Publishers Warned to Be Helpful… or Prepare for the Worst

“The most read ever.”

That’s what The Guardian and the Financial Times are saying about articles they’ve been publishing around coronavirus.

“Over the last few weeks, The Guardian’s daily digital traffic has been up by a half year-on-year,” writes John McCarthy in The Drum. “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.”

At the Financial Times, they’ve launched a Coronavirus Business Newsletter, a webinar series and a podcast channel, plus opened their paywall on COVID-19 content.

This pandemic is generating massive views, and significantly changing media consumption habits, McCarthy explains. At the same time, many of these publishing organizations are facing layoffs or paycuts, necessitating even more innovation from the remaining editorial staff. At BuzzFeed, they are taking a hard news approach and a lighter look at the same time, with Outbreak Today on the news side alongside Quarantine Today. And they are seeing their audience numbers soar.

Guiding the work at all three organizations is a commitment to sharing helpful content in a time of crisis.

“We need to inform the public about what we know about the virus,” explains Stuart Miller, BuzzFeed’s UK editor. “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.”

He notes there’s a fine line between informing their readers and overwhelming them, so they temper the scary stuff with liberal doses of good news.

At a time when the news media is under constant assault from many corners, publishers aren’t expecting much help from government to stay afloat.

“Fundamentally, I think we’re on our own,” said Rasmus Kleis Nielsen, director of the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism. He feels the pandemic may accelerate the decline of print news, even as reliable news itself becomes ever more valuable.

Others, like a spokesperson from DMG Media’s The i, sees the entire news supply chain – printers, wholesalers, and retailers – banding together to face mounting logistical challenges. While print news is struggling with access and delivery, Sue Todd of Magnetic sees some encouraging signs.

“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.”

It’s too soon to make any predictions on how this all shakes out. It was a little over a month ago that Meredith’s VP and group publisher Scott Mortimer spoke to Samir Husni about the constant state of change in the publishing industry. We are all used to adapting – rapidly when necessary – to continue to provide the quality journalism and magazines that our readers rely on.

And we are seeing it happen, like Bauer Media’s Grazia feature on front line NHS workers. What I do know is that news brands that can build loyalty in trying times will be far ahead of the game when “the new normal” presents itself. In fact, these innovative publishers will help shape what normal looks like, by understanding their audience and providing them the content and format they crave.

Credibility has never been more important for media brands. And it’s not something a brand can claim; true credibility must be earned, by engaging authentically and delivering consistently. Once earned, it’s the starting point for new products and services that people will eventually pay for; even if only a small portion of these new readers become paying customers, the value of the brand will be elevated overall, something that brand managers know is critically important.

“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,” said Kleis Nielsen. “We have to work out how to do this in a crisis. I am very hopeful we will find a way forward.”

Hope, even in the strangest of days, remains a guiding force.