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How is COVID-19 affecting the media?

CISION’s Annual State of the Media report, released on 23 April, is just one of many to point out the current paradox in the media. The good news is that demand for quality journalism has risen since the start of the crisis. Fake news is out. Trust is back. During a health emergency, in an online environment swirling with conspiracy theories and quack remedies, there is an understandable thirst for reliable information.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, we are turning back to trusted media brands. Online newspapers have seen record readership levels since the start of the crisis, in particular The Sun, Daily Mail and Guardian – all sites that don’t sit behind paywalls. The Financial Times, Telegraph and Guardian have all reported increases in subscribers and engagements as well as traffic, with the FT reporting a ten-fold increase

Audiences for traditional television channels and local news media are also up significantly. The BBC is now reaching an audience of more than 20m a week across its evening news bulletins at 6pm and 10pm, while ITV, Channel 4 News and Sky News have all reported huge increases in viewing figures ranging from a third to triple. These figures include young people, previously thought to be lost to traditional media. In the US, visits to local news sites were up 89% in March compared to February. In the business world, B2B trade media is strengthening its role as a source of community information, assurance, and advice between peers. 

The sting in the tail is funding. The lockdown response to COVID-19 has deepened many trends towards digitisation, from remote working to streaming TV and music, and the shift from print to online media consumption is no different. According to data from distributor Smiths New, national newspaper sales fell over a fifth between the middle and end of March.

The problem is that many media organisations are still migrating their business models, subsidising free online services with print sales and advertising, both of which have dropped off a cliff since March. The Guardian has reported that print advertising revenue across all titles is down by about 80% since the start of the pandemic. Enders Analysis is pointing towards as much as £450m of lost advertising revenue for the UK news and magazine industry this year, roughly 30% of the annual total. This comes in addition to lost revenue from print sales, which could total another £150m. Newspapers from the FT to Daily Express have been forced to furlough staff and cut executive pay.

The question is whether this will be enough. Unfortunately, despite 200,000 new customers signing up to News UK’s ‘Deliver My Newspaper’ in the first few weeks of lockdown, you can tell from the Ender Analysis figures that increases in subscriptions would need to be in extremely large numbers to offset lost advertising revenue.

As with other businesses, media organisations are now being forced to evaluate their purpose and the type of content they should be producing in order to survive. They need to keep us informed and entertained, but they also need to cut through the fog of information and create distinctive brands that attract new audiences and build loyal, long-term relationships with audiences. Those who are successful will build more resilient operations, driving subscriptions and paving the way for the return of advertising revenue.

Reflecting their vital role in society, journalists are currently designated as key workers by the UK government. The hope is that, as with other essential workers whose role has been better appreciated since the start of this crisis, we will value their services properly when all of this is over.

What does this mean for PR and communications strategies where media engagement is key? Here are five top tips from us:

  1. Be useful, accurate, relevant and timely – with additional pressure on journalists, both in terms of time and results, content needs to be relevant and useful to their audiences
  2. The value of expertise – journalists need experts who can explain the rapid changes taking place in our lives and the industries we work in. This is particularly true for broadcast and trade media
  3. Creativity cuts through – even with serious factual reporting, editors are looking for positive stories and fresh ways to illustrate them. In an environment in which movement is restricted, clever ideas for how to tell and illustrate stories will stand out
  4. Think digital – many news organisations already employ data visualisation and social media teams to translate stories into engaging digital content. The huge shift to online editions makes it even more important to consider how stories will resonate for media across different platforms
  5. Personalisation matters – journalists have told CISION that they appreciate PR approaches that are tailored to their audiences. Well considered and exclusively offered ideas are more highly valued and are likely to get greater prominence, so it’s worth picking the ideal media targets for a campaign and designing content to match them

For further advice on communicating during these unprecedented times, please see our Speed Support Centre.

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