How Covid-19 Has Impacted News Publishers?

Updated on: January 3, 2024
“There is a definite slowdown in ad revenue with no decisions being taken and several deals being stalled for now.”

Weeks of lockdown, layoffs, and the economic downfall have made it clear that publishers have to face a disproportionate share of the loss because of the novel coronavirus. Different niches of the publishing industry are severely affected by the virus. Not only the world’s leading publishers are facing difficulties to minimize the impact, but also local publishers are struggling hard to maintain the equilibrium.

Of course, the pandemic has wide-range consequences for publishers from education, business, sports, and lifestyle niches. But the dilemma is in front of news publishers who are seeing a sharp increase in websites’ traffic. 

Why did we call it a dilemma? Well, we’ll have a clear picture of this in a bit. But before getting into it, let’s have a roundup of how the virus has affected news publishers to date.

Impact On Website Traffic

As the virus spreads across the world, people are increasingly staying indoors and seeking for more information on the web for updates about the epidemic. As a result, the traffic on news websites has boomed in the last few weeks.

“Many of us also have a bit more time to read the news as various institutions have been impacted by self-distancing measures and self-quarantines. People who have been asked to work from home, for example, may have some extra time as they no longer commute to an office.”

– Rani Molla, Senior Data Reporter, Recode.

Total visitors on digital news sites

General News Websites:

ComScore analyzed the number of visitors on 40 news websites and found that 100 million users visited the site in a week, up by 23.4% than the previous week of March. As compared to the first week of January, the traffic on general news websites has increased by 51% to 125% in different countries. 

While the number of visitors on news sites in France increased by 68%, Italy news publishers witnessed a huge spike in visitors by 125%.

Webstie Traffic on General News sites

Local News Websites:

Much similar to the General news publishers, local news publishers saw an increment in traffic by 45% – 158% on their websites. In fact, the percentage of increase in traffic for local news media outlets has exceeded that for general news sites’ traffic because more people are curious to know what is happening in their locality.

Publishers from Spain (that was hit hard by the pandemic in the mid of March) found out an increase of 158% in the website traffic, followed by French publishers who saw a spike of 125% in the number of visitors on their sites.

Webstie Traffic on Local News sites

In the United States, various news media outlets including Seattle Times, Boston Globe, San Francisco Chronicle, and many others have seen an increase of 100% – 150% in website traffic.

% change in US local news sites

Image Source – NYTimes

Publishers like The New York Times and Washington Post have recorded a spike of ~ 50% in the traffic as compared to February.

% change in US national news sites

Impact On Ad Revenue

In a nutshell, the traffic is surging for all news publishers whether they are local or national. But the paradox is that the ad revenues are plummeting as they aren’t able to monetize the huge amount of traffic coming to the sites with ads.

According to a survey conducted by IAB, nearly 88% of publishers had to cancel their advertising campaigns and 86% of publishers have been asked to pause the campaigns for an indefinite period of time.

How Advertisers have cut down their budget

And it is quite obvious. The pandemic has changed consumer habits and intensified threats for advertisers as well. Since people are ended up staying at home and only purchasing the essentials, advertisers (especially travel and tourism, and events and entertainments) are struggling hard to even connect with their consumers.

Gorden Borell, one of the advertising markets analyst, stated that local advertising will drop by 25% this year, as restaurants, bars, and other local businesses shutter temporarily and pull back spending.

“There is a definite slowdown in ad revenue with no decisions being taken and several deals being stalled for now.”

– Ritu Kapur, CEO, The Quint (Src).

change in spending by online consumers

On top of this, keyword blacklisting has caused a majority of advertisers to pull back their advertising budgets. Since the third-party ad measurement companies are blocking the ads placed next to the coronavirus content, advertisers don’t want to display their ads alongside the similar keywords and content related to it even if that’s what readers are obsessively preferring to read.

An ad blocked on CNBC due to covid-19 article

It makes sense. Why would an advertiser pay for an ad that didn’t even get displayed on the website? In March, Integral Ad Science, an ad verification company, blocked more than 3,000 advertisers from displaying ads on pages related to “coronavirus”.

Meanwhile, on the publishers’ side, there are the news publishers who are unevenly hit hard by this keyword blocking practice. As of the beginning of April, IAS has blocked:

  • 309,726 ads (36% of ads) on the NYTimes,
  • 34% of total ads on USA Today,
  • 45% of total ads on the Washington Post,
  • 29% of ads on CNN,
  • 50% of total ads on Der Spiegel, a German news publisher

Despite the fact that the articles on “coronavirus” contributed to 13% of the total article views according to, publishers are seeing a dip in programmatic advertising revenue.

Impact of covid-19 on website readership

What is the significance of this immediate boost in news website’s readership when they cannot monetize the most-viewed pages? 

“Brands often use keywords to place advertising online, and, to avoid certain associations, negative words are frequently excluded. In February, “coronavirus” became the second-most common word on blocklists for publishers, meaning that important, in-demand and socially-relevant reporting is not bringing in the higher revenues it is capable of.”

– Stefan Hall, Project and Engagement Lead, World Economic Forum

As a result of this unforeseen situation, The Tampa Bay Times, one of the local news publishers in Florida, has reduced its print schedule to just twice a week (on Sundays and Wednesdays) due to the crumbling advertising revenue caused by the pandemic.

“In just the last two weeks, cancellations have cost us more than $1 million, and there is no sign of quick recovery on the horizon. We must act now”

– Paul C. Tash, CEO, The Tampa Bay Times (Src)

Another news publisher, The Seattle Times that places the ads via ad exchanges revealed the ad revenue is 40% lower than the normal rate (Src). To summarize the overall scenario, visitors are flocking towards news websites but the pandemic has delivered a grueling blow to the news publishers.

How Publishers Are Leveraging The Spike In Traffic?

So far, we saw the impact of the crisis on traffic and revenue. Let’s see how smart publishers are leveraging the spike in traffic to come up with the products and build relationships.

Since a huge volume of visitors is flocking to publishers’ coverage on coronavirus, many big news media outlets have removed their paywalls and come up with the products specifically based on the topic.

Here’s a list of new products (newsletter, podcast, and live blogs) by some of the top news publishers:

  • A newsletter “Need to Know: Coronavirus” by Quartz,
  • A podcast “Coronavirus: Fact vs Fiction” and live Q & A sessions by CNN,
  • A newsletter “The 10-point” by Wall Street Journal,
  • A newsletter “Coronavirus Briefing” by The New York Times.

Results? The NYtimes newsletter garnered a million subscribers in a single month and we saw above how many subscribers Slate acquired. The result of adding new dedicated products for the reader has undeniably helped the publishers and brought them in an unexpected position of having the traffic volume they have always dreamed of.

Despite the fact, merely launching a subscription product isn’t going to save the publishers and most of us know this. So, to meet the uptick in demand, many publishers including The Philadelphia Inquirer, The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, and The Atlantic have lifted their paywalls to give visitors access to the coronavirus related content. Conde` Nast that operates websites like Vogue and GQ is offering free subscriptions to their news websites La Repubblica and La Stampa (Src).

“For over a month, we have been making key pieces of important coronavirus content open to read for free and will continue to do so as we serve the public on this story,” 

– Louise Story, Chief News Strategist and Chief Product and Technology Officer.

A subscription model of local news publishers Spiegel+

A newsletter by local news outlet Spiegel Der

Houston Chronicle, a news publisher in Texas, designed a newsletter dedicated to the sole purpose of educating people about the crisis and ensures that they are clearly communicating the message with their readers.

A covid-19 newsletter by Houston Chronicle

Image source – Src

Although this sounds like news publishers are letting go of their revenues, it will definitely help them to gain the reader’s trust. And most likely, the loyalty they are building may pave a way to gain new readers and make them keep coming back to the site.

“Offering free information on the coronavirus offers an opportunity to reach new customers [and] readers, who may stick with the publication afterward and perhaps be willing to pay later if they are impressed by the content,”

– Tom Meyvis, Professor of Marketing, Stern School of Business.

Besides, the publishers who have removed the paywalls require the readers to register to give them access to the newsletters and other products. This will enable them to collect the reader’s first-party data and insights that may further be used to deliver relevant content and ads.

“This shift will not only enable marketers to finally trust the effectiveness of their targeted spends, but will also allow publishers to strengthen relationships with their readers.”

– M. Scott Havens, Global Head of Digital and Media Distribution, Bloomberg.

Some of the big news publishers including Wirecutter and Future have seen a spike in eCommerce content. Future Publishing has generated 1.11 million eCommerce transactions in the month of March, up by 59% than February. Instead of sticking to the pandemic related content, the publishers deliver content involving gaming, homeware, etc. as people aren’t allowed to go outside to buy household items.

“There’s so much traffic that we have seen ad impressions go up, and we’ve seen transactions go up significantly.”

– Sam Robson, Director of Audience, Future Publishing.

Though coronavirus coverage is getting low ad revenue, digital subscription models are the alternatives to minimize the impact for a news publisher. Rather than just giving away the content for free, many publishers are opting for personalized paywalls tailored to the users’ behavior.

A tip given by Mike Orren, Chief Product Officer at The Dallas Morning – “Email newsletters are the top means of driving paid subscriptions. Try using an email wall instead of a paywall. Ask users to subscribe to a newsletter to get access to content.”

The bitter irony is that the pandemic has affected small to well-established publishers. To protect your business in the midst of the outbreak, you need to willingly try some measures.

So, How To Minimize The Ad Revenue Loss?

That is the daunting concern especially for news publishers as many believe that they are not being fairly treated as other publishers covering the related content.

cpm drop in news sites

“The same advertisers [blocking ads on newspaper sites] are running campaigns on radio and social media, where all the chat is about the virus, which is inconsistent, to say the least.”

– Nick Hewat, Commercial Director, Guardian (Src).

Since a major portion of the ad-selling happens through automated marketplaces, from small media outlets to large players aren’t able to fill their ad slots. As a result, publishers are running either in-house ads or products for social good these days to recoup from the loss.

Besides, a Digiday study found that 55% of direct-sold ads are publishers’ major source of revenue while 35% of total respondents said programmatic ads are their major source of revenue at this point in time (Src).

publishers source of ad revenue

But, What About Digital Subscriptions?

As you have guessed, amidst the crisis, digital subscriptions have evolved as the silver lining for news publishers. Since the news on Covid-19 is changing day-by-day, news publishers have seen growth in demand for up-to-date information. This has resulted in a growing number of sign-ups and subscriptions for them.

“While we have doubled the number of free articles available to any user on The Hindu’s website to 20, there still is a growth of about 30 percent in digital subscription.”

– The Hindu Group Spokesperson (Src)

According to Zuora, a subscription provider company, the subscription growth rate for digital news companies has increased by 3 times the last month and is accelerating at the rate of +22.5% every month (Src). 

subscription growth due to covid-19

Slate, a news publisher in the United States, added ~36,000 digital subscribers in just one month (Src). Just like other publishers, Slate’s advertising revenue has been impacted by the novel coronavirus. However, according to the publisher, ad businesses’ forecasts are still positive for year-over-year growth (Src).

So, what are the publishers doing to reduce the impact of covid-19 on their business? Because it’s not all about subscriptions. 

Minimizing the Impact of Covid-19 on Your Local News Site

 Partnership with National News Media Outlets

This ain’t a new strategy and many local news publishers have been doing this for decades. For example, The Baltimore Sun, a Maryland based publisher, partnered with The Washington Post to leverage its local coverage resources to get access to nationwide stories.

Under the new agreement, The Sun traded the coverage of Baltimore suburbs to The Post and got Maryland suburbs’ and other national stories in return. The strategy allowed them to use each other’s resources to pursue unique stories.

As the local news outlets are unable to hire (and retain) journalists across the US, they are willing to exchange information with national news media groups for stories. At the end of the day, both parties get benefited. Is there anything you could do in terms of partnerships? It’s time you joined hands with local publishers from other states and national media outlets for extended coverage.

Explore Membership Model

For a local news outlet going through a crisis, it is easier said than done to get thousands of subscribers in weeks. However, it is not impossible to achieve the goal. Here are the initial steps to get started with a subscription model:

  1. Get your family members and local readers to register. Ask the non-logged-in users to log-in.
  2. Once you get enough registrations, offer them a reason to subscribe. For example, access to unique and personalized content, ad-free content, privileges, and so on. 

Once you build up a strong membership base, you may slowly shift towards a paywall (soft or metered). Putting a hard paywall at this time might not help you. Try experimenting with different models for subscription offers like Texas Tribune (a politics-focused local news site) that has six levels of subscription models in the site. 

Worst case, you’ll have the first-party dataset that will be valuable for any advertisers who’s looking to ever run ads on your site. And, don’t overlook the impact of such data can have on editorial and marketing initiatives.

 Leverage Programmatic Ads

As a local publisher, reaching out to global advertisers might be a tough task for you now. Instead, small business owners who are looking to reach more customers can directly bring better deals for you.

As we saw earlier, direct-sold ads and programmatic ads are preferred at the moment. So if you are with AdSense, why not start with setting-up a direct deal in Google Ad Manager? In that case, you will not be required to physically get in touch with the local advertisers. Besides, you can leverage a programmatic ad partner at the same time to sell the remnant ad impressions.

Pro tip: According to a survey conducted by IAS, consumers are less likely to see ads related to food/beverage and travel brands adjacent to coronavirus related content. So, avoid placing ads on your page and try to display ads (such as health & pharmaceuticals, government, and education) that they are more likely to view.

coronavirus content and ad adjacency

Now, the question is, who would like to pay you for running ads at the moment?

Yes, the prospects aren’t going to come to you naturally. But when you look around, you’ll find a lot of local and small-scale businesses are trying to sell/function online. Don’t charge them for impressions, charge them for clicks. Then, there are NGOs and non-profit initiatives that require your support. While you may not get much in return, you can start building a relationship with the organizations and the readers.

For example, Gannett has introduced Support Local, product that helps readers to buy gifts for struggling local businesses. Many publishers including The Dallas Morning News and Newsday are leveraging it. Eventually, Support Local might turn into a marketplace connecting advertisers and publishers. 

Sell Digital Products

Rather than solely relying on advertising, there are some news publishers who are selling their own products to compensate for the loss. El Faro, an El Salvador-based news publisher, writes several books based on the insights and investigations and sells them along with other products.

We noticed a handful of publishers are selling handy pdf on COVID-19 to its readers and some are experimenting with paid newsletters specifically for covering the Coronavirus topic in detail. You can decide your product based on your expertise and the audience you serve.

What’s next?

No publisher, advertiser, or business has been spared by the virus. But it is also true that some publishers and advertisers are affected much harder than the others. Being an adtech company, we analyze the effects on publishers’ traffic and programmatic ad revenue and continually come up with the most effective ways to minimize the impact of coronavirus on your business. Is there anything we could do to help, let us know in the comments. 

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