising's long had blunt-force keyword issues but their implications are more apparent than ever right now.

Craig Tuck, the chief revenue officer of The Ozone Project, an ad alliance featuring Reach, News UK, Guardian Media Group and Telegraph Media Group, said the crisis has accentuated an issue that has faced premium publishers for years; “overly zealous, one-dimensional keyword lists blocking advertiser access to brilliant content”.

“Brand safety is of course incredibly important to us and our advertisers, but the implementation of basic blocklists - particularly in programmatic advertising - can have the opposite impact. As they don’t take into account any of the context around a given word, we see text-heavy environments, such as those belonging to premium publishers, being penalised more.”

This can actually endanger brand safety. “Programmatic ad spend is then pushed out into the long-tail of unregulated content, rather than staying in safer, higher quality, editorially-governed environments.”

Right now, the media must use the increased attention from readers and viewers as a platform to prove their worth in the long run.

BuzzFeed's Millar can see the trust building. "We feel like our audience is being more conversational with us. Reporters are getting more tips over email and people definitely want to engage more and have their story heard – that will do nothing but good for the trust issue."

But Kleis Nielsen worries that news media will "turn into a tally of how many people die every day".

He urged: "We really have to think about this moment, how can we remind people of how much journalism can enrich their lives, help them make the right decisions, inform them on how to protect those closest to them, and help them be the people want to be. We have to work out how to do this in a crisis. I am very hopeful we will find a way forward.”

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