It’s still hard to fathom the impact of the COVID-19 crisis on journalism, even two months into most countries’ lockdowns.
On the one hand, sustained and unprecedented demand from audiences for trustworthy information presents an incredible opportunity for independent media; a chance to showcase the value of good journalism and hopefully build lasting relationships with millions of new viewers, listeners, and readers.
On the other hand, the decimation of advertising is disintegrating what little remains of the sector’s traditional financial model. It is alarming that media outlets are closing all over the world, even as demand for their reporting reaches unprecedented levels.
This strange contradiction was vibrantly illustrated in The New York Times’ first quarterly report for 2020. Despite an incredible 10% boost in total subscription base (up 587,000 [taking their total subscriber numbers] to over 6 million) and double the site traffic (a record 2.5 billion page views in March alone, taking in half of all American adults), the paper was still warning of a 55% drop in ad revenue for the second quarter of 2020.
CEO Mark Thompson acknowledged that while many media outlets were in a worse financial position than the NYT, weathering the crisis despite these pressures would generate recognition and loyalty among audiences: “I think moments like this — this extraordinary and terrible experience in which this country and this world is going through — is a moment for news organizations and newspapers to find audiences and prove the value of trustworthy news,” he told CNN.
One view is that the pandemic is simply accelerating trends that were already well under way: advertising is dead, long live reader revenue. But such prognostication shouldn’t keep us from paying attention and taking advantage of this incredible opportunity to better understand what audiences want and need. Now is the moment for all of us to take copious notes.
Smaller independent outlets around the world are seeing boosted audiences, too. Lina Ejeilat is executive editor of Jordan-based independent news site 7iber, which has seen an 85% increase in page views from mid-March to mid-April. She observed during a recent webinar with the Program on Independent Journalism at Open Society Foundations that one of 7iber’s most successful and widely-shared articles had been an explainer on the science of ventilators. There wasn’t, Lina suggested, much of this kind of in-depth topical journalism being produced in Arabic.
Moreover, while much of the traffic increase was from inside Jordan, 7iber’s coverage of conditions facing Egyptian migrant workers was shared among this neglected demographic and brought an entirely new audience to the outlet.
Fumaça, a Lisbon-based podcast producer focused on human rights and marginalized communities, took another approach: recognizing that Portugal’s mainstream media was already doing a decent job covering the public health crisis, the small team doubled down on its original investigations.
Mo Tafech, fundraising and marketing manager for Fumaça, explained this was what the audience had asked for when surveyed: they wanted a community as much as a newsroom, and to participate in the journalism. Rather than trying to pull in new traffic with COVID-19 headlines and boosting Facebook posts, Fumaça focused on converting existing newsletter subscribers into paying members.
The strategy worked, bringing in 70 new paid members a month — now at 700 total, enough to cover the salaries of almost half the small team. Special members-only Ask Me Anything sessions with interviewees had been particularly successful in bringing in new members and revenue, Tafech said, as had a series of paid workshops on topics such as beginner podcasting, and low-budget marketing.
In Brazil, Agência Mural decided that there was currently no story more critical than COVID-19 and refocused accordingly. The outlet covers some of the poorest and most marginalized neighbourhoods in São Paulo, through its own news team and a network of over 70 local correspondents. Website views grew 169% in the first quarter, the majority of these came from organic searches (such as people coming from search engines such as Google), suggesting the people were actively seeking credible and accurate information on the crisis.
Aware of low levels of literacy and noticing that much disinformation around the virus was spreading on WhatsApp, Mural launched a daily eight-minute podcast called Em Quarentena — Quarantined — for distribution on WhatsApp. Distribution has since expanded to Spotify, YouTube and other channels, and now commercial and community radio stations.
Belgrade-based investigative journalism outlet KRIK focuses on crime and corruption reporting. COVID-19-related medical procurement has proved a fruitful vine here: in one recent report, journalists discovered that hospitals with infected staff had bought unreliable Chinese test kits, repackaged as Dutch, from a businessman already under investigation for extortion, money laundering, and criminal association.
At the same time, KRIK noticed the mainstream media in Serbia was actively publishing misinformation around COVID-19, from claims that it could be prevented with paprika to discredited reports the virus had been leaked from a laboratory. Many of these, explained journalist Jelena Vasić, were pulled from English or Russian media sources and published not to deceive, but “irresponsibly” for clicks.
Trump’s claims around injecting bleach may seem laughable to many. But disinformation on COVID-19 is a life-and-death issue in many countries with poor access to credible and trustworthy information: Iran’s national coroner recently revealed that 728 Iranians had died between February 20 and April 7 from drinking methanol, under the mistaken belief it would provide immunity to the virus (a further 90 went blind, while 5011 suffered from poisoning).
In Serbia, KRIK decided that the life-and-death nature of disinformation around COVID-19 made debunking it a priority and launched the live blog Raskrikavanje. This, said Vasić, was the most-read section of the site in March and April amid an already huge surge in traffic, suggesting a hunger for credible information in an environment of scarcity.
Clearly, understanding the needs of your audience has never been more crucial — whatever the economic model. Many journalists and media managers have observed that unlike most big stories which cause a spike in traffic for up to seven days, COVID-19 has seen sustained interest for almost three months at levels unprecedented since the dawn of the internet.
We can speculate that ‘credible information in a crisis’ is a driving force, hope that audiences will continue to seek out (and reward) trustworthy media that produce it, and do what we can to try and nurture these relationships once the dust settles. In the meantime, there’s a vast amount of new data to pick through. Audiences are telling us what they need — and we should listen.
- Who is this new audience? Are they loyal readers returning more often, or an entirely new group? How can I engage them further, and encourage them to stick?
- Where are the gaps in coverage and information in my country/region/language? What is my niche? What can I provide that nobody else can?
- Are there partner outlets I can collaborate with, extending my reach to new mediums and new audiences? (i.e. podcasters and local radio)
- COVID-19 is a long-running story, and covering it is a marathon not a sprint. Staff (and founding editors) need time to breathe, and flexibility to manage their own circumstances
- COVID-19’s next big story might be front of mind right now and next month’s bills a long way off, but do check out the Crisis Calculator for planning your spending in a pandemic
- Splice Newsroom has launched a virtual community for independent media, packed with regular online events. Check out Low-Res here
- GIJN has an excellent series of tips for covering the crisis safely and responsibility, presenting information without creating panic (available in multiple languages).
JJ Robinson is a program officer at the Open Society Foundations’ Program for Independent Journalism, which works to support a more independent, diverse, secure, and accountable media sector worldwide.