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March 27, 2020, 8:10 p.m.

Newsonomics: What was once unthinkable is quickly becoming reality in the destruction of local news

The coronavirus pandemic is proving the value of local news to millions of readers, driving up subscriptions. But the advertising collapse is knee-buckling. “If it’s a couple of months, we’ll make it through. If it’s six months, all bets are off.”

As words like “annihilation” and “extinction” enter our news vocabulary — or at least move from debates over the years-away future to the frighteningly contemporary — it’s helpful to start out with the good news. Maybe even an old joke.

What’s black and white and now deemed “essential”?

Newspapers, of course — the communications medium that, along with its media peers, has been formally recognized as a public good by cities and states trying to determine which slices of their economies not to shut down. Factual local reporting is indeed an “essential” in an age of fear and misinformation.

That’s the sliver of silver lining in this time of unprecedented financial stress. Our work, as journalists and as institutions, is being consumed and appreciated.

“We’ve gotten all these great letters that ‘Our respect and admiration for your work has never been higher,” says Star Tribune publisher Mike Klingensmith, whose Minneapolis daily has seen big spikes in readership as well.

“Your reporting during the COVID-19 crisis has been top-drawer and inspired me, finally, to execute the much overdue annual subscription ‘donation’,” one new member wrote Colorado Sun editor Larry Ryckman this week. “Please keep up the good work and know that your reporting is incredibly valuable, not merely during this crisis.”

Colorado Public Radio also feels the love, including this heartfelt tweet:

“Audience feedback and digital use has been tremendous, and the numbers are stunning,” sums up Colorado Public Radio head Stewart Vanderwilt.

A giant story like coronavirus is often when journalists feel most connected to the sense of mission that got them into this line of work. It’s the love — plus a much-appreciated viral bump in audience, subscriptions, and memberships — that is buoying otherwise overwhelmed publishers and newsrooms.

More bittersweet is how one innovative local news exec put it to me: “This may be our last chance to prove how valuable we are.”

CNN, MSNBC, The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, NPR, the AP, and more are providing the national reporting. They show us, through words and graphics and images, the scale of the tragedy and the many flaws in the federal government’s response to the crisis. But they can’t answer the fundamentally local questions urgent on minds nationwide.

How many people are sick near me? How well equipped is my hospital? Where can and can’t I go? What’s my mayor or my governor doing to help? Who can deliver what? Where can I get tested? And a hundred other perhaps life-or-death decisions as half of Americans nervously face indefinite home detention.

Many of the country’s 20,000-plus journalists have risen to the occasion, working the phones, filing remotely, and venturing out into the invisible threat to get the stories that require the sight or even touch of other humans. All while wondering: How long will I have my job?

That’s the terrible irony of this moment. The amount of time Americans spend with journalists’ work and their willingness to pay for it have both spiked, higher than at any point since Election 2016, maybe before. But the business that has supported these journalists — shakily, on wobbly wheels — now finds the near future almost impossible to navigate.

The question of the hour: How many journalists will still have jobs once the initial virus panic subsides? How much factually reported news — especially local news — will Americans be able to get in the aftermath of this siege?

The answer lies in great part on the people in those quotes above: It is readers and their willingness to support the news who increasingly distinguish the survivors from those facing the end of the road. Advertising, which has been doing a slow disappearing act since 2008, has been cut in half in the space of two weeks. It’s unlikely to come back quickly — the parts that do come back at all.

The problem is the same it’s been for years: The increases in reader revenue are outmatched by the declines in advertising. So this very welcome swell of support from audiences is being swamped by the much larger evaporation of ad revenue. News publishers nationwide are afflicted with existential gut checks — aches that get a little worse with each day’s new dot on the chart of coronavirus cases.

Let’s look first at the cliff-edge effects — which are dramatic — and then plumb the good news of reader engagement and subscription. In an upcoming piece, peering ahead five years or so, I’ll take a look at the big takeaways and likely longer-term impacts of this sudden twist of fate.

A profound advertising crisis

This event isn’t just a black swan, Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s parlance for an unexpected happening that forever alters the course of history. For dailies — in the U.S., in Canada, in the U.K., and really globally — it’s a flock of black swans.

Why? The daily newspaper industry has been on a respirator of its own for more than a decade. Ever since the Great Recession sucked 17 percent of advertising oxygen out of the system in 2008 — then another 27 percent in 2009 — it’s been climbing uphill, its gasps growing more frantic as financial operators consolidate and stripmine what was once a profoundly local industry. All together, American newspapers have lost more than 70 percent of their ad dollars since 2006.

The industry enters this turning-point event with about $1 billion remaining in total annual profits. That’s a fraction of what it was at its height, but it’s still a lot of money — which is why the financial consolidation I’ve chronicled over the last year has continued.

If the massive ad losses we’re now beginning to see remain in place for months, all of that profitability will be gone, and then some. We’ll enter a new stage of loss: The news deserts will become the norm, the oases the rarity.

How bad is it out there? The overall ad business — call it advertising, sponsorship, underwriting — is in depression.

I’ve spoken with more than a dozen well-placed executives in the industry, and the consensus is that, in April, daily publishers will lose between 30 and 50 percent of their total ad revenue. Things are unlikely to improve until we’re past mass sequestration, whenever that is.

“We’re hitting the end of March,” one highly experienced ad exec told me. “We see what’s coming. Big, big misses [of revenue expectations].”

The numbers are necessarily imprecise, and they change daily. March, ironically enough, started surprisingly strong for some publishers. Several noted stable businesses, even a little growth here and there.

Then the virus. April will start off with many fewer bookings and many more cancellations. The second quarter is one big question mark, but publishers also know what a 50 percent drop isn’t even the worst-case scenario. Retailers are closed. Car dealers aren’t selling. Few people are hiring, and who’s brave enough to venture into a new house or apartment to look around?

Then there’s preprints. These Sunday circulars and inserts have remained a robust, high-margin product for many publishers. But many of the big-box stores that paid for them are now closed, including major (if perennially dwindling) retailer Macy’s. Those that remain open, the Targets and Walgreens and grocery stores, wonder what they can advertise; supply chains for both essentials and non-essentials remains uncertain, and people aren’t doing a lot of spontaneous shopping sparked by a deal in an ad.

Is anything holding up okay? The legal ads that newspaper carry of official government actions. Obituaries (darkly enough). And, where they’re legal (and have been allowed to remain open), marijuana dispensaries. (They deliver!)

But the uncertainty is near-universal. “Even those who have something to sell are really concerned about doing it,” one revenue exec told me. “They’re unclear on how to get their message right and not seeming to profiteer.”

Seattle Times president Alan Fisco provides detail:

We have seen deep losses, not surprisingly, in travel, entertainment, restaurant, auto advertising (particularly in our smaller markets, Yakima and Walla Walla).

Our projections show April to be significantly worse than the hit we are taking in March. The annual print declines look to be double what we were experiencing prior to this.

And in spite of significant traffic increases, while we are seeing an increase in programmatic [advertising], it isn’t enough to offset our O&O [self-sold advertising] losses and some of our audience extension product losses (search and social).

(The Seattle Times’ remarkable coverage of the country’s first hotspot was highlighted here.)

Most local dailies have entered this crisis still more dependent on ad revenue than on reader revenue, even though the percentages have moved closer to parity after three years of double-digit print ad decline. They have envied The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and The Washington Post for having achieved business models based primarily on reader revenue.

(Ironically, coronavirus will likely push a lot of local publishers into that elite club — but through cratered ad revenue, not soaring reader revenue.)

The devastation across news media is universal but, inevitably, uneven. All local sources of news — daily newspapers, local digital, public radio stations, local TV stations — are reporting deepening losses.

It’s those most reliant on advertising that are most at risk. As reported earlier here at the Lab, it’s alternative weeklies and other free papers that look to be in the first trench. Significantly, the alt-weekly trade entered this year weaker than it’s ever been; no more than a dozen of them nationwide could be called significantly profitable, sources tell me.

“Eighty percent of our advertisers are restaurants, clubs, performance venues and all that is gone for at least two months,” one alt-weekly publisher told me Thursday, underlining how alt-weeklies’ strength — their connection to a vibrant city life — has turned against them.

Among independent digital sites, many of them members of LION Publishers and/or INN, sponsorship/advertising has indeed taken a hit. But since few depend overwhelmingly on it, the effects are worrisome more than catastrophic.

“Ironically, the nonprofits we’re hearing from with struggles right now are those that have done a lot to diversify their revenue streams,” says Sue Cross, executive director of INN, the Institute for Nonprofit News. These are news organizations that were doing a lot of events — now cancelled and with a less-certain future. Or they had big in-person spring fundraisers now forced to pivot to virtual, but that doesn’t replace substantial sponsorship revenue.

Five years ago, Ted Williams founded Charlotte Agenda, one of the liveliest and most commercially savvy sites on the emerging landscape. CA is taking some fire, but has so far it’s been manageable:

Revenues are down around 25 percent. This decrease consists of the drop-in job postings, event listings, and short-term ad deals. We’re fortunate that over 65 percent of our revenue comes from 12-month sponsorship deals across 28 big brands, most of which are negotiated in late fall.

Public radio, too, which depends more greatly on membership revenue than on advertising (or underwriting, as they call it), is also taking a hit.

“On the revenue side, we could see a negative swing of as much as $2 million in the final quarter, ending June 30,” says Vanderwilt of Colorado Public Radio, which has seen a remarkable surge of online readership and radio listenership. “Thirty to forty percent of our sponsorship is from the categories most immediately impacted by the need for social distancing and actual shutdowns. Arts, entertainment, events, restaurants, clubs — and education. Just about all have cancelled/paused their schedules.”

“We have seen some upticks in unsolicited donations coming in,” says Tim Olson, senior vice president of strategic relationships at KQED, the nation’s biggest regional station. But it too has suffered some sponsor loss and is, for now at least, forgoing another tried-and-true revenue source:

Public media stations, particularly news and information public radio stations, have almost all cancelled their on-air pledge drives in order to continue uninterrupted coverage of COVID-19. On air drives are critical drivers of new donors, and reminder to current donors, so the loss of on-air drives is likely to have an effect.

Local TV stations are also assessing what the spring will look like. Several are forecasting a 20 to 30 percent loss at this point in advertising. While they don’t have reader revenue, their ample retransmission fee contracts provide a big steady source of income.

Even with record consumption of digital news, advertising there is fetching far less than you might think. The reasons are straightforward: Many advertisers specify that they don’t want their products to appear next to a virus-related story — and that’s where most of the traffic is, of course. And with all businesses on temporary hold, demand for advertising is down.

That has led programmatic pricing, several publishers say, to be down about 30 percent. One told me it’s now dropping closer to 50 percent as society closes more doors.

In any event, all legacy local media — newspapers, TV, and public radio — are still much more reliant on their core legacy revenue than on digital dollars. So even increases in digital revenue don’t do much to counter the current big declines elsewhere.

The public’s hunger for local news is proven

That’s a lot of bleakness in advertising. But amid it all, there’s a little sunshine in digital subscriptions — the closest thing to a path forward for local newspapers.

Mike Orren, chief product officer at The Dallas Morning News, ticks off these amazing numbers: “Pageviews are up 90 percent. Users are up 70 percent. New users are up 75 percent. Sessions are up 96 percent. Sessions per user are up 14 percent. Session duration is up 9 percent.” And all that has pumped up digital subs.

Digital subscriptions are way up at the strongest local newspapers, with new weekly signups up 2× to 5× over pre-virus times. That’s thousands of much-needed new customers.

(How well are the two general-news pay leaders, The New York Times and The Washington Post, doing? They won’t say. We’ll find out the Times’ experience at its next earnings report.)

That kind of digital subscription growth is widely reported among medium-to-large local papers that do two things well: (1) fund a newsroom able to cover the local crisis in knowledgable depth; (2) have a system in place that facilitates quick and easy subscription signups.

Many newspapers fail to meet both those criteria, and they’ve seen a flatter growth ramp.

Notably, several publishers say that lots of people aren’t waiting to hit a paywall and run out of free articles for the month — they’re hitting those Subscribe buttons earlier and unprompted. They’re acting on both the value of the journalism and the community service.

One other indication of increased loyalty: fewer subscription cancellations. Churn is down. “We’re adding 50 to 70 subscribers every single day and seeing very little churn,” Tampa Bay Times editor Mark Katches told the Local News Initiative. “Churn is as common as the sunrise, but we’re experiencing the lowest churn rate this month that we’ve seen since we introduced the pay meter about a year ago. We attribute that to high interest in our coverage.”

The New York Times requires a new user’s registration in order to have free access to its coronavirus coverage. But most publishers have just opened their coverage up without any friction.

The Dallas Morning News’ strategy is somewhere nuanced and in between. It requires readers to sign up for a virus newsletter in order to get to unlimited related coverage, but it doesn’t require any more information than an email address. “It’s less friction,” Orren says. The idea has paid dividends: That newsletter now has an astounding 334,000 subscribers.

Some of more ambitious local news startups also report impressive numbers. The 18-month-old Colorado Sun is seeing a spurt.

“We have had nearly 600 new members sign up so far this month,” editor Ryckman told me Wednesday. “We signed up 330 new members in February, so we’re easily on track to double that pace by the end of the month.” The site overall has more than 8,000 paying members, with about 1,400 of those at the premium level. “Our traffic has been regularly 3× a normal day — and has been has high as 10×,” he said.

The Daily Memphian, also about 18 months old, is seeing a response both to its coverage and to appeals from its editor Eric Barnes: “Sub starts have jumped 250 percent in the last 2 weeks. And that’s even though we’ve made all our COVID stories free (and that’s 80 percent or more of what we’re doing).”

Barnes underlines the need to remind readers of the costs of journalism. “But we’ve been very intentional with calls to action in stories and newsletters, along the lines of “Our articles are free — but covering the news is not. Please subscribe.” (Memphian sports columnist Geoff Calkins wrote his own direct appeal to readers, aiming to reach a different kind of reader-relationship connection.)

LION Publishers executive director Chris Krewson reports good uptake among his more aggressive member local news orgs. “Berkeleyside has signed up 267 new members since starting a campaign around the virus a few weeks ago, and also gotten donations from existing members, for a total of $50,000 in new-member revenue. The Berkshire Eagle launched a membership campaign and already has 300 members.”

“Many members are reporting huge increases in traffic — five, even ten times their normal pageviews, and also increases in community support and donations,” says INN’s Cross. “Even very small sites are hosting Facebook groups and seeing thousands join overnight, organizing collaboratives of all media in their towns.”

Pulitzer-winning Portland alt-weekly Willamette Week launched a voluntary membership program back in September. As of week ago, it had signed up 510 members. Seven days later and more than 1,100 new members have signed up. “In addition to the much-needed cash, those [and their comments] are tonic for the soul,” publisher and editor Mark Zusman told me Thursday.

For public radio, this crisis has been more about affirming its valued place in listeners’ and readers’ lives — in greater engagement — than in signing up new members. Over the past five years, most of the top 20 public radio stations have morphed more fully into “public media,” investing heavily in digital local news. Those that did are also reaping the returns.

“As of yesterday, had over 2 million uniques and [on its separate site] Denverite 500,000,” says CPR’s Vanderwilt. That’s double and quadruple normal traffic, respectively. “The daily Lookout newsletter subs have grown 36 percent since March 1. We have also started publishing twice a day plus news alerts. Open rate has climbed from 32 percent to 41 percent.”

The public, for now, is eating up the added frequency and opening more of those newsletters. At KQED, pageviews have doubled and time spent on pages is up by a quarter. Overall, the public’s hunger for local news at this time is proven.

At metros, daily visits on digital are up an average of 122 percent as of the third week of March. And the pace is accelerating: “a 35% increase from Week 2 to Week 3 [and] no signs of slowing down as we enter the last week of March,” according to Pete Doucette, now a managing director at FTI Consulting. Doucette played a big part in building The Boston Globe’s digital audience and subscription business. His comprehensive take on digital subscriptions, and how to maximize both volume and pricing at this critical juncture is a must-read for all in the business. (The Local News Initiative at Medill offers an excellent roundup as well. )

These trends, we must underline, are global — both the traffic gains and the revenue losses. Major German publishers like Bild and Spiegel Online “all have huge gains,” according to journalist Ulrike Langer. “But none of these publishers have been able to monetize their huge rise in traffic volume in terms of advertising. Ad volume has sharply declined and most advertisers don’t want to see their ads next to coronavirus news.” Different continent, same issue.

What’s left to be “unthinkable”?

Humans are inherently adaptable. We have the life-affirming (and seemingly planet-destroying) capability of adapting to anything. We will adapt here too, no matter the human nor economic toll. A scale of destruction that would have once been “unthinkable” becomes quite thinkable indeed — then assessable, and then actionable. Those of us who’ve tracked the shrinking of the American press should have learned that lesson already.

We all expected a recession would arrive at some point, even if we thought of it kind of distantly, and we knew it would deal a new blow to the beleaguered newspaper industry. (In fact, I see that I’ve noted that possibility here at least three dozen times over the years — including this 2011 (!) entry, The newsonomics of the next recession.”)

Now that it’s arrived on our doorstep, our language has changed. Less “decline” and “deterioration,” more “annihilation” and “extinction“.

“Extinction” certainly draws a sharp picture, and it will be literally true for some of the press. But that picture may not be the most precise. More journalists gone. More publishers gone. Local news greatly reduced.

That’s all coming. But how do we — and the publics we serve — gauge what’s left?

The cuts at alt-weeklies and city magazines became public first. The earliest reports of cuts and layoffs at daily newspapers have begun to seep out. Expect a lot more of them. “Everyone’s making contingency plans,” one industry insider says. Layoffs, furloughs, salary cuts, four-day weeks — however it’s framed, cuts to staffing are on the way.

The fact that readers’ newfound appreciation of the local press is based on the work of those reporters and those newsrooms should limit the cuts. But they often won’t. And then there are the newspapers that have already been cut so much that they barely have enough people to put out a paper everyday. (And that’s before we see much of the most direct impact coronavirus can have on a news organization: sick journalists and other staffers whose extended absence from work makes everything harder.)

One wild card: the federal bailout, which features loans that can be turned into grants if companies maintain staffing. But it remains unclear if the scale of that help — and how accessible it is to publishers — will be enough to make a big difference.

Several years ago, Penny Abernathy’s mapping of America’s “news deserts” established a universal point of reference for discussions about local news. I’ve suggested that, for all the communities down to one or zero news sources, the bigger problem is the ghost newspapers that now pervade the landscape, stripped to the skeleton.

This crisis, like the declines of the past decade, will probably be less about pure extinction and more about new apparitions. Newspapers gutted in a way previously “unthinkable.” Badly wounded (but still faintly breathing) dinosaurs, if you will.

How do we judge if a newspaper is still “alive”? By most definitions, it’s the appearance of a product, usually in print but now digital, that carries a dignified nameplate, preferably in a familiar German blackletter font.

The financial companies that have and will continue to consolidate the local press — perhaps now at an accelerated pace — know that, and they’ve build a cynical strategy atop it. Keep the nameplate and fill the space between the ads with national wire copy, stories pretending to be “local” (but really from someplace three newspapers away), self-serving columns from mayors and local corporate leaders, and lots of low-cost calendar items.

“Fake news” is a truly odious epithet. But we’re now truly into the faux news era in local news. It’s a thin patina of fraudulent localness, packaged in the wrappings of a century ago, and priced at $600, $700, or $800 a year for seniors who nostalgically (or unknowingly, through the magic of the credit card) continue to pay until the day they don’t.

If we define “life” — or non-extinction — by the mere persistence of an old nameplate, we obscure the damage being done to local communities every single day. As we begin to list out the longer-term impacts of the current catastrophe, put that one higher on the list.

All of this — this March massacre of news revenue — is prologue, of course. We just don’t yet know what it’s prologue to. The 2020 calendar has never looked longer.

As one of the most successful, optimistic, and progressive of today’s publishers told me: “If it’s a couple of months, we’ll make it through. If it’s six months, all bets are off.”

“Pandæmonium” by the English painter John Martin (1841) via Wikimedia Commons.

POSTED     March 27, 2020, 8:10 p.m.
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