Old media and COVID-19: news demand surges, business crumbles

Because of the quarantine, newspapers are going to die tomorrow, not in 10 years. The forever-altered tactility of the millions will harm the press even more than the temporary physical isolation from its readers. Radio will struggle but survive and come back to normal after months of hibernation. Television has a slight chance to improve its standing but faces strong competition from other ‘stay-at-home’ media consumption devices.

 

Some common issues for old media

There has been no such high demand for journalism for a long time. As McLuhan used to say, “Real news is bad news – bad news about somebody, or bad news for somebody.”[1] News media traffic has skyrocketed. COVID-19 has made journalism great again.

However, while the pandemic is beneficial to the media, the quarantine is not. The quarantine does to the media what it is supposed to do to the virus. The quarantine demolishes the business of old media, perhaps even more effectively than it stops the pandemic. As the economy in general is in decline, advertisers are withdrawing or freezing their contracts.

An additional problem has come from programmatic advertising. Pursuing brand safety, advertisers blacklist words potentially related to negative or risky context, such as “death”, “sex”, “Trump”, etc. Some media buyers indicate that “coronavirus” is now the most-blocked keyword, surpassing even “Trump”. [2]

Thus, the coronavirus has provided a drastic increase in news traffic, but this is traffic that is most likely blocked for ad display and therefore hard to monetize. “Publishers are the only ones who are punished, in an advertising sense, for reporting and distributing the news that society desperately needs,” said an expert quoted by The Guardian.[3]

Television

Nielsen expects that staying home could lead to a 60% increase in the amount of content watched. But most of this increased media consumption will fall to online video, games and online TV/streaming, depending on age. Traditional TV will share this growth in media consumption with other media. In South Korea and Italy, the increase in TV viewing during the quarantine has reached 17% and 6.5-12%, respectively.[4]

Nevertheless, the quarantine has boosted the ratings of major TV channels. At the beginning of the quarantine, Fox News saw a 60% increase (4.4 million viewers), CNN a 119% (2.2 million) increase and MSNBC a 37% (2.9 million) increase in primetime viewership.[5]

Despite the skyrocketing ratings, TV business is hurting, as advertising and the economy in general are in decline. Newsweek reported that, “During the same week the cable news networks saw a spike in viewership, shares of Fox were down 21 percent while shares of MSNBC parent Comcast were off 15 percent and shares of AT&T, the owner of CNN, were off 18 percent.”[6]

Some experts say that TV will not even restore the previous levels of ad revenue after the crisis because some advertisers “use coronavirus as an excuse to accelerate a shift of ad budgets to digital outlets.”[7] Without the monopoly of the distant past, TV will not enjoy the loyalty of either viewers or advertisers.

Besides ad money getting frozen or flying away, TV has issues with show production. Without a cheering audience, certain shows look not so sparkling, to say the least. At first, Trevor Noah or Jimmy Fallon broadcasting from their home seems fresh and intriguing. But after 15 minutes, they are no different from what is already in abundance on YouTube. The wild-growing video content of the net is so plentiful and involves so many talents, stories, and celebrities that, being selected by the viral editor,[8] it raises up the best of the best, who can surely compete with Kimmel or Corden.

Deprived of their industrial armada, homely dressed and slightly unshaved, a late show TV star is just another cool influencer. But cool influencers, cool jokes, cool scripts, cool stories, and even cool celebrities Skyped on the screen are plentiful on the net. This all can be and is done in DIY mode; there is no way for TV to preserve exclusivity in such a mode.

What YouTube lacks is the orchestra. The spacious and fashionably designed studio with the exalted and well-trained audience. The sidekick anchors with their own part and podium. All this machinery distinguished industrial TV from amateur video. The Broadway-scale glare was a decisive feature that divided an abstract Fallon with his millions of fans from an abstract PewDiePie with his billions of followers.

Content is not the king, content is plentiful; budget is the king. The cost of a show is the cost of entry. The coronavirus has cancelled the studio and equalized a TV star with a YouTube star. Without the Broadway glare and spangle, TV shows will dissolve in the amateur talents’ digital contest. It will ruin their ratings in months. Watching other people’s Zoom meetings is already boring.

Kids, entertainment and discovery TV will not have a hard time, as long as they have a store of series and shows for several months. The most desperate fate is going to hit the sports channels. Just weeks ago, sports broadcasting was deemed to be the last resort for traditional TV to sustain. Now, all the sport events are gone, except for the Belarusian soccer championship, which some experts now suggest broadcasting, as there are no other available events for sports channels.

The forecast: For the duration of the quarantine, traditional TV will see some ratings surge and some ad recession. The ratings surge will be gone when the quarantine ends; the ad recession, not entirely. After going back to normal life, TV will return to its slowly declining trajectory, with some loss in advertisers who use the quarantine to migrate to cheaper and better targeting digital platforms.

Radio

Radio suffered the least from the rise of the internet, because people listened to radio mostly in cars, when their eyes and hands are prohibited from using better gadgets. Few people, only 31%,[9] listened to radio at home. But the roads are empty now and people are stuck at homes.

Radio is not as interesting market as TV, so the statistics on it are not clear yet. The signals about the listening habits of quarantined people are contradictory. A Nielsen survey found that 28% of people say they are listening to the radio more than they did before, while 55% say they listen about the same amount, and 17% less.[10] It is hard to say if this user self-assessment is accurate, as it goes against logic. Radio does not seem to be a medium of choice when the entire sensorium is not restrained by driving and is free to explore all the amazing digital seductions.

Other surveys strengthen this doubt. The Global Web Index found that listening to radio is one of the lower media preferences of people jailed at home. The largest share of the media consumption increase went, depending on age, to video games, TV, online TV/streaming, online videos and other kinds of digital fun.[11]

Graphics: Visual Capitalist, Data: Global Web Index.

To project the fate of radio during the quarantine, circumstantial evidence helps the most. According to different data, motor traffic has dropped by 60%[12] to even 90%[13] in different areas Radio thrived on traffic, and now this condition is gone.

This is not for long – traffic will restore and continue worsening when (if) normal life returns. So, radio will fully recover.

The forecast: Radio is badly suffering from the pandemic, but only temporarily. Radio will be back on the horse when horses are back on the road after the quarantine. Radio will be killed not by the pandemic or the internet but by self-driving cars.

Print

Newspapers had been in dramatic decline but still had about five years of agony and another 10 years of convulsions ahead. The pandemic has accelerated this process incredibly. “We are all going to jump ahead three years,” said Mike Orren of The Dallas Morning News in NiemanLab. He is an optimist. We are going to jump right to the end.

Newspapers cohabitate with the virus in the same ecological niche – they need physical contact with people. Physical isolation has prevented the distribution of newspapers even more effectively than that of the virus.

Print across the globe has started to cease being printed. Murdock’s News Corp suspended print editions of 60 local newspapers in Australia.[14] In Russia, three mainstream papers: RBC, Vedomosti and Izvestia put printing on hold until better days.[15] Canadian papers have started laying off journalists and limiting printing to Saturday editions only.[16] The British Independent Community News Network, which represents 108 UK hyperlocal publishers, warned that communities across the UK will lose their independent press in the coming weeks.[17]

Strikingly, all of this is happening amid the skyrocketing traffic on news media sties. The pandemic has been crunch time, when journalists work hard and do their best. The demand for news is huge but has not paid off.

UK newspapers run unified front page amid coronavirus pandemic: We’re #ThereWithYou – USA TODAY

Halted distribution and business troubles are not the only issues that physical isolation from readers have brought to newspapers. Unlike radio and TV, print is the material news medium. The materiality of newspapers had been deemed their most attractive feature that was allegedly slowing down their decline. People were said to like the smell of ink and holding paper sheets. Now, the very way of tactile interaction with newspapers is becoming a major threat to the press.

The pandemic will change the tactile habits of the masses. Millions will join in the ranks of germophobes. This shift in tactility will have an environmental and long-lasting impact on print media that will complete the fatal blow dealt by the disruption in distribution and advertising.

A recent New York Times’ column titled “Bail Out Journalists. Let Newspaper Chains Die.” has made a splash in the industry.[18] This might be a timely strategy for publishers, governments and the public, because print spending only diverts resources from the actually important assets of the print media – people and news.

Without sponsors and government intervention, newspapers will die in 2020–2021, not in the 2030s, as it had been previously scheduled. However, even sponsors and governments will ask: Why paper? Indeed, why?

The transition of old print newsrooms into the digital environment will not solve the problem, as they will face there the same issues that new media newsrooms already struggle with: the lack of a reliable business model for news production. Here, perhaps, the foundation, governmental and crowdsourcing/membership funding will help, though these forms of funding force journalism to mutate from news production to propaganda and activism. But this is another issue that is far less relevant amid the pandemic, the extinction-level event for old media.

The forecast. Not only has the quarantine physically isolated people from newspapers, the pandemic has also radically changed the tactile habits of millions. This is crucial. Newspapers are dying right now and will not come to life after; at least not on paper. The death of print is going to become one of the most significant media effects of the coronavirus.

Andrey Miroshnichenko

Author of Human as media. The emancipation of authorship – available on Amazon

Msm_amir_coverCC.indd

_________________________

[1] McLuhan, Marshall. (1964). Understanding media. P. 222.

[2] Graham, Megan. (2020, March 29). “News sites ask for advertisers to stop blocking their ads from appearing on coronavirus-related content.” CNBC. https://www.cnbc.com/2020/03/29/news-sites-ask-brands-to-get-advertise-alongside-covid-19-content.html

[3] Sweney, Mark. (2020, April 1). “Newspapers to lose £50m in online ads as firms use coronavirus ‘blacklist’”. The Guardian. https://www.theguardian.com/media/2020/apr/01/newspapers-to-lose-50m-in-online-ads-as-firms-use-coronavirus-blacklist

[4] Lafayette, Jon. (2020, Mar 16). Media Usage Expected to Rise During Crisis: Nielsen. Broadcastin+Cable. https://www.broadcastingcable.com/news/media-usage-expected-to-rise-during-crisis-nielsen

[5] Bond, Paul. (2020, March 23). “Ratings Skyrocket for Cable News Amid Wall-to-Wall Coronavirus Coverage.” Newsweek. https://www.newsweek.com/ratings-skyrocket-cable-news-amid-wall-wall-coronavirus-coverage-1493836

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Miroshnichenko, Andrey. (2013). “The Manifesto of the Viral Editor.” In: Human as media. https://human-as-media.com/2013/11/13/manifesto-of-the-viral-editor/

[9] “Audio Today 2019. How America Listens.” Nielsen. https://www.nielsen.com/wp-content/uploads/sites/3/2019/06/audio-today-2019.pdf

[10] Neilsen. (2020. March 26). “Radio is ‘Comfort Food’ As Media Consumption Rises Amid COVID-19 Pandemic.” https://www.nielsen.com/us/en/insights/article/2020/radio-is-comfort-food-as-media-consumption-rises-amid-covid-19-pandemic/

[11] Global Web Index. Coronavirus Research. April 2020. Series 4: Media Consumption and Sport. https://www.globalwebindex.com/hubfs/1.%20Coronavirus%20Research%20PDFs/GWI%20coronavirus%20findings%20April%202020%20-%20Media%20Consumption%20(Release%204).pdf

[12] Carrington, Damian. (2020, April 3). “Motor traffic and air pollution decline steeply, with walking and cycling in cities also down.” The Guardian. https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2020/apr/03/uk-road-travel-falls-to-1955-levels-as-covid-19-lockdown-takes-hold-coronavirus-traffic

[13] Cuthbertson, Anthony. (2020, March 30). “Coronavirus lockdown causes London traffic to drop 90%, Citymapper app reveals.” The Independent. https://www.independent.co.uk/life-style/gadgets-and-tech/news/coronavirus-lockdown-london-citymapper-app-traffic-data-a9434841.html

[14] Meade, Amanda. (2020, April 1). “News Corp to suspend print editions of 60 local newspapers as advertising revenue slumps.” The Guardian. https://www.theguardian.com/media/2020/apr/01/news-corp-to-suspend-print-editions-of-60-local-newspapers-as-advertising-revenue-slumps

[15] Мишина, Ирина. (2020, 30 марта). «Бумага стерпит? Коронавирус серьезно ударил по печатным СМИ». Новые Известия. https://newizv.ru/news/society/30-03-2020/koronavirus-ubivaet-poslednie-pechatnye-smi-no-oni-ne-sdayutsya

[16] Bernhard, Daniel. (2020, March 27). “Our media is on the brink of mass failure.” The Toronto Star. https://www.thestar.com/opinion/contributors/2020/03/27/our-media-is-on-the-brink-of-mass-failure.html

[17] Abbott, Matt. (2020, March 25). “An open letter calling for support of ICNN members in this time of global crisis.” ICNN. https://www.communityjournalism.co.uk/an-open-letter-calling-for-support-of-icnn-members-in-this-time-of-global-crisis/

[18] Smith, Ben. (2020, March 29). “Bail Out Journalists. Let Newspaper Chains Die.” The New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/2020/03/29/business/coronavirus-journalists-newspapers.html



Categories: Decline of newspapers, Future of journalism, Future of news, Media ecology

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