Future of Media: How the media rode out the lockdown

The Drum's senior reporter and media correspondent John McCarthy rounds up the latest media trends and developments. Also available in your inbox every Thursday as The Drum's Future of Media email briefing. Sign up here.

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Welcome to The Drum’s Future of Media briefing. Media reporter John McCarthy here, and this week I'm running a comprehensive media lockdown review.

As I've been on holiday this week, I've had a lot of time to recap some of the milestone media trends during the pandemic.

Be useful

The top editors in the business explained how they were adapting in the early days of lockdown. One piece of advice rang loud: 'Be helpful or prepare for the worst'. It was as true for brands as it was news brands.

One contributor to that piece was BuzzFeed’s UK editor Stuart Millar; weeks later he was to leave the business along with the respected Australia and UK news teams. BuzzFeed told The Drum it wasn’t finished with news coverage, however. "We will never just be pizza and kittens," James Lamon, ​head of content for Europe, said. That business is going to forge ahead under the financial model championed by food vertical Tasty. Nonetheless, BuzzFeed's news retreat was a warning that quality products were to be hit by the downturn – and sure enough, countless redundancies in the media followed.

Meanwhile, there were big moves at the Beeb. Tim Davie, the experienced marketer was named director-general to succeed Tony Hall. The lockdown appeared to be the least of his concerns, with one colleague describing his new job as “hell” on account of the numerous challenges waiting in the in-tray. But if the BBC addresses its image, its existential problems may fade away.

Live events

Even the most obscure media companies run live events and awards. The lockdown threatened to knock down the business model so the events moved online.

The Next Web, Bloomberg Media, Financial Times and Verizon explained that a few weeks of graft was all that was needed to move conferences online and sponsors were sated with the promise of global and lasting reach, so expect to see more hybrid events going forward.

But it was not such an easy move for artistic endeavours like Eurovision, Edinburgh Festival and Guinness World Records. They all explained how art needs the live audience participation to truly thrive. Although we said the same about sport, didn’t we?

Print

We love print at The Drum. In fact, we produce a magazine [SUBLIMINAL CALL TO ACTION].

But we’d heard a few rumbles of concern that we were going to lose some of our favourite magazines. Perhaps most threatened of all was The Big Issue, the street magazine deprived of income in empty towns and cities. But it found its way into retail stores and launched a subscription scheme while its vendors and audience were grounded. Its agility was a heartening sign of fortitude for the industry.

Sure, ad spending was tanking as marketers cut budgets in the face of an impending recession, but consumers were turning to magazine subscriptions in record numbers. From the top stables to proud indies, we explored this new demand for the medium. Will it last? I don't know. The titles that survive the lockdown will have found new efficiencies and audiences at least.

The lockdown also proved inspirational for print design. Designers at NYT, The New Yorker, Time, The Economist and The Big Issue talked us through some of their most vital creations. Through lockdown ingenuity, these titles became more relevant than ever.

Advertising and?

LadBible survived the period without any furloughs or redundancies and has plans to implement more e-commerce and affiliate marketing. The social media looks set to spring out of this period, with momentum rivals like The Hook and Joe.co.uk. This came shortly after Channel 4 made a big push into social branded content. Every penny will be hard-fought for in the publishing space. Especially in social.

In mid-May, the chief revenue officer of the Washington Post told me her “priority can’t be to sell advertising”. Judging by the analytics on that piece, this quote warned many that there were fallow months ahead.

But we could all depend on the steady stream digital advertising to tide us over, right?

Adtech remains problematic. It is messy, it’s imperfect, and in many respects, it’s a huge miracle it even works at all. Due to (misplaced?) brand safety fears and blunt keyword blocklists, coronavirus news was demonetised, penalising publishers attracting record traffic. Troublingly, the same was happening to coverage of racism and the Black Lives Matter movement.

We knew there were a few hiccups around stories that use language like ‘murder’, ‘bomb’ and ‘Isis’ in the URL, but this was something more. Marketers had turned their backs on bad news, at a time when there was only bad news. Also discovered was a “hidden delta” in the adtech ecosystem. Experts couldn’t track where a huge chunk of adtech spend was actually going. Whether that's due to fraud or spend attrition is still debated.

There's work to be done. But progress has been made. With the demise of the third-party cookie, publishers as the gatekeepers of huge established audiences could stand to profit.

Other

Most media was up. Gaming especially. Twitch was benefiting from the fact that due to the endless Zoom calls, we were all Twitchers in some way.Esports was sucking up some experimental spend from marketers but it is a fairly complex arena to merely dip a toe into. How many sports marketers fell in love with the medium I wonder?

As demand sank, so did the price of TV advertising. It was actually the perfect time for lean brands to embrace the medium.

With the industry's income ravaged and production halted, broadcasters had no choice but to forge on and remove as much friction from the process as possible. Channel 4 was offering free use of in-house team 4Creative to help get production over the line. Viewership has been up for months, but will broadcasters retain their newfound viewers as the pubs reopen?

Many SVOD offerings launched. Disney+ successfully jumped onto everyone's screen. Quibi didn't. The less said about that one, the better. Boss Katzenberg blamed the pandemic for the lack of on-the-go consumption. Sure.

Radio’s pitch was simply that it’s easier and faster to produce for than TV. More people were listening too. Bauer Media assembled a team to help marketers find their pandemic ‘tone’. For many, the sound of another voice on the radio box was comforting and informative. Some sectors of podcasting saw a similar boom.

And finally, as the financial model of media strains, we say huge surges of creatives to membership scheme Patreon.

So what does this all mean?

In the coming months, there are going to be less media to consume. Halted productions and leaner corps will see to that.

There's going to be a few cash-strapped businesses with huge audiences, so expect a lot of M&A.

Expect a rush towards new business models. Outside of a few highly successful subscription services, the struggles have been universal.

Speaking of that, I wonder what tens of thousands of furloughed or laid-off media types are building right now?

And finally, there's no one among us coming out of this doubting the value and importance of media after spending hundreds of hours consuming it to be educated on, or distracted by, what's happening outside. I wonder if that'll change our propensity to pay for it?

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